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Discovering Colli Euganei

When I was invited recently to visit the Euganean Hills as an adjunct to Vulcania 2012, a conference in the town of Soave about wines grown on volcanic soils, I must admit I had never heard of it.  Or them.  So I pulled down my 10-year-old version of the Oxford Companion to Wine to look it up.  It wasn’t there!  Silly me – try the Italian name, “Colli Euganei.”  It still wasn’t there!  Was this a place worth visiting?

So against my better judgment, I agreed to go anyway.  And I again found out that it’s sometimes smart not to listen to my better judgment.

The Colli Euganei is a cluster of extinct volcanoes that look the way extinct volcanoes are supposed to – conical or pyramidal – and which rises out of the flat plain near Padua. The doges who ruled Venice sometimes used the hills as their playground, and there still exists a canal that once carried goods and people between Euganei and Venice.

Antonio Dal Santo, a producer who heads the local consortium and who has the smoldering eyes of actor Tommy Lee Jones, agreed to take a few writers on a tour of his hills.  As we abruptly left the plain and entered the colli, Dal Santo pointed out that most of the hills are still covered with forests and that they are full of water, including many thermal springs that serve as spas for tourism.

The northern side of the mountains “is almost Alpine in nature,” he says, and the southern side “almost tropical and Mediterranean.”  If you get lost on a cloudy day, the vines on the southern side are kept lower on the trellis wires that those of the north. Dal Santo calculates the region has about 600 growers and 100 producers, 20 of which export. 

About 50 percent of the wines are red (the other half is split between white table, sparkling and sweet whites), and, surprisingly, the reds are almost all Bordeaux varietals – but not as a recent nod to internationalism.  “They have been grown here since the 1850s,” Dal Santo says, “and almost any red blend will have some carménère in it.”  The ones I tasted – perhaps 20-30 from different terroirs, producers and vintages – were uniformly good, some excellent, and were made more in a traditional European style than in the fruit-forward New World manner.

As a class, they are dark, but not heavy, with oak-influenced fruit and have some balsamic and stemmy notes with generally moderate tannins.  They are leathery, but not as lean as traditional Bordeaux. The fruit has a granular blackberry taste, with some carbon (volcanic soils or cabernet franc?) and some creaminess in the finish.  I tasted one red from the region that I have seen with some regularity in the United States – “Gemola” from Vignalta, which has a large, modern winery in the hills.

The whites are mainly aromatic – tocai, garganega, riesling, sauvignon – and the locally grown moscatos are now responding to the recent international demand – a frenzy, really – for wines from that grape.  Serprina, a relative of the prosecco grape, is the local standard for sparkling wine, and the grape here seems to yield a cleaner, fresher, less-flamboyant bubby than does the classical prosecco.

At the end of my brief two-day tour, I decided Colli Euganei is a great place to visit for anyone who likes wines, biking and spas.  A GPS or a local guide may be necessary, though, as it’s easy to get lost along all those narrow, winding roads.

And I decided the region definitely deserves its own spot in the next Oxford Companion.

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