It seems like a lifetime ago, but in truth it was just a few months before these pandemic times we find ourselves enduring, with no end in sight. In those happier and simpler days prior to COVID-19, I enjoyed a wine touring trip to Italy, eating and drinking my way across the countryside with great gusto.
It was in the port city of Venice, famed for its intricate canal system, that I discovered the joys of Venetian wines, sipping them from small tumblers in sidewalk cafes at all hours of the day. Oh, how I long to escape these four walls of home that have been my pandemic purgatory for nearly six months now, and to see the city walls of Venice again!
Time may be of the essence, as the city is built upon silty foundations, and is sinking by up to 2mm annually. Rising sea levels due to climate change make for a double whammy, and resulted in terrible flooding last November, which I fortunately missed by vacationing there just a few weeks earlier. See Venice while you can, as it may not be there forever!
Veneto is one of the 20 wine growing regions of Italy, centered around the city of Venezia (Venice to you anglos), and the most commonly grown white grape in the region is Garganega. Yes, I know that grape sort of sounds like the name of a villain plotting to invade the Smurf Village, but I can assure you that the similarity ends there.
Left to their own devices, Garganega vines tend to produce very large yields of thin and dull wines, so the vineyard workers are tasked with pruning the vines early in the season to produce a much smaller yield of higher quality grapes.
Clever vintners may let some of their Garganega vines grow vigorously to produce bulk table wines, then blend with a small percentage of low-yield vines that were aggressively pruned in order to produce more refined and complex grapes. This allows the producers to claim a single varietal bottling, but still hit various price points for market segmentation.
The most aggressively pruned vines will have very low yields, producing grapes with high acidity that are then picked prepared in the passito method by drying the grapes on racks to concentrate the sugars. This high-sugar high-acid wine is then aged for up to a decade to produce a very expensive sweet dessert wine known as Recioto di Soave. Due to the low yields and resultant high prices, this style of Garganega wine cannot be found here in Alberta, so I just may have to return to Venice for another sample if this accursed pandemic ever ends.
An ancient and noble varietal first recorded in the days of the Ancient Romans, Garganega is thought to be a parent of the popular Trebbiano grape used to make Cognac and Armagnac brandies, as well as Ugni Blanc, the most commonly planted white grape in France. DNA typing shows close relationships between Garganega and several other Italian grape varietals, making it a key part of the pedigree of many Italian wines.
To this day, the northern part of Italy near Venice is still home to the most acres of Garganega under vine, with the island of Sicily coming in a close second, where DNA typing found the popular Sicilian grape known as Grecanico to be identical to Garganega.
Back in the swinging seventies, Garganega was the most popular Italian white being imported to North America, until being eclipsed by the thundering juggernaut of Pinot Grigio, which has remained in the top 3 ever since.
Interestingly, Garganega and Pinot Grigio share many similar flavour profiles, although Garganega has a silky smooth, almost oily finish that is not quite a crisp as Pinot Grigio.
Garganega is a cheap and cheerful white wine, available here in Alberta in the $15-20 range at well-stocked booze merchants. When consumed young, the flavour profile includes peach and honeydew with a slightly salty finish. When aged for 5+ years, more intense flavours of marmalade and fennel begin to emerge, making for a more complex finish.
As an inexpensive wine, Garganega is most commonly consumed young, and pairs well with Italian seafood dishes like clam linguini, scallops, or gnocchi. Look for a bottle at your favourite well-stocked wine shop and give it a try!