Red wines from Asolo, famous for its prosecco, are worth seeking if you enjoy Bordeaux-style blends. For publication in the week starting 11 March 2019.
The Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG appellation was established in 2009, and sparkling wine is easily the region’s best-known product. But Asolo also offers a range of high-end Bordeaux blends and a rare native red grape, Recantina.
Asolo is about an hour’s drive north-west of Venice. The Piave River, which runs through the region and enters the sea at Venice, has played a major role in Italian history. The Piave is called “Fiume sacro alla patria” or sacred river of the homeland because the Battle of the Piave was the decisive battle of World War I on the Italian Front in 1918. The area features in Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms.
Venice and Asolo have been linked for centuries. The latter has been popular as a place to escape the heat and humidity of Venice’s summer. In 1964 Venice hosted the French president, Charles de Gaulle. During dinner he selected one of the many bottles of wine for particular praise, telling guests it was the best Bordeaux he had ever tasted.
A brave sommelier pointed out that this wine was from the Asolo region. That dinner established the reputation of a wine that soon was renamed Capo di Stato, or wine of the head of state.
To understand the wine we need to return to the theme of war. Soon after World War 2 ended Count Peiro Loredan ordered the planting of Bordeaux grapes in an area near the Piave River with distinct red clay soils rich in iron and minerals called Venegazzù.
The count had carried cuttings from Bordeaux and dreamed of re-creating this French style. He was a descendant of one of the Doges of Venice, the leaders of the city from 726 to 1797 during the era of the Republic of Venice.
Many people talk of the greatness of Super Tuscans – Italian wines made from French grapes since the early 1970s – but Count Loredan was ahead of them.
Early in the 1960s the count created a special Venegazzù reserve, made in limited quantities in special years. It was this wine – from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec and produced for the first time in 1964 – that the French president praised.
The estate, whose full name is Azienda Agricola Conte Loredan Gasparini, has 60 hectares of vines – half planted to Glera for prosecco and the rest to the above Bordeaux varieties. The Montello DOC was established in 1977 and the special DOC Montello Venegazzù two decades later. Dominic Zucchetto, the company’s export manager, said wide temperature differences between minimum and maximum in summer at close to 20°C helped explain why the grapes developed intense flavours while ripening.
The current vintage of the Capo di Stato, the 2015, will become available next year. The estate provided a tasting of the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages earlier this month along with the 2015. These are harmonious wines and worth pursuing, though prices rise outside Italy. The current vintage costs 22 Euro at the cellar door but is USD 49 in America and about GBP 35 in the UK.
In 1967 the count asked Italian artist Tono Zancanaro to create a label. The artist offered two sensual images he said expressed the male and female soul of grapes becoming wine. A woman’s partly naked figure appears as the feminine image with the words “pour Monsieur la Bombe” (right of photo).
The phrase “Des Roses pour Madame” appears on the masculine label (left of photo). Officially only the “male” label appears on the current wine with the “female” reserved for special occasions. It might be because conservative American buyers are wary of the suggestive female image.
In 1975 the count also planted 2 hectares of Glera grapes at the Vigna Monti vineyard. These are believed to be the first Glera grapes planted in the region. Wines from this vineyard were discussed in last week’s column. The region makes other reds under the Montello DOCG. These wines also employ Bordeaux varieties. This DOCG was established in the late 1960s.
Mirko Pozzobon is one of the best young winemakers. He has 15 hectares of vines, planted from 1989. He started the organic certification process in 2010 and it was granted in 2013, with details on the bottles since 2015.
Pozzobon uses no pesticides. His main spray is made from grapefruit seeds and is used to prevent the tingroli moth from laying its eggs on vine leaves. Think of it as a form of homoeopathy for the vines. His motto is “good grapes make good wine”. But this process is labour-intensive and requires 30 per cent more staff than traditional viticulture. Luckily Pozzobon has plenty of family to help.
After finishing university Pozzobon made wine in the Amarone region for a decade until 2007. His professor at the University of Verona, Roberto Farrarini, was a winemaker with the great Quintarelli estate. Read more about Quintarelli here. Pozzobon has focused on Asolo since 2012, and has been a winemaking consultant to Giusti since 2014.
One lovely wine is his 2017 Costa degli Angeli made from Mazoni Bianco. The name translates as angels on the hillside and the wine is heavenly. His 2016 Rossi del Milio is named for Pozzobon’s father Emilio, who planted Merlot vines in 1982 thinking they were Cabernet Franc. The wine is 70 per cent Merlot with the balance Carménère, another grape originally planted in Bordeaux. Pozzobon makes 18,000 bottles a year of this opulent and velvety red.
Recantina is the only autochthonous grape in the region. Armando Serena, president since 2012 of the Consorzio Vini Asolo Montello, said only six estates grow this wine on a total of about 10 hectares of vines.
It is scarce because at the start of the nineteenth century Napoleon’s troops were ordered to pull out local grapes and plant French vines such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Recantina has only recently been re-established in Asolo.
Dr Ian D’Agata, in his huge book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, devotes less than half a page to Recantina, though the grape family has been grown around Treviso in Veneto at least since the 1600s.
D’Agata writes that Recantina “has always been a highly regarded variety”. It ripens in late September, is vigorous and resists common diseases. He describes it as “a very perfumed wine (blackberry and an intense note of violet) with good tannic structure and acidity” and predicts that Recantina will “almost certainly one day” be included in the blends for Valpolicella and Amarone.
The Giusti estate provided a vertical tasting of Recantina (shown centre) earlier this month: 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014. These wines spend a year in Slavonian oak and then another nine months in bottle. Winemaker Mirco Pozzobon also uses a touch of mulberry, chestnut and chestnut oak.
The wines were cheerful with plenty of red fruit and violet aromas, combined with soft tannins. Giusti has about half of all the total plantings of Recantina in Asolo. In 2014 they made about 5,500 bottles. In 2017 the total reached 12,700.