Verdi and the Wines of Veneto – An Italian Pairing

Sep 19, 2009

I am not only passionate about Italian wine but Italian opera. One night I talked to a friend about my love of poetry and wine pairings. From our discussion, the idea of a wine and opera pairing was born.

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813-1901)
There are three great names in opera: Mozart, Verdi and Wagner.

Verdi is the first big name after Mozart. His operas appeared in all the famous 19th century opera houses in Italy: Milan, Rome, Naples, Venice, Florence and Trieste. Born not too far from Parma, his father provided his son with a reasonable musical education. Throughout his life he composed music for 28 operas.

Verdi’s greatest contribution to musical history came in the shape of his three most famous operas: La Traviata, Rigoletto and Il Trovatore. In his book A Night at the Opera Sir Denis Foreman opined that each work has imparted something to our popular culture from the 'Brindisi' of Trav, to the Anvil Chorus of Trov and who can forget Pavarotti’s version of ‘'La donna mobile' (Rigoletto), a ditty so popular you’d have to be born in a convent not to know it. Check the links.

When it comes to food, I prefer a pairing of wine with the region’s cuisine. In the case of opera, I’m going to be a little more lenient. Verdi is to Italy what Goethe is to Germany, or what Shakespeare is to England. Verdi was born near Parma but the wines of Veneto work perfectly, especially when paired with La Traviata, my very favourite of Verdi’s operas.

Based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ play and novel, La Dame aux camellias, La Traviata featuring the tragic Violetta first premiered in Venice on March 6, 1853. (You see how it all works out – Verdi – Veneto – Violetta…?)

The opera is in three acts and takes place in Paris.

Violetta is a popular courtesan for wealthy men. In the first act, we find ourselves at her home where there is much celebrating, toasting (the infamous Brindisi), drinking and laughing. The music is lively and bubbly, the songs about the fleeting joys of life. For this scene, I recommend a Prosecco, the ubiquitous spumante of Italy’s north made principally from the Prosecco grape. The wine maker uses the charmant method (which is unlike Champagne) to give it its light, green fruit flavour.. Whereas Champagne undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle (which gives us the bubbles), the wine of Prosecco undergoes a second fermentation in a pressurized tank.

Anna Netrebko as Violetta in the Salzburger Festspielen  production of La Traviata, 2005

Alfredo is deeply in love with Violetta. While she is recuperating in her Paris home from an attack of tuberculosis he keeps a vigilant watch outside in the rain.

Un di felice is a lovely piece and when Violetta replies, the music sweeps you away into a mellow mood of heart-breaking tenderness and sweet, savage yearning. For this I recommend a Tocai Friulano. This white variety is not as popular in Veneto but you can find some excellent ones from regions in nearby Friuli-Venezia Giulia, considered part of the Tre Venezie (with Trentino-Aldige as the third). The wines are medium-bodied, some with a slight, viscous-creamy texture, a nice pairing with the love duet. Add to that some excellent Prosciutto, the famous ham meat from Friuli, (near the town of San Daniele) and Emilia-Romagna, (close to Parma and Verdi’s birthplace) – not bad for a little regional pairing.

By the time we get to the second act, the two have become lovers (Lunga da lei). Time for some Valpolicella. Like Beaujolais of southern Burgundy, the basic Valpolicella is a lighter wine, easy to drink, with soft cherry notes and candy. A blend of three red grapes (Molinara, Rondinella and Corvina), there are a few other styles to chose from.

Valpolicella Classico – with grapes sourced from the original region. (Throughout the years, many famous areas of Italy, such as Chianti, have grown grapes on older vineyards. They are now competing with the newer sites. These producers on the original sites feel their wines should be acknowledged – classico simply refers to the historic, long-established area.) These wines have a bit more body to offer.

Then, there’s Valpolicella Classico Superiore which must be aged a year before release. These wines have gorgeous licorice, smoky dried cherry components (highly suitable for the music of lovers swooning with love).

If your dad found out you were dating a prostitute, he’d be worried, wouldn’t he? Well Alfredo’s papa is very concerned. In the Paris of the 19th century, a courtesan was a high-end call girl but a call girl nonetheless.

The role of Germont is sung by a baritone, which is lower than a tenor (Alfredo). Baritones usually have the second-man-best-friend-paternal part to sing. Germont’s daughter is getting married and he needs Violetta to get out of the picture or else his daughter’s fiancé and family might not go through with the marriage (Pura siccome un angelo).

Violetta offers to lie low but that won’t do for the concerned father. You have to leave Alfredo, immediately and without explanation, I’m sorry.

This is when you pull out the Valpolicella ripassso. The wine is made by re-passing the newly fermented Valpolicella wine over the Amarone pomace (the pulp mound-mass of seeds and skins [i.e. leftovers] after an Amarone wine has fermented – we’ll get to that soon enough). The Vapolicella, in contact with this pomace, takes on a ‘jamminess’ as it picks up some additional colour, flavor, structure and tannins. Like a good California Zin, this is lush and pairs well with the moody but dramatic exchange between Germont and the pleading Violetta.

Alfredo is upset. Violetta has left him, her motive for leaving concealed (she doesn’t want to get between father and son), and while out at party, he see his lady love with the Baron Douphol (a real cad). There is a heated argument and Alfredo, at the height of his rage throws all his gambling winnings at her. Germont comes in, flabbergasted at his son’s behavior.(Ogni suo aver tal femmina, Di sprezzo degno se stesso rende)

Things don’t really work out until it’s too late. By Act III Violetta is alone and dying of TB, coughing uncontrollably. Beside her is her maid, the loyal Annina (and a former courtesan) as the doctor attends her. But where’s Alfredo?

For the last part of Act II and Act III, you can choose one of two wines. Since these are emotionally charged scenes, you’ll need a big wine to get you through them. If you like drier style wines, I recommend an Amarone.

Like Valpolicella, Amarone is made with the same three grapes (sometimes with the addition of Negara) but closer to Verona. The main difference is that the grapes are left longer on the vine and when finally picked, are laid out in bunches on bamboo shelves or mats in drying lofts. There they are left to shrivel and this concentrates their flavours for three to four months.

When the grapes are finally pressed, they look more like raisins, having lost a third of their weight, mostly water. The resulting wine is a glorious, full-bodied red, higher in alcohol content (15 – 16%). Amarone, the name meaning ‘big, bitter one’ could well be the final ultimate pairing for this opera.

But if you like something sweet, I recommend a recioto della Valpolicella. This wine is made almost exactly the same as Amarone except when the grapes are fermenting, the process is soon stopped to retain the sweetness. Since all the sugar is not converted into alcohol, this leaves the wine supple, seductive and of all things, beautifully dolce.

Whether Violetta is singing Addio del passato or during the tear-driven finale and brief reconciliation between her and Alfredo, these great fuller-bodied wines of Veneto will compliment the heart-throbbing beauty of Verdi’s most painful and transcendent moments of opera.

Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon (as Alfredo) enact the painful finale.


Post a Comment

About This Blog

My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

  © Blogger template On The Road by 2009

Back to TOP