Venetian Lagoon


The northeastern Italian regions of Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia were historically referred to as the “Tre Venezie”(three Venices), and represent the vast chunk of territory once associated with the great city of Venice. Today, these regions are more politically distinct, but their wines converge on the tables of Venice, where the incomparable array of seafood – cuttlefish in their ink; scampi (shrimp) dressed in olive oil and lemon juice; flaky branzini (sea bass) baked in salt crust – is perfectly complemented by the Tre Venezie¹s minerally, crisp, fragrant white wines.

From Trentino-Alto Adige, the range of whites includes more recognizable Franco-Italian grapes such as pinot grigio and pinot bianco but more exotic Germanic varieties such as müller-thurgau, gewürztraminer, and sylvaner. In the Veneto, the local garganega grape reigns supreme in the wines of the Soave appellation. And in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the premier white wine-making region in all of Italy, the choices include just about every top white variety you can think of, but are headlined by the local tocai friulano grape.

Above all else, though, the wine scene in Venice is dominated by sparkling wines from the prosecco grape, made to the north of Venice in the pre-Alpine hills of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano. Prosecco the grape may have originated in Friuli, but prosecco the wine belongs to the Veneto, and to Venetians in particular. No walk through Venice is complete without a stop in one of the tiny little wine bars for a refreshing glass of spumante with the locals, and it was at Venice’s famous Harry’s Bar that the Bellini cocktail was invented.

Unlike Champagne, prosecco sparklers are made in the “tank” method, wherein the second fermentation of the wine (the one that creates the bubbles) takes place in a large pressurized tank, as opposed to a bottle. As a still wine, prosecco is light, fruity, even faintly sweet, and as a sparkler, prosecco tends to be a little lower in alcohol, lower in acidity and carbonation, and noticeably sweeter than Champagne. These qualities make prosecco a great aperitif, and in general there¹s no beating the price: Most good proseccos go for somewhere between $13 and $15 retail. We always have prosecco by the glass at Babbo (not to mention a seasonal fruit-based Bellini, which at the moment is Rhubarb), and our favorite producers include Ruggeri; Mionetto; Bisol; Nino Franco; and Col Vetoraz.

Once the cocktail hour is over and you¹re ready to have some dinner, it¹s time to turn to one of the many great whites of the Tre Venezie. At Babbo, we¹re partial to tocai friulano and the rest of Friuli¹s varietal whites (co-owner Joe Bastianich traces his family roots here, and now owns a winery here). When all is said and done, tocai may be Italy¹s greatest native white grape, a variety that not only offers complex aromatics but also the capacity to age. The Babbo list is tocai-rich, and at any given time will feature producers such as Schiopetto, Livio Felluga, Russiz Superiore, Villa Russiz, Ronco del Gelso, Ronchi di Manzano, Zamò, and of course Bastianich.

With this month¹s Bigoli pasta dressed with anchovies, I recommend a crisp, clean white wine without any excess oak or alcohol to clash with the salty pungency of the dish. Here are three potential pairings from our cellar:

Tocai Friulano, Bastianich 2003 (Friuli) 
A new product from the Bastianich winery, one styled to be more fresh, simple, and clean than the mammoth, old-vine Tocai Plus. This straightforward tocai has textbook mineral freshness and a soft, fleshy texture.

Pinot Grigio Ramato “Vigneto Fontane,” Zeni 2002 (Trentino) 
Here¹s a classic of the Tre Venezie: A powerful pinot grigio with a slight pink tinge due to some skin contact during fermentation. This is the kind of wine you¹ll see in Venice all the time but rarely does it make it Stateside (the term “ramato” means “coppery,” in reference to the coppery color of the wine due to the skin contact).

Soave Classico “La Rocca,” Leonildo Pieropan 2002 (Veneto) 
A perennial favorite of Italian wine lovers, this single-vineyard Soave has lots of heft and lots of aroma.