Italy’s most productive wine region serves up fabulously diverse foods – all the better to go with its impressive Proseccos, Soaves and Valpolicellas.
Situated in northeast Italy, Veneto stretches westward to scenic Lake Garda from Venice on the Adriatic Sea and northward to the Alps from the vast, fertile plain of the Po. At the heart of this region is Verona, famous as the setting for Romeo and Juliet, but also as a wine- and food-industry hub. Vinitaly, the top annual exhibition devoted to Italian wines, is but one of the international salons held there.
When it comes to local foods to go with the region’s wines, prosperous Veneto is like an enormous pantry, growing rice and corn, making cheeses, drawing exceptional vegetables from the saline soils and offering a wealth of fresh fish and seafood.
As if to echo all that geographical and culinary diversity, Veneto wines run the gamut: festive sparklers, light whites, fruity and age-worthy reds, and dessert wines. There’s something for every course of every meal. “Traditionally in Veneto, people see wine as something that highlights food and vice versa,” notes sommelier
Katie Parla, who’s lived in the region for several years. That’s why simple, easy- drinking wines are in favour, particularly on Verona dinner tables.
SOAVE WITH SEAFOOD
In hilly Soave, Veneto’s most productive appellation, the wines are blends with a minimum 70-percent Garganega, a late-ripening grape variety that presents notes of lemon and almond, occasionally with a spicy touch. Most often the other grape in the blend is Trebbiano di Soave, but Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Trebbiano Toscano are also used.
Soave became Veneto’s most prolific appellation by creating big industrial wine brands that sold well internationally due to one factor: price. “As a youth, I was familiar with Soave purely because it was the cheapest wine,” laughs Jeremy Parzen, whose Do Bianchi blog is a leading resource for information on Italian wine. Mass- produced wines are still very much in evidence, Parzen adds, but the overall quality has greatly improved.
High-profile American wine writer Matt Kramer goes further. “Forget everything you thought you knew about Soave,” he declares. “Today’s best Soaves will astonish you with their Chablis-like minerality and – here’s a big surprise – their ability to age for a decade or more.” With time, the wines take on lovely floral or apricot notes.
Shrimp, white fish with fennel or seafood fritto misto are mouth-watering with a refreshing Soave. Or do as the Venetians do: Pair your Soave with a small-shrimp risotto or sarde in saor – fried sardine fillets marinated for 24 hours in vinegar flavoured with small onions. Another typical Veneto dish that complements Soave, risi e bisi, or risotto and peas, makes terrific comfort food.
VALPOLICELLA WITH PIZZA AND MORE
Inland, tastes run to meatier, more rustic fare featuring chicken, rabbit or, in a traditional stew called pastissada, horsemeat. Such dishes naturally call for red wine, which has a lengthy history in the region: Roman poet Virgil sang the praises of Raetian wine, made in Veneto, while 13th-century decrees by Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor, coined the term Valpolicella, a Greco-Latin word meaning “valley of many cellars.”
Though a handful of artisan producers like Prà and Quintarelli still hold aloft the torch of tradition, the Valpolicella appellation now tends toward a modern wine style in which the classic acidity is toned down in favour of ripeness, softness and oakiness. Valpolicella’s reds are blends that typically contain mainly Corvina. They range from easy-drinking and lively in the generic Valpolicella appellation to sumptuous and deep in Amarone della Valpolicella, whose wines, made from partially dried grapes in the appassimento method, are capable of decades of aging. Veneto reds, in short, are suitable for everything from quick meals to special occasions.
Lighter Valpolicellas (such as Bardolino and other regional wines made from more rustic grapes like Refosco) go particularly well with pizza or pasta in tomato sauce. More serious Valpolicellas, particularly Amarones, are wonderful with game, but they’re also delicious with simple pan-sautéed wild mushrooms on a bed of polenta, the cornmeal dish so popular in northern Italy. Or recreate
a much-loved Verona treat by uncorking an Amarone with a well-aged Asiago, a gem of a local cheese: potent flavours upon which to meditate before the dessert course.
DIVINE DESSERT WINES
In using the appassimento method, Veneto winemakers were traditionally seeking to make dessert wines, called Reciotos in Italian. In fact, Amarone is sometimes described as “a Recioto that failed to stop fermenting.” During fermentation, yeast working in an environment of very concentrated sugar is not always able to convert all that sugar into alcohol. This results in a sweet wine that’s utterly appropriate with dessert.
There are white (Recioto di Soave) and red (Recioto della Valpolicella) Reciotos. The whites are particularly suited to almond or walnut desserts, while the reds go well with chocolate or tiramisu. Sweet without being rich and supported by good acidity, they tempt you to keep on slowly sipping while dreaming of leisurely times in Venice.