Have Pen, Will Travel

A tale of two cities, Italian-style

The vineyards of Alto Adige
The vineyards of Alto Adige (Photo by Wes Marshall)

Bolzano and Verona. The two cities are just 80 miles apart, about the distance from Austin to San Antonio. Culturally, they might as well be on opposite sides of Europe. Bolzano is hip and casual, ranked as one of Europe's most livable cities. It's also a curious border town, where 27% of the inhabitants speak German and 73% speak Italian. Yet, wherever we went, Germans seemed to be in charge. Somehow, the German speakers and Italian speakers get along. So well, in fact, that the Dalai Lama has visited several times hoping for a solution to the Tibet/China problem.

Bolzano was a toy tossed around like a political hot potato by Hitler and Mussolini, forcing the residents into a fascist guessing game. Hitler offered repatriation to the father­land; Mussolini offered the option to stay if they learned the Italian language and adopted Italian customs. Today, it's one of Italy's most favored cities, and its agricultural area, called Alto Adige, is rich with a natural climate and perfect soils. The grapevines and fruit trees in this area explode out of the ground with intense flavors, making their fruit prized throughout this part of Europe.

Verona is more grounded in history and is even more important to the region. Since Roman times, Verona has been a crossroads for trade and politics. It's also a gorgeous location, though missing the stunning alpine surroundings that the Dolomites give to Bolzano. And though it too was a toy for opposing fascist groups, the city has always been very much Italian. Recently, Verona has been a favored destination for immigrants from Romania, Sri Lanka, and other countries, to the point that 20% of the children being born have at least one foreign parent. Romantic Verona is also the fictional home to Shake­speare's young lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend two wine shows in Italy a few weeks ago. The Bozner Weinkost Mostra Vini di Bolzano (Bolzano Wine Tasting Festival) is a five-day party where hundreds of very attractive people and a few old wine lovers drink too much local wine and dance until daylight. The educational element of the festival includes serious, learned presentations by experts in the field, as well as organized tours to wineries.

The other program was a definitive look into one of the greatest (and most expensive) of Italian wines. The Amarone Anteprima is a yearly affair where the local governmental wine agency rolls out the latest vintage so the world's wine press can give their evaluation. Amarone takes a long time to be released and even longer to be ready to drink. This Ante­prima's vintage was 2006, considered a fine, problem-free year. Hundreds of journalists from all over the world attended the Anteprima; it was humbling to be among so many famous masters of wine and world-renowned journalists in the middle of what was obviously an important moment in Italian wine.

Cuisines a World Apart

While there is some crossover, you can always count on finding polenta in Bolzano and rice in Verona. Both are proud of their meats. The folks from Alto Adige adore speck, a gently smoked cut of pork, rich with fat and thin-sliced or cubed to be served at the table. Oddly enough, the pigs that make speck are raised in Denmark; the people of Alto Adige think the feed lots stink, so they simply buy Danish pigs. Over in Verona, the common meats are the cured sopressata, a type of salami, and the raw beef carpaccio. And as with most agricultural areas in Italy, natives are always proud of their local version of prosciutto.

Have Pen, Will Travel

Risotto reigns in the Verona area, where versions with white truffles and the delicious indigenous mushrooms and asparagus rule the table. The local rice – Riso Nano Vialone Veronese – makes the best risotto I've had, with a light, creamy texture that's totally addictive.

Alto Adige restaurants had more corn-based starches and featured dozens of dishes made from the spectacular local apples. The fact that there are more than 8,000 apple farmers in Alto Adige gives you an idea of the European demand for the area's apples. Gala, Granny Smith, and Golden Delicious predominate. The German influence yields the yummy apfelküchel, a crispy apple fritter. The standout dish of the region is the lowly bread dumpling. There are as many recipes as there are imaginations, but the classic is the canederli which is flavored with speck, just slightly crispy on the outside and like a down pillow inside, all swimming in strangolapreti (a melted butter sauce).

One Area of Strong Unity

Italians are transfixed with wine. No matter the area of the country, the local people have a set of grapes that creates wines that are perfect with the regional cuisine. Unlike most of the rest of the world, Italian winemakers have largely resisted the temptation to rip out all of their own best grapes so they can replace them with wines Americans can pronounce. Zinfan­del? Nope. Shiraz? None of that either. Chardon­nay, Merlot, Cabernet? Well, yes. To some degree, these grapes lend some structure and familiarity that a few of Italy's finest winemakers seek. For their cheaper wines especially, it's hard to resist the temptation of English-speaking markets.

In Italy, we drank wines made from grapes such as Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara, Garganega, Lagrein, and Weissburgunder. These wines are distinctive and their makers are intent on keeping them that way. The idiosyncratic flavors come from growing methods and vinification choices that have been developed over centuries, sometimes millennia. During that time, both gastronomy and wine have advanced symbiotically, and, like the people who tenaciously hold on to their customs, winemakers are intent on holding on to what it is that makes their wines special. They create wines for the dining table. Oh, and one other area of total unity – Italians like corks. It's futile to search through an Italian store for screw tops or bag-in-a-box wines. Something about tradition honoring tradition at home. They will export them, though.

The Wines of Alto Adige

Most of the wines imported into Central Texas from Alto Adige are dry, white, and named by the grape. Given the region's German background, most labels will show the name of the wine in both German and Italian, if different. So Pinot Nero (or Pinot Noir) will also be listed as Blau­bur­gunder, while Pinot Bianco is also Weissbur­gun­der. Northeastern Italy (Alto Adige and Friuli) is one of the few areas in Europe where winemakers use the name of the grape on the label. (Most places where they do are Germanic, like Alsace in France or Austria.) While it's comforting for Ameri­cans to be able to ask for a Riesling or Pinot Grigio, pleasing Americans has nothing to do with the practice. It's simply tradition.

Alto Adige's white wines have long been renowned around Europe, but for some unknown reason, U.S. consumers haven't really caught on yet. Wine grapes such as Gewürztra­min­er, Moscato, Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, and Silvaner all grow abundantly and to almost uniform high quality. Their spectacular red wines are all but unknown outside the area. The local Lagrein produces gentle red wines, perfect palate cleansers for a rich dinner of dumplings in butter. The main grape of Alto Adige is the Schiava (aka Vernatsch), which, in general, tastes vegetal. As far as I could tell, its only reason to exist is to provide plenty of wine for the hordes of bargain-hunting German tourists. Oddly, the same grape makes lovely Rosé.

Pinot Noir does very well in Alto Adige. In fact, the best Pinot Noir I've had outside Bur­gundy was Tiefenbrunner's Reserve Blau­bur­gun­der Linticlarus. Despite its standout quality and ridiculously high quality-cost ratio, the Tiefenbrunner family only sends 25 cases for the whole U.S. market, partly because they only make a small amount, but more because there isn't much of an American market for Italian Pinot Noirs. Some farmers in Alto Adige have decided to spend more effort on such international varietals as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, though a substantial number of hardy individualists still insist on sticking with the indigenous grapes.

Unfortunately, much of Alto Adige's export to the U.S. is its most uninteresting wine, Pinot Grigio. It's especially sad because local grapes, like the fragrant Gewürztraminer and the powerful Lagrein, are so delicious. After tasting hundreds of wines over five days, the consistent winner among Alto Adige's wines was the floral Pinot Bianco/Weissburgunder, a much better wine than the more popular Pinot Grigio. The best examples had creamy texture and mouthwatering peach and apple aromas, with only a few cresting the $20 mark. It was hard to find even a mediocre version, let alone a bad one. Alto Adige + Pinot Bianco = a wine worth buying.

Sauvignon Blanc lovers should be on the lookout for versions from Alto Adige called simply Sauvignon. The alpine terroir results in wines that are mineral-rich and avoid the sometimes heavy grapefruit and pineapple aromas found in their counterparts from New Zealand and the U.S. These wines go beautifully with mildly sauced pork dishes and rich dumplings. My favorite food-wine combination of the trip was a Sauvignon with beet dumplings. While we can occasionally find the Alto Adige version of Pinot Noir here in Central Texas, it's usually pricey for the quality. That being said, if you have a wine merchant you know and trust, they might be able to point you to one of the better value Blauburgunders.

Amarone, One of the World's Great Wines

Tiziano Castagnedi of Tenuta Sant'Antonio
Tiziano Castagnedi of Tenuta Sant'Antonio (Photo by Wes Marshall)

The Amarone Anteprima was one of the great wine experiences of my life. First of all, we were invited to taste the majority of Italy's Amarones, a heady experience when you consider the normal cost per bottle ($75-750). Second, these powerful wines generally run about 16% alcohol. Finally, I was surrounded by many of Europe's best wine journalists. When an American Viticultural Area puts on a press conference, they're lucky to get a few folks. Here, more than 150 Italian journalists joined more than 50 foreign journalists (though just two from the U.S.!). There were TV crews, distinguished authors, and reporters from newspapers and magazines, all hanging on to every word of the Italian speakers. Then they pared down the numbers to a few of us who were led into the tasting room for the scoring part of the Anteprima. Let me start by stating that there is nothing to cure – or at least take your mind off of – raging jet lag like the burro kick to the head of a parade of 72 16% alcohol wines.

These wines are classic concoctions (made since before Christ) in which the winemaker separates out some of the grapes (the native Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella), places them on racks, and allows them to slowly dry. As they lose water, the sugar content as a percentage of the whole rises. More sugar ultimately equals more alcohol, and the grapes' exposure to oxygen imparts a bit of a raisin character. The result is a powerful wine made in one of two styles: Amarone della Valpolicella, which is bone-dry and has a high natural alcohol content, and Recioto della Valpolicella, a wine made since Roman times that sacrifices some of the alcohol to retain a wallop of sugar. We tasted the first variety.

Attended by a cadre of master sommeliers, we slowly worked our way through the wines. Amarones are generally meant to be drunk when mature. Ten years or so from vintage is a good starting point, though 20 or 30 is not out of the question. The winemakers release them at various ages. One of my favorites said they don't release their wines until age 15 or 16. The reason is that young Amarones can be bitter, tough, and hot. We tasted 4-year-old wine. The tasting is restricted to professionals on the theory that we should be able to taste past the wines' youthful tribulations and predict the flavors the wines will have when released. The winemakers would like to get the bottles out as early as possible. Buyers hope that by following a recommendation from a favorite writer, they'll be able to snag a few bottles before the wine is sold out.

About halfway through the tasting, I turned to my left and asked the newspaper writer from Milan what foods Italians usually served with Amarone. "In Italy, Amarone is usually only consumed in restaurants," he said, "and then, only in Verona or somewhere in Valpol­i­cella. Most people other than the people from Valpolicella find it too difficult to match with food and very expensive." Indeed. Imagine a wine with a thicker texture than a Sonoma Zinfandel, completely dry, with a touch of bitterness. The best natural pairing would be something like grilled game or Cuban cigars.

By the time we finished, my palate was wiped out, but I had learned a lot about the wines. Over the next three days, we visited nine wineries, walked in the vineyards, and tried many of the other wines from the area. Though we were there specifically to work with the Amarones, most wineries showed us other wines as well. Many of our particular crew decided that, though we loved the intense experience of Amarone, it was too big for nightly consumption. A three-star Michelin restaurant offers a wonderful experience, but not one you would choose to have nightly – ditto for the intense pleasures of an Amarone.

Amarone's younger brothers Valpolicella Clas­sico and Valpolicella Ripasso are easier on the pocketbook and the palate (see "Some of Valpolicella's Best Wines" for several recommended winemakers). They carry some of Amarone's dynamism but in a lighter and more food-friendly package. We also discovered a number of delicious white wines made from the Garganega and Sauvignon grapes. Still, we were there for Amarone. On our last night, the whole group was having dinner and a Norwegian journalist asked one from Rome, "After tasting all of these wines, which Amarone do you think is best?" She leaned into him, gave him a seductive smile, and said: "It's like a boyfriend. It depends on your mood."

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Bolzano, Verona, Italy, Bozner Weinkost Mostra Vini di Bolzano, Amarone, Amarone Anteprima, Alto Adige, speck, sopressata, carpaccio, Riso Nano Vialone Veronese, risotto, Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara, Garganega, Lagrein, Weissburgunder, Pinot Noir, Pinot Bianco

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