The Red Wines of Northeast Italy
Although the four regions in Italy's northeast (Trentino, Alto Adige, Veneto and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia) are always thought of as the home of Italy's best white wines, they also produce many noteworthy reds. Given the wide range of soils, exposures and climates here, as well as the huge number of different grape varieties, northeast Italy confronts wine lovers with a huge spectrum of styles and taste profiles, ranging from the lighter wines of Bardolino, Valpolicella, and St. Magdalen to midweights like schioppettino and refosco and to bigger-boned lagrein, pignolo, cabernet, merlot and Amarone.
Since this is normally a cooler part of Italy, vintages tend to be important (much as in Piedmont or Burgundy), especially since varieties such as cabernet, merlot, schioppettino and refosco can yield green, vegetal wines when the polyphenols are not ripe. So getting to know recent vintage characteristics will help you select wines from this neck of the Italian woods.
In Trentino and Alto Adige, 2007 was an outstanding year, thanks to a warm growing season and just the right amount of rainfall. These are big, ageworthy wines that will easily rival the very good ones made in 2006. While 2008 was a little cooler and wetter, 2009 looks to be another stellar and cellarworthy vintage.
In Veneto, the 2006 vintage is very good, but no more than that. The unfortunate tendency on the part of many wine writers to overstate the case for vintages led many to describe 2006 as a superb vintage, which it is not. Still, many excellent Valpolicella and Amarone wines were made. But the true standout vintage for Amarone and Valpolicella is 2007, by far the best vintage in recent memory and one that will go down as one of the all-time greats. The 2007s are big, powerful Amarone wines that taste remarkably smooth and balanced from the get-go and will also reward cellaring. Both 2006 and 2007 yielded excellent wines from international varieties as well, but one must be very careful when buying red wines from 2005, a cool, rainy year. Still, some producers, such as Roberto Mazzi, seem to have managed well in this difficult vintage.
Friuli-Venezia-Giulia (FVG) is the source of many of Italy's best white wines, but the region has plenty of interesting native red grapes as well. The so-called international varieties such as cabernet franc and merlot, which are more correctly called traditional in FVG, since they have been grown there for over 300 years, can give splendid, elegant wines, but don't always ripen fully in FVG's often cool and rainy climate. But thanks to climate change and generally warmer growing seasons, the red wines of FVG have been steadily improving over the last decade, with fewer wines marred by vegetal or green qualities. The flip side of the trend toward warmer weather is that, while the 2009 vintage promises to be a good one, it was marred by a brutal if uncharacteristic summer heatwave, and only the wines that avoid cooked aromas and flavors will prove of any interest. While 2008 and especially 2005 are not great for FVG either, 2006 and 2007 are very good red wine vintages.