Volcanic hills of poetic wine

The delicious wines grown on the volcanic soils of the Euganean hills about 60km from Venice feature this week. For publication in the week starting 27 May 2019.

The Soave region is a patchwork of sub-zones. Vineyards are often not much more than two hectares, passed down through many generations.

Each winemaker is an artisan. They know their land intimately. Locals argue that it is the soil that contributes to flavours and they have started making wines that best reflect their terroir.

The region has 33 cru. Think of these as wines from land with distinct personalities. Locals use terms like the “sinuous” Costeggiola, the “poetic” Carniga, the “heroic” Slavinus or the “mighty” Foscarino. The larger wineries have also mapped their cru land, and all winemakers are bottling from selected single vineyards.

Garganega is Soave’s main grape. It has been grown in the region for at least 1,000 years making it one of Italy’s oldest varieties. Garganega can comprise anywhere between 70 and 100 per cent of the blend. For Soave DOC up to 30 per cent of the blend can be Chardonnay or Trebbiano di Soave. Soave DOCG also contains the same amount of Garganega, and up to 30 per cent can be Trebbiano di Soave.

The terroir gives wines distinct structure and sapidity. The latter refers to a stimulating richness of flavour. The late-ripening Garganega provides weight and a diversity of styles from fresh, zesty and floral through to the rich sweetness of a Recioto di Soave.

Recioto is becoming less popular because of changing tastes, high production costs and people wanting a drier style of wine. The high costs relate to the fact the grapes are air-dried for several months to concentrate flavours, losing half their weight in the process, which means far fewer bottles than for regular Soave.

This week we talk about wines grown on volcanic soils. In his 2016 book Volcanic Wines, Canadian master sommelier John Szabo notes that volcanoes have a strong grip on Mankind’s imagination. They have been seen as the playground of the ancient gods; a place of myth where traditions were forged in heat and mystery. Ulysses encountered the gods in the Pastures of the Sun near Mount Etna. The shield of Archilles was created on Vulcan’s forge. The gates of Hades were said to be at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.

Soave was the first Italian region to reach out to other volcanic wine areas, forming the first association of Italian volcanic wines. Today, Volcanic Wines is a brand with global reach. Recent research in Soave shows how volcanic soils there have evolved and acquired complex structures, deeply influencing flavours in wines. Volcanic soils give special properties to wines such as high acidity, minerality and salinity plus a potential for longevity. Szabo noted that minerality was not an aroma. “It’s a salty taste sensation noticeable in wines grown near the sea.”

Land formed from volcanic eruptions millennia ago produces what Jancis Robinson MW calls “steelier” wines. Szabo noted that soil is not the only factor affecting the taste of wine. Indigenous grapes and ancient cultivation methods also made volcanic wines distinctive, he said.

Aldo Lorenzoni is the director of Consorzio Vini Soave, the organisation that represents Soave winemakers. In recent years the Consorzio has organised scores of events such as Soave Days, Tutti i Colori del Bianco, Vulcania, Volcanic Wines and the Soave Preview to showcase the region’s innovation.

Lorenzoni noted that late last year Soave was officially listed as the 58th Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The FAO recognises extraordinarily beautiful landscapes that combine agricultural bio-diversity, resilient ecosystems and important cultural heritage.

The Soave Stories conference mentioned last week celebrated the first decade of the “Volcanic Wines” project, creating a bridge between Soave and New York, where the second international conference on volcanic wines will be held next month.

One of the most interesting volcanic regions is the Euganean hills east of Soave, about 60 kilometres from Venice. The hills were formed by a series of volcanic eruptions starting about 43 million years ago. On a clear day the clock tower in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square can be seen from the top of Mount Gemola in the Euganean hills.

Basalt rock.jpgLava in the hills cooled to form trachyte, rhyolite and latite. Many of the fine mansions in Padova and Venice were made from these beautiful basalt stones.

The hills, known in Italian as Colli Euganei, have about 3,000 hectares of vines, and they mainly make red wines. Merlot is the most-planted red, with about 500 hectares, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon (275 hectares) and Cabernet Franc (230 hectares). Moscato Giallo is the most planted white, with about 270 hectares.

The direction of the slope determines the climate. Hills with a southern exposure, bathed by direct sunlight, grow Mediterranean flora like olive trees, cypresses and laurels and can happily ripen red grapes.

Vines on the opposite side of the same hill can be in a different meso-climate, producing excellent white wines from Glera and Moscato. The latter is a large and historic grape family. Moscato Bianco and Moscato Giallo were planted by Greek settlers.

Fior d’Arancio, which means “orange blossom,” is made from Moscato Giallo and became a DOCG in 2011. Three different versions are made: A sparkling sweet wine, a sweet passito from semi-dried grapes, and a version that is kept in barrel until the wine becomes dry. As the name suggests, the wines have a distinct orange blossom aroma.

Bordeaux grapes are believed to have been planted from about 1870 but they have developed local characteristics.

Cangina Vignalta.jpgOne of the best producers is Cantina Vignalta. Their Gemola, named after one of the highest hills mentioned earlier, is a blend of 70 per cent Merlot with the balance Cabernet Franc. We tasted the 2012 and 2006 vintages. This is a classy wine with mint and cassis aromas and a distinct savoury taste from the volcanic soils. If well cellared it would taste superb in two decades, but is drinking well now.

The company’s Fior d’Arancio is named Alpinae. It offers a cascade of ripe apricots and oranges on the nose and in the mouth. This wine has won several gold medals and is a special delight. But get in early because only 8,000 bottles were made of the current vintage (2015).

Local nature guide Francesco Loreggian said the Euganean hills were a naturally healthy area that sustained a wide bio-diversity with minimal use of pesticides. It is also an area that makes lovely wine that deserves to be visited. If you do, make sure you get a copy of The Venetian Hills: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Colli Euganei by Patricia Guy. It is beautifully written with lovely photographs.

The great Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) spent his last four years in the hills. Petrarch’s home is a museum in the village of Arqua Petrarca. The English poets Lord George Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley rented a villa in 1818 in the hills near Este.

More information about the area can be found here.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Consorzio Vini Soave who provided flights, meals and accommodation.

Words: 1,152

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