Last month, I was blessed with an invitation to visit the Veneto region of Italy. A representative of the winery consortium called ‘Il Veneto in un Bicchiere’ reached out to me with this opportunity on the first Tuesday in December and the following Tuesday, I was on a plane bound to Europe. It was unexpected, whirlwind and absolutely inspiring.

Here’s what a handful of international journalists and I got up to with only two and a half days in Italy…

Mireille Sauve Veneto Arial View Wine Tour 2014

Venice from the airplane

The tour started in Venice. Well, near Venice anyway, at the truly amazing Villa Condulmer, a five-star hotel built in the eighteenth century for Venice’s royalty to use as a country vacation stay.

This place exudes grandeur, filling each room from floor to ceiling with classical Venetian charm, ranging from elaborate blown glass pieces to the grand piano in the foyer that was donated by Verdi himself.

Rumours were circulating that the rooms would break the bank at around 300 Euros per night but I checked online and was delighted to see a winter rate posted at 125 Euros per night, including breakfast. Yes, you too could afford this luxury! That is, if you don’t mind the cold.

We had a quick lunch there by Italian standards (read: two hours) which hardly did the restaurant justice as we were all completely zonked from the travel. The food and wines were all delicious, and we were just starting out.

Italy 2014 064Here are my companions on the journey. They’re all great folks – and smart too. It was a pleasure to be in their company at all points in the trip!

After lunch, we hit the ground running. First up was the very colourful Paladin winery, home of Bosco de Merlo.

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Italy 2014 085We saddled up for a tasting in their private room (why there was a horse-drawn carriage in said room, I did not manage to learn)…

We got our first lecture on Prosecco there, what it is made of (Glera grapes), that there are varying levels of quality (DOC vs DOCG) and various production styles (Metodo Italiano, AKA Charmat, or Metodo Classico, AKA Traditional – or Champagne – Method). That said, we tasted several wines, falling into nearly every category of the region’s styles, most notable of which were the Bosco del Merlo Pinot Grigio, for its distinctly mineral and fresh orchard fruit flavours and the Bosco del Merlo Merlot, which respected an old-world style while showcasing upfront ripe flavours of plum, vanilla and sandalwood.

Italy 2014 091I can’t resist sharing with you this delightful little gem, though it is doubtful that we will ever be able to find anything like it on Canada’s liquor store shelves due to its tiny level of production. The Agricanto Liqueur is one-of-a-kind and immediately found a home in my heart of hearts. Bright purple in colour, it is an enchanting blend of grappa, cherry juice, almond and spice. So unique, so delicious and so unavailable…  If you ever see it on a store shelf, please ">e-mail me right away and I will share it with you in expression of my deepest gratitude.

Next, we filled our bellies and nourished our souls at Ombre Rosse, a quaint little wine bar nestled on a country road. Understated, yet highly-rated, this restaurant featured a mom-and-pop team who led us through one course after the next of gastronomic bliss until, oversaturated, we retired to rest like royals in preparation for the next full day of winery visits.

In the morning, we drove off toward Susegana, near the famous village town of Conegliano which is known for its top-of-the-line Prosecco vineyards. Our first winery visit of the day was at Borgoluce.

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In addition to making waves in all areas of agriculture and making delicious wines, they also run a restaurant on the property, where customers can go to sample a vast array of the products produced on the massive estate. An herb salad lies beneath cornmeal-crusted fried buffalo mozzarella, starting off yet another multi-course meal during our trip. Our main course was pressed cow tail. I was a little taken aback when I saw this on the menu, as it had never occurred to me that there was any meat on a cow’s tail, but when the course arrived in front of me, there it was, all shaved and pressed into a delicious medallion for me to enjoy with a beautiful glass of Borgoluce Cabernet. Structured and complex with distinct flavours of dried blackcurrants and red bell pepper, it was the perfect accompaniment to this farm-fresh food.

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Fascinated and full, we boarded our bus to the next winery: Ca’di Rajo, in San Polo di Piave, where we met with winery owner, Simone Cecchetto. This is a totally unique area in the wonderful world of wine, by means of their trellising system alone. ‘Bellussera’ is a method of training vines which raises them up to 2.5 metres from the ground. This is almost unheard of in global viticulture, if for no other reason than the back-breaking labour that it causes come harvest time, but Ca’di Rajo insists that this is an important part of their heritage and therefore it must be upheld. Utilized only in a 10-kilometre radius of his winery, Simone explained to us his philosophy of hedging his bets when it comes to the portfolio of wine that he produces. In a world where so many wineries are quick to abandon their course and jump on to trends, it is important to have something that no one else has. Hence, much of the winery’s Prosecco is made using this ancient trellising method, which lends a clean, freshness to the wine that it creates.

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I’m leaving out the lengthy story of the tractor that took us out into the vineyards and then stalled, leaving us stranded in a sea of giant vines. This event made us dreadfully late for our next appointment and I don’t want it to have the same scheduling effect on this column, so I’ll leave you with the photo below, depicting our host Simone as he realized that the two bottles of Prosecco which someone seems to have stowed under the hood of the tractor will do nothing to help him get seven visiting journalists out of his vineyards and back to the winery.

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The beautifully balanced and refreshing Prosecco Superiore Millesimato Extra Dry DOCG Valdobbiadene 2013 was just what the doctor ordered, after being stranded in a truly breathtaking vineyard without a wineglass in sight.

Our next stop was Montelvini, where we arrived late and apologetic to be greeted by our ever-gracious hosts who led us through a whirlwind tour of their very modern, and somewhat huge, facility.

Italy 2014 234While they use the best of new technology, I’d be hard pressed to find a winery that offered a more respectful nod towards old-world charm, as it is clear in speaking with owner ­­­­­Armando Serena that he makes his wine for his customers. “If they want the 45-litre jugs, then of course they can have them!” He just celebrated his 70th birthday and his 50th vintage. His kids threw him a surprise party at the winery and made a movie commemorating the occasion. With a distinct air of emotion in his eye, Signor Serena announced that he will now be passing the torch on to his son and daughter to run the winery. “They’re ready.” He said, but the gulp that followed his statement betrayed the complexity of his emotions. It is hard to imagine handing over the reigns of a business that you’ve spent 50 years building.

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Italy 2014 236I was grateful to him and his oenologist, Diego Vanzella, for the generous hospitality that they extended to us, and especially for the spectacular Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG Millesimato Brut that they poured in my glass. Featuring great structure and complexity, this wine bubbled with all the finesse of a Champagne, showcasing quintessential Prosecco flavours of almond, nectarine and lemony minerality. We raised a toast to the soon-to-be retired owner and wished the winery well with its new caretakers. The future looks bright for Montelvini, I think.

Day three started on a frosty morning in Soave at Pieropan.

Now, before I say anything about this winery or the wines that it produces, let me first ask you to please – PLEASE keep an open mind with regards to Soave. This wine has such a bad rap in Western Canada, limited to its on-shelf representatives which tend to be mediocre at best, albeit cheap. If you take only one thing away from reading this blog post, please let it be this: There is an enormous difference between Soave and Soave Classico. This word, “Classico”, is of the utmost importance in this region, differentiating the ordinary from the extraordinary. Soave Classico can be some of the great white wines of the world so please, I beg of you, do not throw the Soave out with the bathwater – give Classico a chance.

Italy 2014 258Moving right along… Day Three and we are freezing our buns off before the morning sun has risen, perched on the crush pad behind a house built in 1470. It’s had a few renovations since then but still retains its old-world charm, and stands as the façade of Pieropan, an exemplary Soave winery. We were greeted by winemaker Andrea Pieropan, who graciously toured us through the winery, explaining every detail of production along the way.

Italy 2014 276The winery’s flagship Soave Classico, ‘La Rocca’, has achieved cult-like status, standing out amongst its Classico peers with a seductively oaked structure and a lasting palate which makes it not only food-friendly but significantly age-worthy as well. Perhaps more intriguing, however, is the more typical variation of the regional specialty – the Calvarino Soave Classico. We were treated to two vintages of this wine – a 2012 and a 1992 and I must tell you that this wine has made it to the top of my list of wines that I must add to my cellar. The 20-year difference between the two wines was hardly distinguishable to the eye, the older version still bright straw in colour and the palate still vibrant and austere with flavours of nougat and orange zest.

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Even more intriguing, though, might be the foray that we finally took in this winery into the production of the ever-adored Amarone. If you’ve ever had an Amarone then feel free to join me in a communal squeal of excitement as we venture into the making of this virtual ‘giant’ of a red wine.

Pieropan makes Amarone by laying red grapes (Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, typically) out to dry on these old tobacco mats and then stacking the mats on racks in well-ventilated rooms for around five months to concentrate the grape sugars before pressing and fermenting the wines.

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Tasting through their offerings, it was evident that Pieropan is a leader in the region for its commitment to quality (and their grappa, FYI, is spectacular too).

The last winery that we visited on our tour was Ca’ Rugate, and it was a majestic experience. What struck me most there, though, was a surprise to me. While we toured the very well-established winery and tasted through a vast array of wines, from sparkling to still dry white to light red, rich red and sweet white too, what really made my head turn was a wine that I never would have expected to taste on this trip, at least not out of a bottle…

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When I learned that the wine in my glass – the seductive, alluring, velvety-smooth and sultry red wine in my glass – was none other than a 2014 Valpolicella (Rio Albo was the name), I nearly fell off my chair. “Excuse me,” I had to interrupt the tasting, “Is this actually the 2014 vintage? No typo?” Snickers echoed in the room, followed by nods of agreement, while my companions all seemed to join me in my utter disbelief that a wine which was harvested only a few short months ago could already be so delightfully expressive in the bottle, exhibiting flavours of blackberry and cherry with a finesse that swept me off my feet. Indeed, there was no typo, this wine was the real deal, and I was just thrilled to learn that it will be available on BC’s wine store shelves just as soon as the boats can get the palates unloaded.

A dinner in Verona marked the end of our stay, filled with stories of a wine cellar which accidentally discovered Roman ruins within, a dessert selection that nearly exploded my mind (and belly) and a waiter who convinced me to try tobacco grappa (which I do NOT recommend). Then, no sleep later, I boarded a plane the next morning to come back to the land of my home, as many bottles as I could clutch accompanying me on my journey.

I am currently working to figure out how and when I can return to this beautiful place, Veneto, with more time to explore and indulge – maybe I’ll see you there?



PS – It is amazing to me how much material can be generated in just two and a half days! The Veneto region really impressed me, so to organize my enthusiasm in a way that I could share it with you, I’ve kept this post focused on the wine, the food and the ambiance of my trip. Coming up next is a post that delves deeper, taking a look at the unseen aspects of winemaking in this inspiring, evolutionary part of the world…


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