LAST week I led a group of China importers and large buyers on a wine-tasting tour of Veneto wine regions in northern Italy.
Our intrepid group from Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei traveled half way around the world to experience the marathon-like rigors of countless winery visits and professional wine tastings over a period of eight days in one of Italy's most beautiful regions.
To most tourists, the region of Veneto is known for the cities of Venice and Verona, but my group deliciously discovered that Veneto is also home to some of Italy's best and most intriguing wines.
In my formative wine-drinking years back in the US, the brand Soave was widely recognized and the wines were among the most popular in the US market. This success in the US and other large European markets did not last.
Heartier New World whites from California, Australia and later Chile gradually pushed Soave wines from wine lists and store shelves.
The boom of another Italian white wine called Pinot Grigio further displaced the former stalwart Soave. In many ways this was a shame, as Soave is an exceedingly accessible and food-friendly wine that fits may lifestyles.
Soave wines are now making a comeback and my tastings last week reinforced my belief that a new golden age of Soave may well be blooming. There are good reasons for this.
First and foremost is the improvement in quality, both at the basic Soave DOC level and also at the more lofty Soave Classico DOC and Soave Superiore DOCG levels.
The prolonged and persistent efforts of the Soave Consortium to improve the quality of Soave wines are certainly paying off in the form of more consistently good and balanced Soave wines. Unlike in the past when buying Soave wines could be a bit of a crapshoot, picking a Soave DOC wine today usually guarantees getting a pleasant wine with good fruit and moderate acidity.
Soave Classico DOC wines are a step up from basic Soaves and must come from more restrictive production zones on the hills that surround the medieval towns of Soave and Monteforte. The top level of Soave wines are called Soave Superiore that also come from hillside vineyards and have more exacting winemaking and aging requirements.
The most important grape in Soave wines is Garganega, a late ripening variety that often displays almond and white floral qualities. The Trebbiano grape that is cultivated in many Italian wine regions is sometimes added to provide a little tart liveliness.
I tasted many good Soaves last week but the wines from a few producers stood out. Look for wines from Villa Erbice, Cantina di Monteforte, Villa Canestrari, Corte Moschina, Terre dei Colli and Nardello.
Some of these wines are not yet available in Shanghai but based on the enthusiasm of my fellow travelers, wines from these premium producers may soon be available in Shanghai.
Italy's most famous sparkling wine is still somewhat of a mystery to many drinkers in China. This is a shame as Prosecco sparkling wines are among the most charming and accessible of all sparkling wines and are usually quite reasonably priced.
The grapes and winemaking method of Prosecco are different than those of Champagne.
The predominant grape is Glera, also sometimes referred to Prosecco, and the second fermentation that gives the wines the bubbles is the Charmat method invented by Frenchman Eugene Charmat in 1910.
Unlike the Champagne method that induces a second fermentation in the bottle, the second fermentation using the Charmat method is done in tanks, making the process quicker and easier.
The result is a delightful sparkling wine that's less expensive than Champagne and stylistically more approachable or friendly. In addition to its attractive price, Prosecco is also one of Italy's most versatile wines that pairs nicely with many Chinese dishes. Collectively these qualities make Prosecco an ideal daily drinking wine for wine lovers in China.
Today, most Prosecco DOC wines are consistently good but for the best examples look for the words Conegliano or Valdobbiadene on the label. These are the premium hillside sub-regions of the Prosecco DOC that make the richest and most elegant Proseccos. Top producers already, or soon to be, available in Shanghai include Bisol, Bottega, Santone, Carpene Malvolti and Bosco.
The region of Venizia DOC has ancient origins but most of the wines made in this region today are quite modern in style. The region extends through the provinces of Venice and Treviso.
Some of the most popular varieties are the popular international grapes Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay for white wines and the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc varieties for red wines.
Of the international red varieties, I found the Cabernet Franc wines to be the most surprising and interesting. In addition to generous red and dark fruit qualities and a nice weighty and round mouthfeel, the wines showed impressive complexity.
In additional to well-known international varieties, producers in the Venizia region are rediscovering ancient grapes that are not as well known.
For wine drinkers like myself who taste so many wines from the same varieties with similar characteristics, wines from these rediscovered varieties are truly exciting.
Wines from the white variety Lison and the red varieties Refosco and Raboso show huge promise and discovering and enjoying them was one of the highlights of my trip. In Venezia, producers to look for include Terre Paine, Mozzolada, Al Galli Eredi Scala, Bosco and Le Contrade.
Situated on volcanic hills between the Verona and Vicenza provinces is the small, family-owned Fongaro Winery that makes Durello sparkling wines from an indigenous variety called Durella.
Few wine lovers outside of Veneto have even heard of this variety that only grows in this small hilly border area.
Unlike the neighboring much larger Prosecco region where wines gain their bubbles from the Charmat method, Durello sparkling wines use the Champagne method or Metodo Classico as it is called in Italian. The Durello grape and volcanic soil that's rich in minerals result is acidic wines with a fresh and delicate character.
The lovely sparkling wines of Fongaro winery were one of many pleasing surprises on my travels through the beautiful wine regions of Veneto. I strongly suggest that the next time readers have the opportunity to visit the beautiful historic cities of Venice and Verona, that they also take time to discover the equally historic and pleasing wines that surround these cities.