Veneto - To DOCG or not to DOCG?
© by Tom Hyland

Each year, the Veneto region battles it out with Sicily as to which produces the most wine. It is a dubious distinction, as a good deal of the wine from either region offers nothing more than simple quaffing pleasure. So you cannot blame the producers in the Veneto for wanting to upgrade their image and promote their viticultural glories.

Without question, Amarone is one of the best-known and loved Italian reds, but compared to Toscana and Piemonte, Venetian wines are known more for their charm than their glories. How best to get the consumer to recognize the strengths of Venetian wines? Why by doing everything possible of course to earn Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) distinction for their products.

Until recently, the only wine from the Veneto with this top quality rating was Recioto di Soave, the lovely dessert wine made from grapes dried on mats, much like Vin Santo. But now, two new wines have been granted official DOCG status: Bardolino Superiore and Soave Superiore.

For many consumers, the term DOCG is equivalent to the best wines of Italy, and when you consider Brunello di Montalcino, Taurasi, Barolo and Barbaresco, you would have to agree. But given the fact that Gavi and not Roero Arneis in Piemonte is DOCG or that any Chianti - even the most humble that sells for a few pounds - has that status, and you start to wonder about the power of the purse in the decision making.

But for Italians, DOCG does not necessarily mean the finest wines in the country; rather the designation is thought of as a statement that these wines are the best they can be, given the grapes and locales used. No one would argue that Bardolino is among the best red wines of Italy, but if DOCG means a better Bardolino, then why not?

The DOCG status for Bardolino began with the 2001 harvest and the first wines will be released in November. The regulations for the cuvée are as follows: 35-65% Corvina; 10-40% of the lighter Rondinella and as much as 20% other varieties, whether Molinara; Barbera; Sangiovese; Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon (note that only 10% maximum of any of these varieties is allowed in the final blend). Under the previous DOC regulations, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were not allowed.

Soave Superiore earns the right to the DOCG designation with the 2002 harvest. Here, the restrictions were changed not according to the cuvée, but rather to the yield. Yet these changes are minor and did not go far enough, according to one renowned producer of Soave, Leonildo Pieropan.

Pieropan, enologist at his family's firm, points out that while the overall yield for Soave DOCG has dropped from 14 tons per hectare to 10, the existing conditions of many vineyards are not predisposed to producing the highest quality product. Further, according to Pieropan, these vineyards "are unlikely to guarantee it for several more years." (Pieropan also adds that for negotiating reasons, the DOC for Soave was allowed to increase in crop yields to 15 tons per hectare, which he finds "inadmissible for a DOC wine.")

One change that did not come was limiting the DOCG zone to Soave Classico. Pieropan and others fought for this restriction as this historical area is at the top of the quality pyramid. As often happens in these matters, "petty interests" (in the words of Pieropan) won out and the DOCG territory was drawn to include a widespread area known as the Colli Scaligeri.

What angers Pieropan is the thought that the DOCG laws were created with the large cooperatives in mind. Though he participated in the discussions for these new regulations, the final decree is much different than what Pieropan wanted and for that reason he does not approve of the Soave DOCG. "It (the DOCG) will not add value to the product," Pieropan states. "The sole quality guarantee will be, now as in the past, the individual winery's name."

Pieropan sadly reasons that the status quo will be an easier way for the consumer to be educated, as quality is found not in the DOCG designation, but rather in the Soave Classico denomination.

Roberto Anselmi will not even go that far. One of the region's legendary producers, Anselmi dropped out of the Soave Classico Consorzio a few years back, preferring to label his wines as IGT. Anselmi agrees that the minimal changes in yield do not go far enough, and believes the true quality issues are in the way the vineyards are planted.

Anselmi like many of the best producers in Soave Classico have changed or are changing their planting methods to the Guyot system, which allows for much tighter spacing and more vines per hectare. "We need a minimum of 6000 vines per hectare," says Anselmi. "With the old Pergola system, you only have 2000 vines per hectare."

For Anselmi it is about having the philosophy to make the best wine possible. In his opinion, the Pergola system does not allow for that, as there is not the competition among the vines as there is in the Guyot system. He says this as he shows me one of his prized vineyards just outside the gates of his winery; a vineyard planted to 7000 vines per hectare.

DOCG to Anselmi means "the best of the best" and creating a special image. Years before the DOCG regulations were finalized, Anselmi saw that the members of the Soave Classico Consorzio were not committed to that way of thinking, so he dropped out. Clearly, he wants no part of the DOCG decree as things now stand. "We need to change from the Pergola system to the Guyot system. The Pergola system is like a big man - he is not in balance. The system is not in balance, it is crazy."

One final point on DOCG status for these wines. At the estate where Masi sources grapes to produce some of their finest wines, I asked owner Count Pieralvise Serego Alighieri if Masi intended on labeling their splendid "La Vegrona" Bardolino as DOCG. He told me that they would not, as they planned on bottling this wine with a synthetic cork, and current law in Italy forbids synthetic corks on DOCG wines. So much for the esteem of DOCG, at least as far as Masi is concerned!

August, 2002

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