The Wines of North Eastern Italy

Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia together comprise North-Eastern Italy.



They are surrounded by the Alps in the north, the Adriatic Sea to the east, the Apennines Mountain range in the south and the Po valley to the west. All three have higher quality areas in the hills and lower quality areas on the plain below. The climate has hot summers and harsh winters. This is similar to the northwest except less fog but more hail. These variations in weather make the vintage important, especially in red wines.

All three make fresh wines, with crisp acidity and purity of varietal at their best. They have led Italy in planted foreign grape varietals and modernization of winemaking techniques. At their worse, sub-standard fruit was fermented so cold that the resulting wines lacked any natural character. In the past three decades, a lot of new oak has been used to enhance the flavors.

North-East Italy was the first Italian region to turn wine into a profitable export business. Together, the three regions produce 15% of Italy's wine, but 35% of the quality DOC wine. Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia mark first and second for proportion of DOC wines produced, while Veneto produces most overall. The northeast leads Italy in the export of premium wine, sending millions of cases to Germany, Austria, the United States and the United Kingdom. The three undisputedly make the majority of Italy's fine white wines. However, all three regions make a red wine from native grapes; Schiava and Teroldego in Trentino, Langrein in Alto Adige, Valpolicella and Bardolino in Veneto, and Refosco and Schioppettino n Friuli, among many more. But there are many differences between the regions as well:

Trentino-Alto Adige is Italy’s northern-most wine region. It experiences a cool, alpine continental climate, although summers can be quite hot. Average temperature during the growing season is 63°F (17°C). There are three distinct climatic zones, soils range from volcanic to alluvial. Soils are generally light, infertile and fast draining. Subsoil is limestone, with alluvial deposits of clay and gravel. The terrain is often steep, and with only 15% of land is available to be planted, space is the most limited here. Terraced vineyards receive around 2000 hours of sunshine a year. Trentino-Alto Adige is most famous for producing fruity, light, modern white wines. The area is highly suited to viticulture, with an emphasis on quality production. It is broken up into two regions:

Alto-Adige lies to the north, and is mostly German speaking. It is a Y-shaped growing zone in the valleys of the Adige and Isarco rivers; the town of Bolzano is in the center. The fertile valley floor is given over to apple orchards and other fruit crops, with vineyards on the surrounding hills. Generally, the more elevation yields better results, with the best vineyards between 2000-2600 feet (600-800 meters) above sea level. The altitude and northerly latitude mean that the growing season is shorter. Luckily, Alto-Adige has very warm summers, with Bolzano often taking the prize for Italy’s hottest city in July. Many vines are still planted in overhead pergolas, but new high elevation vineyards are planted with guyot training, yielding a more intense and concentrated fruit.

Schiava is the most planted grape, producing bright reds that smell of violets if produced well. Unfortunately, high yields have led to many cheap and simple wines entering the market. Langrein is the 2nd most important red grape, and was traditionally used for Rose. Today, it produces a powerful deep-colored, earthy, tannic, spicy wine. Langrein is often blended into Schiava to make it darker and give it more heft and aging potential. Schiava and Gewürztraminer (which is native to Alto-Adige) are losing ground Pinot Grigio, as well as to international varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Kalterersee (Caldaro) and St Magdalener (Santa Maddalena) are specialties of Alto-Adige.

Larger commercial wineries and co-operatives process about 2/3 of grapes. They started the quality movement by paying their members in terms of quality, not quantity. This has led to over 90% of wines produced receiving DOC status, which is the highest in Italy. Some producers are inspired by Friuli and are making similar blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, or Sauvignon Blanc. Alto-Adige produces a relatively small amount of wine, when compared to the other regions.

Trentino lies to the south and is primarily Italian speaking. It comprises of 27,000 acres (11,000ha) of vineyards concentrated around the Adige River and its tributaries. Vines here are also trained high on pergolas. This is good because they protect grapes from excessive heat, decay and disease, but bad because they promote high yields and lower quality.

The region is dominated by international varieties including Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Muller-Thurgau and Pinot Noir. Most reds are single varietal, but there are some Bordeaux blends as well. Training Merlot or Cabernet on pergolas leads to grassy notes, so almost all are planted using Guyot training. The region does have some indigenous varieties as well: Teroldego is the only Italian grape which thrives on flat ground as opposed to slopes, and is planted closest to the river. The wines are deep red with a complex nose of violets, cherries, violets, plum and licorice. They have plenty of power and require some aging. This has won them their own DOC named Teroldego Rotaliano. Sparkling wine production is an important sector of the Trentino wine industry. Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc are typically the grapes used for the 5 million bottles of Spumante produced each year.

70% of wines are DOC level, and there are 4 IGT designations for the rest. This is the 2nd highest in Italy, after Also,Adige. The DOC allows 7 tons per acre (15 tonnes per hectare), which some feel is too high and doesn’t promote quality wines. Another problem is that the region is too market driven; growers plant what sells, in this case mainly Chardonnay and other international varieties. Vineyards were replanted on both the fertile flood plain, and on the barren slopes of moraine gravel. Many feel the need to look at soil and climate more. 75% of wines are made by co-op.

Veneto is one of Italy's most prolific producing regions, and a traditional center of international wine trade with northern Europe. It the largest of the three, and makes both high quality and mass produced wines. The annual case production for Veneto is over 160 million. Chances are that if you are drinking a northeastern Italian wine, then it probably from Veneto.

Soils are Morainic gravel in the hills, and Alluvial deposits in the plains. There is a sharp quality divide between the east and the west. In the west lies the city of Verona, and in the hills just north of here are the regions of Soave, Valpolicella and Bardolino. Typical Valpolicella is light-bodied, fruity red, and best drunk young. Corvina is the main grape, but there are smaller amounts of Corvinone, Rondinella and Moilinara blended in. Some Corvina is picked and laid on dried mats for 3 to 6 months, producing either dry Amarone or sweet Recioto. Bardolino comes from just west of Valpoicello, and uses similar grapes to makes a lighter wine. The most planted variety in Veneto is the white Garganega, which is the main grape in Soave and Gambellara wines. It needs thin soils to produce fragrant wines, and sometimes has Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc or Trebbiano blended in.

However, high quality wines are rarity east of Gambarella. The wide Piave plain makes simple mass consumption wines of little identifiable character. Many vineyards were expanded over cereal fields and are not ideal for grape growing. A mass produced ideology reigns; much of this is due to the success of Pinot Grigio. Prosecco is the only wine in the east which has succeeded in establishing a strong DOC. 2/3 of vineyards are on the plain, where it is hard to resist the temptation of higher yields, especially as the DOC allows it. As long as the market continues to buy cheap prosecco, there is no incentive for producers to exploit the ideal conditions for quality production. Other grapes include Ornella Molon, Conte Collalto, Rechsteiner for whites and Raboso for red.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia is the eastern most of the three regions, and comprises of eight viticultural zones inside the protective arc of the Alps. The people are a combination of Italian, Germanic and Slavic. Western zone has more red and eastern more white. There is a constant movement of air between mountains and sea. The Bora is a cold wind that blows from the south, the cool Tramontana blows from the mountains in the north. The climate in the hills is significantly cooler and perfectly suited for the production of white wines with high alcohol content and benefit from barrel aging. Soils are sandstone and marl, with the best sites also containing limestone. The topsoil is friable and easy to work. Terraces or Ronchi have been carved into the hills.

The two most famous quality areas are Collio Gorziano and Colli Orientali del Friuli, which lie in the extreme east on border of Slovenia. Colli Orientali hills make powerful but elegant wines, with a lot of fruit. They also have high acid, so they keep their freshness when aged in barriques. This was mostly a red wine (Merlot) producing area, until the demand for clean white wines arose. Whites are now more common, from Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc, and the indigenous Tocai Friuliano. Reds are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with the native Schioppettino. Where Colli Orientali has the most body and length, the wines of Collio Gorziano have more perfume and delicacy. Many of the best producers have vineyards land across the border in Slovenia, but are allowed to put Colli on the label. These wines can compete at an international level.

Isonso is south of Collio and slopes from mountain to coast. It makes better quality wines than the plains below because of the elevation. With its sandy and gravelly soils, Isonso has potential to become one of the best areas. Carso is south along the coast, and unprotected from the cold east winds. Malvasia and Terrano (a cultivar of refosco) fare the best in this climate. Also, dessert wines from Picolet or Verduzzo are specialities here. Carso makes some interesting whites, but most outsiders find them to have a strange taste. The other areas - Aquileia, Latsiana, and Annia are on the coast and produce light pleasant wines meant to be consumed immediacy. Similar to Veneto, the Grave del Friuli is a huge alluvial plain, comprising of about one third of the area, but producing 2/3 of the grapes. It has gravelly soils, hence the name. The Grave del Friuli produces about 14 million of Friuli’s 18 million cases.

Wines are made using jacketed steel tanks and other modern winemaking methods to produce powerful, aromatic wines. While this is similar to Trentino-Alto Adige, a big difference is that the wines are more consistent year to year. In the 1990’s, less than 25% of wines were DOC; today that number is closer to 75%. Many indigenous varieties have been saved from extinction. Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, Scioppettino, Pignolo and Tazzelenghe for reds and Tocai Friuliano, Ribolla Gialla, Verduzzo, Picolit for whites. These produce expressive wines that stand out from other world areas, if they would only catch on.