A Wine Journey Along the Po
A wealth of wine regions are nestled along the Po. Follow Anthony Giglio as he sips the region's best wines on an eastward journey along the river.
by Anthony Giglio
Recently I saw an advertisement for a riverboat cruise up the Po River in Italy from Venice to Mantova. This took me by surprise, because Italy has never made much of an effort to promote tourism along its rivers. The advertised voyage, however, aboard European Waterways’ 20-passenger barge La Bella Vita, promised art, history and regional cuisine as it cruised inland on the Po and the Bianco Canal through the Po Valley. Unfortunately for me, though, it didn’t highlight regional wines and hewed more to the crowd-pleasers from Tuscany.
If the cruise itself didn’t grab me, it did spark the idea of using the Po River as a guide for a ready-made wine tasting tour. It does, after all, traverse some of Italy’s best wine regions, linking them, if not by a single terroir, then certainly by geography. And while Italy has its fair share of amazing wine routes, such as the Strada del Vino Prosecco, which winds through lovely Conegliano-Valdobbiadene in the Veneto, the Po itself seems to offer a virtually limitless Strada.
It turns out that the La Bella Vita’s route represents merely a fraction of the river, a body of water so long it bisects four Italian regions, running from Piedmont through Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna before terminating in the Veneto delta. Further investigation turned up so much intriguing information about Italy’s longest river that I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me to look into it sooner. Flowing from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea, the Po and its surrounding valley touch on some of Italy’s most storied municipalities, from Cremona, Italy’s violin capital, through Parma, home of the eponymous cheese and Prosciutto, to Roncole, where Verdi was born and lived his entire life, and to Venice, the famed city of canals. At 405 miles in length, stretching from west to east across northern Italy, the Po has served as a natural border, most notably in the last millennium, when Napoleon Bonaparte annexed the Po valley and used the territory and his soldiers as a virtual battering ram to bust into the Venetian and Austrian empires.
Most interesting to me, though, is the wealth of wine regions nestled along the Po Valley. The entire valley follows the 45th parallel, which is known globally for being home to some of the greatest wine producing regions on the planet, including Bordeaux and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. While the regions along the vast valley share commonalities of climate, the Po’s course offers the intrepid taster a range of regional libations. As home to some of Italy’s most fertile land, viticulture here spans from over-produced grapes used for locally consumed wines to carefully controlled vines that make some of Italy’s—and the world’s—best-regarded wines.
A wine journey along the Po begins at the foot of the Alps in Piedmont, where the Po’s source waters are fed by melting snow. From a winemaking perspective, Piedmont is a powerhouse of grape growing, home to 44 DOC and seven DOCG designated areas, yielding what might be the largest number of widely recognized, award-winning wines in Italy, including Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto, Gavi and Asti. The noble Nebbiolo grape is the base for famed Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara wines. There are so many great winemakers in this region, it would take a phone book to list them all. Instead, how about a few producers whose wines recently have inspired me to keep digging deeper into this region? Luciano Sandrone’s spectacular Barolo “Le Vigne” got my attention recently, as has Castello di Verduno’s wonderfully perfumed Barbaresco. In Valdiberti, there’s Pecchenino’s juicy San Luigi Dolcetto di Dogliani made with sustainable farming. Orsolani, in the nearby Canavese region, where vines are still trained in much the same way as when the Romans introduced viticulture there, is producing one of Piedmont’s most unique wines, Erbaluce. Orsolani’s “La Rustià,” named for the “roasted” color this grape turns when ripe, is a particularly exceptional representation of what Erbaluce wine has to offer.
Following the river east, we enter Lombardy, home to six main wine zones, a few known locally for enjoyable everyday wines, like those from Oltrepò Pavese, or styles such as Lambrusco Mantovano, which is produced around Mantova near the border with Emilia-Romagna. But the province of Brescia, slightly north of the Po River itself, which includes the Franciacorta zone, with its robust reds, aromatic whites and metodo classico wines (wines made in the Champagne style), is the region to watch. Among Franciacorta’s legendary producers, two would be worth a visit: Ca’ del Bosco, where celebrated proprietor Maurizio Zanella crafts international style wines, including his eponymous Bordeaux-style blends, Pinero (Pinot Noir) and a range of sparkling wines; and Ricci Curbastro, a winery that houses a unique Museo Agricolo e del Vino, home to more than 3,000 historical artifacts. Ricci Curbastro’s sparkling wines are new to the American market and certainly worth seeking out.
Further east, the Po’s waters carve the northern border of Emilia-Romagna, the dual-named state that encompasses two very different regions unified by one amazing gastronomic capital: Bologna. Light and fun wines can be found in the surrounding appellations of Colli Piacentini, Colli Bolognesi and Colli di Parma, where Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are grown. The best-known wines from here are Lambrusco and Sangiovese di Romagna, but Albana di Romagna, an aromatic white that’s produced in every style, from bone dry to sweet passito made from raisinated grapes, was bestowed the region’s only DOCG designation and remains the hidden treasure among all of these wines. When crafted by creative hands, it can yield dry whites that are crisp, minerally and delicious, and sweet whites that are fabulous with cheeses and desserts. At the Zerbina estate, in Faenza, enologist Cristina Giminiani is hailed as one of Italy’s best female winemakers. Her Sangiovese di Romagna reds and Albana di Romagna whites—especially her Scacco Matto passito—are legendary.
After winding through all these viticultural regions, rich with sediment and the miles it’s traveled, the Po finally pours into the Veneto Delta, where marshlands jut into the Adriatic just south of Venice. The Veneto is home to just about every style of wine, from effervescent sparkling wines, to crisp whites and reds ranging from fizzy to full-bodied. Three well-known DOCs from the region are Bardolino, a red named for the town near Lake Garda; Valpolicella, a red that is the base for Amarone and Ripasso; and light, bright Soave wines. Reflecting the quality of wines from this region, Prosecco from the towns of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano was awarded the DOCG imprimatur last year. As for oft-overlooked Soave,
I think seeking out Inama’s floral, apricot-wafting Soave Classico, made with 100% Garganega grapes, is worth the effort. Two other Veneto producers I’ve recently become interested in include Stefano Cesari, who has been crafting the best juicy, rich Valpolicella reds since 1978 under the Brigaldara label, in the commune of San Pietro in Cariano; and Alberto Speri, in Pedemonte, whose eponymous winery has been in business for five generations, since 1874. Speri produces reds from three distinct crus, La Roverina, Sant’Urbano and La Roggia, as well as their famed Amarone della Valpolicella—all of them certified organic.
We’ve only skimmed the surface of what this valley has to offer, but from our brief survey, it’s clear that the river itself makes a watery Strada Del Vino, linking some of Italy’s most alluring wines as it winds its way through northern Italy.
Map illustration by Andrew Wilson
Gracing the valley of Italy’s lengthy Po River, top wineries turn out some of the country’s most intriguing wines.
Brigaldara, Classico, 2008
With great depth and complexity, this is not your everyday Valpolicella, serving up a mouthful of dried sour cherry and plum flavors accented by hints of cocoa and bittersweet chocolate. With a flavorful blend of regional grapes, there’s a lot going on for such a little pricetag.
Castello di Verduno Barbaresco DOCG, 2005
Verduno is a relative bargain when compared with its neighbors. While it hews toward the old-world style, its winemaker is the youthful and talented Mario Andron. A solid core of plum, berry and cherry flavors define this medium-to-full-bodied beauty.
Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta, NV
Here’s a Blanc de Blanc Champagne-style sparkler with a distinctly Italian accent. Maurizio Zanella makes a range of delicious wines, but his metodo classico sparkling wines, like this peachy, mineral-rich beauty, are legendary and what separate Franciacorta from Prosecco
Orsolani “La Rustià” Erbaluce di Caluso, 2009
The stellar Erbaluce should be the next “it” grape. “La Rustià” refers to the “roasted,” or ripest, most sun-blasted bunches of Erbaluce grapes, which yield a wine packed with pineapple, peach, pear and even litchi aromas and flavors, balanced with a crisp, mineral acidity.
Speri Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, 2006
This small estate sits in the historical heart of Valpolicella country. The grapes are raisinated according to tradition and blended for this brooding wine with jammy prune, currant and raisin aromas that open with air. Italians would call this a wine for contemplation.
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