Dunne on Wine

Deep into fall, look to Veneto for big and bracing wines

Santa Sofia Amarone della Valpolicella
Santa Sofia Amarone della Valpolicella

Veneto, a northern Italian wine region between Verona and Venice, two of the world’s more historic, dramatic and romantic cities, would seem perfectly poised to provide wines of uncommon force and flair.

It doesn’t disappoint, even without going halfway around the globe to see it in person. A trip to San Francisco will suffice, at least when representatives of the region come to town to show off wines they feel best represent the Veneto’s traditions and aspirations.

So it was late this summer when they staged a walk-around tasting and follow-up lunch at the restaurant One Market across the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building.

Though small, the sampling reaffirmed why Italian wines form the largest segment of imported wines by volume in the United States while also providing enough substance and intrigue to tease the uninitiated into looking for Veneto wines on restaurant wine lists and grocery-store shelves.

While Americans already are keen on one style of wine from the Veneto – the unassuming sparkler prosecco – they may be ready to get acquainted or reacquainted with two others, the white wine Soave and the red wine Amarone. Both are splendid for the chilly and damp days of a normal fall and winter, Soave for its drive, Amarone for its deep and lingering richness.

Three decades ago, Soave was fairly popular in the United States for its fresh fruit and everyday value. As Italian vintners capitalized on its popularity by expanding vineyards into areas not particularly suited for the grapes that define Soave, quality suffered and Americans looked elsewhere for white wines of more interest and value. Hello, chardonnay, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc. (For the record, garganega is the principal grape for Soave, though it isn’t likely to be found often, if at all, as an American varietal wine.)

But as a couple of the Soaves showed in San Francisco, we shouldn’t give up on it, especially when looking for a wine with the direct fruit and snappy acidity to accompany seafood, in particular shellfish. If an appetizer involving oysters, scallops or shrimp is circulating about a holiday soiree, hope that the host has arranged to trail it with a tray of glasses containing Soave.

As a measure of Soave’s rebound, look for the Pieropan 2014 Calvarino Soave Classico ($30). Consisting of 70 percent garganega and 30 percent trebbiano di soave, the wine was fermented and aged on its lees in glass-lined cement tanks, all of which yielded a Soave Classico exceptionally perfumey, persistent and unfolding. In flavor and refreshing acidity, it celebrates the citrus family, in particular lemon.

An interpretation more reserved in its expression, but with a more shifting complexity, is the bright and crisp Pra 2015 Monte Grande Soave Classico ($25/$28), consisting of the same blend of grapes as the Pieropan but fermented and aged in large oak casks. In aroma and flavor, it runs more to apple, but with a streak of lemon verbena coursing through its silken body.

At the other end of the Veneto spectrum is flamboyant Amarone, an exceptionally muscular, concentrated and layered red wine from the region’s Valpolicella district.

Several kinds of grapes can be used to make Amarone, which at harvest are spread on slats or in boxes to dry for three to four months. The berries shrivel, lose much of their water and go through other changes that affect their sugar, acid and tannin before they are pressed and fermented. All this results in wines deeply colored, powerfully flavored, immense in build and capable of living long.

Amarone is a dry wine but so jammy it can taste as if it were sweet. Alcohols can be in the 15 to 16 percent range, though the wines don’t generally taste like raisins or prunes. They can, in fact, be surprisingly fresh and spirited for all their mass.

At the tasting, a superb interpretation along that line was the Santa Sofia 2011 Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico ($65), which despite its 15 percent alcohol didn’t taste at all hot or overly ripe. Rather, its flavor ran to both fresh and dried cherries, a suggestion of menthol and a note of fig. It’s a big wine, but light on its feet thanks to supple tannins and a reviving acidity. It’s built for the sorts of cold-weather dishes long identified with Amarone – braised steak with assorted mushrooms, Irish stew with dumplings, leg of lamb and the like.

A gloriously aromatic interpretation of the style and one a bit friskier on the palate is the Domini Veneti 2012 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico ($45). It is shorter in the finish than the others, but it is Domini Veneti’s most accessible take on Amarone.

As the tasting showed, not all the bigger wines of the Veneto are Amarone. For one, the Domini Veneti 2013 La Casetta Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore is a close cousin in terms of being full-bodied and ripe, but with a cherry/berry fruitiness more vivid and an alcohol level more conservative (14 percent) than the usual Amarone. “Ripasso” refers to a procedure where a typical Valpolicella goes through a secondary fermentation with residual skins and seeds from a batch of Amarone, enhancing the wine’s color, flavor and structure. While it isn’t available in California, it helped demonstrate the gusto of wines from Veneto generally, a timely reminder for consumers looking for wines fitting the season.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.