Saturday, January 25, 2014

Unit 4 – Day 2: Northeastern Italy

In the last review I covered mostly northwestern Italy, the DOC laws and the wines of Piedmont. On Day 2 of Unit 4 in the Intensive Sommelier Training at the International Culinary Center in California we learned about the rest of Northern Italy, some of which I covered in the previous review. So, here I will focus on the Northeastern regions of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige and most importantly - Veneto. In doing so I will discuss wines that focus on particular production styles, namely the sparkling wines of Northeastern Italy and the unique passito wines of Ripasso Superiore and Amarone della Valpolicella. I will then review the 9 nine wines we tasted in class.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Friuli-Venezia Giulia is often referred to simply as Friuli. It is a small region located northeast of Vento, bordering Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east. As a result, Friuli’s winemaking tradition is heavily influence by the neighboring Slavic, German, and Italian cultures. 

Friulian Style

In the 1960s Friuli adapted winemaking techniques from Germany and Austria which has resulted in cleaner wines produced in controlled cold fermentations in stainless steel tanks. Combined with the region’s moderate temperatures the result is crisp, aromatic, fruit-driven varietal white wines intended to be consumed in their youth.  This style has been refined through the years and further developed by additional non-invasive practices such as gravity flow and a minimized use of sulfur.  Modern Friulian whites can be blended, barrel-fermented and aged, resulting in wines with more body. 

But, there are also a small group of winemakers who are taking a different route, making “orange” white wines. Orange wines are white wines produced more like reds, with prolonged maceration of crushed grape skins and seeds. Often made in clay vessels or wooden barrels, they are relics of ancient winemaking traditions that trace back to the Caucasus. Recently they’ve been popularized by Italians and Slovenians. Although they are referred to as “orange,” these skin-fermented white wines range from bright gold to tawny brown. On the palate, they often possess the texture, body and tannins of red wines and the fruit and minerality of white wines. These are unique wines that have a flavor and texture profile of earthiness, savory, with a richly textured mouthfeel.

Friulian Grapes

White wines are often labeled according to the varietal and made from Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc. The region also has a number of native grapes such as Friulano as well as Picolit and Verduzzo Gialla (Ramandolo) which are used to produce sweet passito wines (wines made from grapes dried on straw mats to increase their sugar strength) under two DOCG zones, Colli Orientali del Friuli-Picolit DOCG and Ramandolo DOCGCialla is the only subzone of the Colli Orientali del Friuli-Picolit DOCG. It has a higher minimum alcohol and longer aging requirements of two years instead of one. 

The Ribolla Gialla grape (Slovenian: Rumena Rebula) thrives in the region around Rosazzo and Gorizia. The grape is highly acidic and it provides fresh, malic-edged whites and the sparkling wine.  Some producers are creating them using amphora.


Friulano is the region’s most well-known white varietal and it produces light, crisp almond and mineral driven wines. It was previously to be called Tocai Friulano (also known as Sauvignonasse in Chile and Sauvignon Vert in France), but after the formation of the EU the nation of Hungary protested that the name “Tocai” was too similar to their national wine – Tokaji.

Merlot is the most planted red grape in the region which may be blended or vinified separately with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Indigenous red grape varietals include Refosco, Schiopettino, and PignoloDNA analysis of Refosco dal Pedunculo Rosso has revealed that it is related to Marzemino, another ancient variety of northern Italy. It is commonly thought that Refosco is a relative of Mondeuse Noir, a grape found in Savoy, but this has been disproven by DNA analysis. Refosco is the most planted of the three but Schiopettino and Pignolo produce wines of more density, spice, and ageworthiness.

Friulian DOCs

Collio DOC, or Collio Goriziano, Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC, and Grave del Friuli DOC are the most relevant and quality-minded of Friuli’s ten DOC zones.  The nine geographic DOCs of Friuli all produce varietaly labeled red and white wines.  The tenth DOC appellation is Veneto’s Prosecco DOC, which extends into Friuli.  Overall, Friuli ranks 3rd amongst Italy’s regions in the percentage of DOC wine production, behind Trentino-Alto Adige and Piedmont. 

Trentino-Alto Adige

The northernmost region of Italy is Trentino-Alto Adige. Most of the region is mountainous and it has a cool to cold climate as the Italian Alps run through it. Many of the vineyards are planted on terraced slopes to utilize maximum sun exposure. Trentino-Alto Adige is bordered by Vento to the south, Lombardy to the west and Austria to the north.

Trentino-Alto Adige is one of the three regions along with Veneto and Friuli that make up the area known as Tres Venezie or “Three Venices.” The region is subdivided into two nearly autonomous provinces: Trentino in the north, which has a strong German heritage, and Alto-Adige in the south, which has an Italian heritage.

The Grapes and DOCs of Trentino-Alto Adige

In Alto-Adige Pinot Grigio is the dominate grape and much of the production is labeled Pinot Grigio Alto-Adige DOC. There are no DOCG regions in Trentino-Alto Adige but most of its production takes place in more than a dozen DOC appellations.

The multi-regional Valdadige DOC encapsulates Trentino-Alto Adige and Verona in Veneto, but the majority of wines are released under the separate Trentino and Alto-Adige (Südtiroler) DOCs.  These designations permit a wide number of varietally labeled wines including Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Müller-Thurgau, and Sauvignon Blanc.  These grapes form a major part of white Alto Adige DOC production as well. However, Gewürztraminer, whose name is linked to local village of Tramin, is also heavily utilized and makes intensely aromatic wines.  Although many white wines in both zones are light in style and crisp in acidity, the vast variety of grapes and winemaking styles renders generalization of this region near impossible. 

Within the northeastern reaches of Alto Adige, the official subzone of Valle Isarco (Eisacktaler in German) is quickly gaining recognition for high-quality wines, frequently produced from German and Austrian varieties such as Silvaner, Veltliner and Kerner  which is a genetic cross between Schiava Grossa and Riesling (We tasted a Kerner in class, see the notes below).

Pinot Bianco

Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc in France and Weissburgunder in Germany) grows well in the Oltradige just south of Bolzano, near the town of Appiano.  The Terlano DOC subzone, just west of the capital in the Val d'Adige growing zone, produces white wines blended from Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, and Sauvignon Blanc, both in both oaked and unoaked styles. It is also the home of one of Italy's most respected cooperatives.

Although Trentino-Alto Adige is most known for its white wines, the region actually produces a greater quantity of red wines. The dominant red grape is Schiava which is closely related to the Italian word for “slave” This grape produces light red wines and it is also grown in the Württemberg wine region of Baden-Württemberg in Germany where it is also known as Trollinger or Vernatsch.

Santa Maddalena Vineyards

The Santa Maddalena (St. Magdelener) subzone is the premier geographical appellation for Schiava varietal wines. The Casteller DOC in Trentino allows Schiava to be blended with Merlot and Lambrusco.  Lago di Caldaro DOC (Kalterersee) in the south of Alto Adige is shared by both provinces and is similar in style to Santa Maddelena.

The Lagrein grape is native to Trentino but thrives in Alto Adige. It is occasionally blended in cuvées with Cabernet, Merlot or both. A rosé version of the wine is also made, known as “Lagrein Kretzer” (or “Lagrein Rosato”). The best growing area for Lagrein is centered in the flatter areas of Gries, just outside of Bolzano under the general DOC, often with an indication of the area on the label. 

Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) is becoming increasingly important in the region, and the best examples come from the eastern side of the Bassa Atesina, Alto Adige's southernmost growing zone.

Other important grapes include the red Teroldego grape can produce deeply colored wines in Trentino’s Teroldego Rotaliano DOC.  A related grape is Marzemino, which is a genetic progeny of Teroldego and sibling of Lagrein, is one of the major Trentino DOC red varietals. 
The wine is most noted for its mention in the opera Don Giovanni of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (“Versa il vino! Eccellente Marzemino!”) Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Pinot Nero have been steadily increasing in importance and plantings in Trentino-Alto Adige.

Trentino-Alto Adige does not contain any DOCG zones but over 75% of the region’s production is of DOC quality.  Over 3/4 of the region’s production is dominated by co-ops, and Trentino-Alto Adige struggles to overcome a reputation of median quality.


Veneto is the most significant of the three regions of the Tre Venezie and its capital is Venise.  It produces more wine than any other region in Italy, but much of it is lower quality which mostly consists of inexpensive Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris) and sparkling wines.  While over a 1/4 of the region’s production is DOC quality, the expansion of DOC zones like Soave and Valpolicella dilutes the legitimacy of the DOC system and lends credence to lesser wines.  Most of the wine comes from high yield vineyards and represent some of Italy’s largest mass-production wine companies. 

The “Straw Wines” of Valpolicella – “Valley of Many Cellars”

Two of the most important wines from Veneto are the well-known Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella which are produced from raison-like grapes. 

The process for producing these wines is referred to as appassimento, (also known as “Recioto” or “Passito” in Southern Italy) in which grapes are traditionally dried on straw-mats after picking for over three months in special lofts (fruttai) before fermentation, effectively concentrating sugar and extracting flavors. Grapes used for making Recioto della Valpolicella are usually dried for an additional month, further intensifying the sugars resulting in semi-sweet to sweet wines. Amarone, which means “big bitter,” is fermented to dryness or near-dryness and spends an additional 2 years aging prior to release.

Since the traditional method is to lay out the picked grapes on straw mats, these wines are referred to as “straw wines” and they may be sweet or fermented dry. The combination of dried grapes and a rich, robust red makes Amarone very distinctive, especially in the aromatics, somewhat similar to a Late Harvest Zinfandel from California. (We tasted two straw-wines in class, see the reviews below).

Some producers (Dal Forno, Allegrini) are utilizing new barriques to add spice and density to the wines, whereas others (Giuseppe Quintarelli) remain traditional, aging the wine in large, neutral Slavonian botti.  Amarone may be labeled riserva if aged for a minimum of 4 years.  In 2009 both Recioto della Valpolicella and Amarone della Valpolicella were approved for DOCG status and may labeled “Classico” or “Valpantena” if they originate in the respective areas.  Recioto della Valpolicella wines may be spumante

Valpolicella Ripasso, what some people think of as a “Poor Man’s Amarone,” is a style of straw-wine between Valpolicella and Amarone. These wines are “re-passed” over and refermented with the unpressed skins of grapes previously fermented for Amarone or Recioto wine.  Ripasso wines require a minimum alcohol of 12.5%; Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore must achieve 13%.

All of these “straw-wines” are made from 45% - 95% Corvina and are often blended with Rondinella.  Other non-aromatic grapes of the region may also be included such as Molinara, Negrara and Oseleta, but they may not exceed a total of 15% of the blend.  Wines labeled “Superiore” have a higher minimum alcohol and require a minimum of one year of aging. 

The Valpolicella Classico region is at the western end of the appellation, near the shores of Lake Garda, and consists of the four valleys surrounding the communes of Fumane, Marano, Negrar, Sant'Ambrogio, and San Pietro in Cariano.  It received its DOC status in 1968 and about 1/3 of Valpolicella comes from its classico zone. As expected, these are higher-quality wines that are a result of its terroir and yields: the superior drainage, sunnier aspect and tighter production restrictions which provide riper, healthier grapes with more complex tannic and phenolic profiles. Single vineyard (vigna) bottlings are becoming more common throughout the hierarchy of Valpolicella styles. As is the case for all Valpolicella, a Valpolicella Classico may claim the additional mention superiore provided it achieves a minimum final alcohol level of 11% and is aged for one year prior to commercial release.

The Bardolino DOC zone lies between Valpolicella Classico and the eastern shores of Lake Garda.  Corvina and Rondinella grapes dominate the blend of Bardolino, but the final wine is usually slightly lighter and more neutral than Valpolicella.  Bardolino Superiore DOCG requires a year of aging prior to release and an additional one percent of alcohol.  A rosé is produced as Bardolino Chiaretto.

Soave DOC


Soave DOC is the principal and most important white wine zone in Veneto, and its wines are comprised of a minimum 70% Garganega, plus Trebbiano di Soave and Chardonnay.  Two DOCGs exist in Soave: Recioto di Soave DOCG and Soave Superiore DOCG.  Soave Superiore represents an attempt by the region to remedy its marred reputation, and covers wines from a specified subregion (Classico or Colli Scaligeri) vinified, typically vinified in stainless steel.  Soave Superiore is aged for at least 1 year (with a minimum 3 months of bottle aging), and it may be called riserva with at least two years of aging.  Recioto di Soave is produced from grapes dried from 4 to 6 months in the same delimited area as Soave Superiore.  Barrel fermentation is common in Recioto di Soave and the growth of botrytis cinerea is encouraged.  Soave DOC and Recioto di Soave DOCG wines may be spumante; Soave Superiore DOCG wines may not.  

The wines of Gambellara DOC to the east of Soave are similar in style.  Garganega is the principal grape, with Trebbiano di Soave and Trebbiano di Toscana are allowed at a combined maximum of 20% of the blend.  In 2008 Recioto di Gambellara achieved DOCG for sweet still and sparkling wines produced from 100% dried Garganega grapes.  To the northwest of Gambellara, Fausto Maculan crafts singular Breganze Torcolato DOC wines.  The local, acidic Vespaiolo grape is exclusively authorized for the production of these passito wines.  A number of varietal dry wines are produced as Breganze DOC from both local and international varieties.

Sparkling Wines

Prosecco (Glera) Grape
The sparkling wines of Veneto consist of 1,000,000 hectoliters of inexpensive yet refreshing sparkling wine created with the Prosecco (Glera) grape. These wines are made using the Charmat method which is used to produce frizzante or spumante wine.  The spumante wines are fully sparkling, with a minimum 3.5 atmospheres of pressure. The frizzante wines are slightly sparkling, with 1.0 to 2.5 atmospheres of pressure.  Both usually undergo secondary fermentation in large stainless steel autoclaves, which keep the wine under pressure. 

There are two DOCG zones for Prosecco, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG and Asolo Prosecco DOCG, formerly known as Prosecco Montello e Colli Asolani.  While both may produce still wine in addition to sparkling, the focus is on the frizzante and the spumante superiore styles.  Fully sparkling superiore wines from both appellations may be produced from brut to demi-sec in sweetness; but generally they tend to be extra dry or brut.  The semi-sparkling styles sometimes undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle, which will be indicated on the label.  The hilly zone between the communes of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene represents the historical heartland of Prosecco production; in accordance with the area’s new recognition as DOCG, the producers’ consorzio ambitiously aims for the development of crus in the region.  The most noteworthy cru is Cartizze, comprising a mere 106 of the DOCG’s total 4,300 hectares.  Wines from the subzone are labeled “Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze” are fully sparkling in style and are generally “dry”, with 17-35 grams per liter of residual sugar.

Most Prosecco is released as non-vintage but the wine may be released with a vintage date if the wine is comprised from a minimum 85% of the stated year’s harvest.  The Prosecco grape makes up a minimum 85% of the wine from both DOCG zones.  While the DOCGs represent a renewed effort in establishing quality and image, the majority of wine is released below even the blanket Prosecco DOC level.  If the wine is not at DOC level, the “Prosecco” moniker may no longer be used on labels, and the grape is listed under its historical name “Glera.”

In 2010, Colli Euganei Fior d'Arancio, Piave Malanotte, and Lison—the latter shared between Veneto and Friuli—were promoted to DOCG status.  Others followed suit the following year.  

Learning Objectives of Unit 4 – Day 2: Northeastern Italy

At the beginning of class lectures a list of learning objectives is provided to the students. By the end of the class, the students should have a certain degree of understanding from their own reading and the lectures and be able to provide the answers to list of questions. The Learning Objectives for Unit 4 - Day 2 along with the answers are as follows.

By the end of class, students should be able to:

(1)  Name Italy’s first mandatory Metado Tradizonale sparkling wine DOCG

Answer: Franciacorta DOCG

(2)  Recommend a Prosecco DOCG and identify the region

Answer: Colli Asolani (Asolo Prosecco) DOCG, Veneto

(3)  Explain the difference between Amarone and Recioto

Answer: Recioto is a sweet whereas Amarone is dry (or off-dry). Amarone is a derivative of recioto.

(4)  Name the grapes of Valpolicella and Bardolino

Answer: The primary grape of Valpolicella is Corvina, but other grapes used in the production of Valpolicella wine include Molinara, Rondinella, Corvinone, Rossignola, Negrara, Barbera and Sangiovese. The three main grapes used to produce Bardolino are also used to produce Valpolicella but it generally contains less Corvina. Minor blending grapes include Rossignola, Barbera, Sangiovese and up to 15% of the white grape variety Garganega..

(5)  Describe the main grapes of Soave and Valtellina

Answer: Garganica, Trebbiano, Nebbiolo (a.k.a. Chiavennasca)

(6)  Name one region of Italy where German grapes are common

Answer: Trentino Alto-Adige

(7)  Discuss the grape(s) and styles of Lambrusco (various DOCs)

Answer: Lambrusco, red and rose semi-sparkling wine from Emilia Romagna

(8)  Discuss Italy’s first white DOCG

Answer: Albana di Romagna DOCG in Emilia Romagna

(9)  Describe the attributes of any wines tasted today

Answer: See below

The Wines

On the second day of Unit 4 we tasted the following wines:

1. NV Ca' del Bosco Cuvee Prestige Franciacorta, Lombardia

This is a clear sparkling white wine, straw-yellow in color, low intensity with minute bubbles. On the nose it is clean with moderate intense aromas of dried pears, caramel apple, but toasted bread, nuts and brioche dominate the fruit with a lingering hint of stale beer. It is dry with a hint of sweetness, it has medium++ to high acidity, medium- body, medium alcohol and a long finish. This is a sparkling wine made from Chardonnay (75%), Pinot Nero (15%) and Pinot Bianco (10%) and the toasty bread notes are reminiscent of Champagne. This was my first time to experience a Franciacorta so I don’t have a basis for comparison other than Champagne and New World sparkling wines. It is well balanced and moderately complex but I’m also not the biggest sparkling wine fan in the world. If you are looking for a moderately priced alternative to the ocean of Champagne and New World sparkling wines, I’d say, “Go for it!” This wine sells for about $35.

2. NV Sorelle Bronca Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, Extra Dry

This is a clear sparkling white wine, it is the color of a white peach, almost water-like, with minute bubbles (which don’t last very long) and low viscosity. On the nose it has moderate aromas of peach, fresh fennel, rye bread, creamy and white chocolate. On the palate it is dry with medium+ acidity, medium- body, medium viscosity and a medium length finish. The wine is made from 100% Glera (aka Prosecco) in the tank method, or what the French call the Charmat method, so it undergoes a second fermentation in a steel vat rather than in the bottle. Overall it is a pleasant light fruity wine and the only major downfall is that the bubbles dissipate quickly so it doesn’t take long for the wine to go flat. This wine sells for about $15 - $22.

3. 2012 Schiopetto Friulano Collio

This is a clear white wine, straw in color, star-bright, medium concentration with medium viscosity. On the nose it is clean with subtle aromas of oxidized apples, dried peach, wet hay, a hint of onion skin, and bitter almonds.  On the palate it has flavors of oxidized apples, dried peach and bitter orange peel. It has medium+ acidity, low grape tannins, medium body, medium alcohol and a medium+ length finish. This wine sells for about $35.

4. 2011 Suavia Soave Classico, Veneto

This is a clear white wine, day-bright, straw in color, low concentration with medium viscosity. On the nose it has subtle aromas of candied apricots, lemon-lime, ginger-ale, kiwi, melon, tangerine and almond blossoms. On the palate it has flavors of oxidized apples, candied ginger, a hint of banana and a touch of chalky minerality. It is dry with medium+ acidity, medium body, medium alcohol and a medium length finish. This wine is a blend of Trebbiano and Garganega Bianca, it sells for about $10 to $12.

5. 2012 Erste Neue Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige

This is a clear white wine, day-bright, straw in color, low concentration with medium viscosity. On the nose it has moderate aromas of peach, dried apples, lemon blossoms, orange peel, and a hint of white pepper and stale beer. On the palate it has flavors of lemon-lime, dried apples, melon, bitter orange peel and a hint of stale beer on the finish. It is dry with a touch of residual sugar, it has medium+ acidity, medium alcohol, it is medium bodied with a long finish. This wine sells for about $16.

6. 2011 Strasserhof Kerner Valle Isarco, Alto Adige

This is a clear white wine, straw color, star-bright with low concentration and medium to medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is clean with moderate intense aromas of Asian pear, lime, kiwi, melon, ginger, a hint of green herbs and a peculiar waft of kerosene.   On the palate it has juicy flavors of lemon-lime, ginger, dried crackers and a hint of limestone. It is dry with a touch of residual sugar, it has medium+ acidity, medium body and medium alcohol and a long finish. This wine is made from the Kerner grape which is a cross between Trollinger (a red variety also known as Schiava grossa or Vernatsch) and Riesling and it is the 8th most planted variety in Germany. This is the first time that I had ever experienced this varietal so I don’t have a basis for comparison to evaluate its quality. Overall, I found it to be a bit intriguing and in need of more exploration. This wine sells for about $19.

7. 2009 Bastianich Ribolla Adriatico Brda, Slovenia

This is a clear white wine, yellow-gold in color, medium concentration with medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is “clean” with moderate intense aromas of peanut butter toast, fennel, dried leaves, and dried apples - somewhat reminiscent of a very old white Burgundy. On the palate it is tangy with notes of bitter orange peel, boiled potato, baked squash and a hint of hay. It is dry with medium+ acidity, medium body, moderate alcohol and a medium+ length finish. This wine is made from 100% Ribolla Gialla which is widely grown in Brda (the westernmost region of Slovenia) and Collio (the northernmost region of Italy). This is the first time I have ever sampled this varietal so I have no basis for comparison to judge its quality. But, having said that… while I found it to be interesting from an academic standpoint I can’t imagine ever wanting to taste it again if this is a common profile for this wine nor ever serving it to a guest with whom I wished to remain friends. This wine sells for about $15.

8. 2010 Zonin, Valipolcella Ripasso Superiore, Veneto

This is a clear red wine, dark ruby at the core to garnet at the rim with minimal variation, medium+ viscosity and staining tears. On the nose it is clean with moderate intense aromas of black cherries, dried plums, dried figs, cocoa, a touch of clove and black licorice and a hint of maple syrup. On the palate it has additional notes of dark roasted coffee and black pepper but dried black fruits are the major theme. It is dry with medium+ tannins, medium+ body, high alcohol and a lengthy finish. This wine sells for about $18.

9. 2008 Zonin, Amarone della Valpolicella, Veneto

This is a clear red wine, dark ruby at the core to garnet at the rim with minimal variation, medium+ viscosity and staining tears. On the nose and palate it is clean with moderate intense aromas of prunes, raisins, dates, over-ripe black bananas, black cherries, and black licorice. On the palate it has additional notes of dark roasted coffee and black pepper but dried black fruits are the major theme. It is dry with some residual sugar, it has medium+ tannins, medium+ body, high alcohol and a lengthy finish. While I preferred this wine to the previous one, in many ways they are similar and yet this one costs more than twice the price as it sells for about $40 to $45.

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