For my two tours to Northern Italy in April and June 2019 we were based in the lovely town of Bassano del Grappa, with charming views out to the foothills of the Alps to the north. The massive flat plain of the Veneto to the south are the source of most of the prosecco that is drunk in the UK, and keen to challenge people’s preconceptions about this floral, frothy brew, I sought out some of the best prosecco producers in the top areas. It was also an opportunity to explore some of the best whites that Italy produces, and provided some surprisingly good reds.
But our first wine encounter was with the equally notorious grappa. In the town of Schiavon our tour commenced at the family owned Grappa producer Poli.
We don’t cover spirits very often on tour and many of us had reservations about this well-known but perhaps misunderstood drink.
With the amazing aromas of freshly distilled Amarone skins all around us we learnt about the distillation process, admired the polished copper stills and discovered the key differences between clear, aged and flavoured grappas. Read the blog to find out more.
Our new-found knowledge was put to use in the tasting room – over 30 different products to sample. Luckily everyone showed restraint.
Following this somewhat unusual first visit (en route from Venice Airport to Bassano) we settled in to our hotel, and enjoyed a more predictable aperitif followed by dinner – very much what was in season: white asparagus in April, chanterelles in June.
On Thursday morning, from Bassano del Grappa it was a 45 minute drive to Venegazzù, home of the historic estate of Loredan Gasparini. The original owners could trace descendants back to the Doges of Venice , and now Giancarlo Palla and his son Lorenzo make prosecco under the Asolo DOCG and red wines under the Montello DOC. They have invested in and maintained the legacy – in particular by maintaining vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Lorenzo showed us round the estate and then hosted a fascinating tasting that covered three totally contrasting Proseccos and three reds. The Cuvée Indigena was particularly lovely, it is made by sealing the tank towards the end of the first fermentation, and bottling the result. Lorenzo developed the process when experimenting with different indigenous yeasts, and it is now a wine in its own right. Sadly we drank the last of the 2017 (only made in magnum).
At our next visit, Bisol, we learnt more about the DOCG area of Valdobbiadene, with its 43 ‘Rive’ areas, each with its special character reflecting its topography (all steep, see photos), and in particular the amazing Cartizze hills, where land will now only be sold for €2 million/hectare. So special are the grapes in the Cartizze hills that it takes three passes to harvest – selecting the ripest bunches at each.
We tasted a superb range of proseccos, that demonstrated the increasing quality from the Crede DOCG, through two Rives – Guia and Campea, and finally two Cartizze wines, the last made by the traditional method (ie that used in champagne). Glera, the grape that must make up 85% of any prosecco wine, is not considered to be well suited to the traditional method of secondary fermentation in bottle (its aromatic, floral characters are better revealed through the Martinotti method of bulk fermentation to produce the dissolved bubbles of CO2), so this was an interesting curiosity.
On the Friday we had a big journey of a couple of hours to the eastern border of Italy, very close to where we had been the previous year when we visited Goriska Brda in Slovenia. Our first visit was to the historic Abbazia Rosazzo, where the famous winemaker Livio Felluga made wine. Sadly he died a couple of years ago, but his family continue the tradition – the estate is one of the most important in the region and Livio was hugely instrumental in the renaissance of winemaking in Italy, with a focus on estate bottling rather than bulk shipping.
Livio Felluga’s wines are mainly made under the DOC Friuli Colli Orientali, but they, along with just two other producers, make wines under the DOCG Rosazzo. These latter wines are made mainly from the Friulano grape, historically called Tocai, and known as Sauvignonasse in Slovenia.
We tasted three wines with this grape variety, each demonstrating its aromatic mineral character, the top of the range Terre Alta (blended with Pinot Bianco and Sauvignon Blanc) the pioneering work of Livio’s son Maurizio. The wines were exceptional with a range of styles: the Friulano was fresh with great minerality; the Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc were intense and rich with great depth; the Illivio was had fabulous depth and the Abbazia di Rosazzo and Terre Alte would give any conventional top class white a run for its money.
Following lunch at Le Badie restaurant, just up the road from Rosazzo, the coach took us to Friuli Isonzo, and the renowned Vie de Romans estate.
Walking through their spotless cellar it was clear that technology was important to maintain the purity and intensity of the wines, but for the barrel enthusiasts there was no shortage of tradition!
A sensational range of wines was then tasted. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay that all demonstrated the depth, intensity and quality that the estate is renowned for; the Flors de UIs – a delicious blend, and then we were treated to a 2008 Piere Sauvignon Blanc which showed the extraordinary keeping ability of this grape.
The Breganze DOC is virtually unknown in the UK, and this is not a good thing! A tiny area – Breganze has only 15 growers, it occupies a beautifully elevated situation with outstanding views. The geology is basalt, formed from old volcanos, creating great minerality in the wines, while the breezes that come down from the mountains to the plains that stretched out below us cool the vines during the night, ensuring great freshness and acidity particularly in the whites.
At Col Dovigo Valentina explained that her great grandmother Caterina moved to the area and purchased vineyard land, later marrying local vigneron Valentino Bonollo. The winery is named after the name ‘Dovighi’, which locals gave to the family – meaning ‘those who come form other lands’ (in their case all of 3km away).
In June we walked into the vineyards, admiring the cheeky herd of goats who were viewing us as much as we were then, and by some 60 year old Merlot vines we listened to Valentina talk about how challenging the spring had been, very cold and wet in April and May, resulting in few bunches of grapes. Happily enough bunches have made it to promise a good harvest of low yield but high quality. She explained that until 15 years ago most of the production had been sent to the co-op, but since then they have bottled themselves, and focused on building their reputation. Col Dovigo wines can be found in restaurants in the UK, but sadly there don’t appear to be many ways to buy them retail.
Col Dovigo make about 200,000 bottles a year comprising 10 different wines – and we tasted all of them in their tasting room, descending to the cellar for the final wine! Vespaiolo was a new grape to most of us, a late ripening white, that can make unctuous sweet wine (called Torcolato) when dried but has great flavour when vinified dry.
The Vespaiolo Brut sparkling was delicious; Pinot Grigio, still Vespaiolo, Chardonnay, Merlot, Gropello, Cab Merlot blends and finishing with a sublimely sweet Torcolato – the famous passito of the region.
The following day we experienced a totally different interpretation of the Breganze DOC, at Villa Angarano – one of 24 Palladian villas around Venice, and is listed by UNESCO as ‘representing’ Bassano. Building commenced in 1548 but stopped with the first owner’s death; it then passed between a number of families until the 17th Century when it was completed, with a baroque upper floor. We were privileged to be taken on a walk through the villa, with its beautifully proportioned rooms, with panelled walls, polished mosaic flors and high ceilings, ending with the private chapel.
This splendid home is now owned by the five Bianchi Michiel sisters and on each tour we were hosted by Giovanna. Their Vespaiolo was rich and textured, the Chardonnay elegant and judiciously oaked; and the 2012 and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon blends were stylish and complex. Their Torcolato was sublimely rich.
On both tours we had a very stylish final dinner – in April we were at the Ca Sette restaurant in Bassano, in June we took to the hills (on the coach) and marvelled at La Rosita restaurant’s glorious views out to Venice. I love bringing groups to Italy, for the glorious food and wine, and the warmth of the welcome, and these tours were exceptional – I am delighted that so many people came away ‘converted’ to the wines of this little understood region.