Somewhere along a curvy stretch of backroad in the Colli Euganei, I had to remind myself that I was still in Veneto. After all, this is the Italian province that includes the Venetian Lagoon; the Belluno Alps; the flat plains of the lower Po, Adige and Piave Rivers; the shores of Lake Garda; and the treasures of Venice, Padua and Verona.
Veneto may not have a singular look to it, but Colli Euganei was still defying expectations. The hills are thickly forested, steep and isolated. The road I followed on that day — no more than a cart path at times — wandered like a lost hiker through the trees and hillside cuts. It was the Italian boonies.
I was there, as you can imagine, for the wine. Colli Euganei produces sweet, golden wines with a mineral texture, and much of the magic has to do with the dirt. The story of soil can sometimes seem abstract when you visit a place, but in volcanic terroir such as this, there is no hiding the origins. From some vantage points in Colli Euganei, the hills look like an archipelago suspended in the haze of the Po Plain. Their shape is so unmistakably volcanic, you can easily imagine them popping off ash plumes and lava projectiles eons ago.
Colli Euganei’s most celebrated grape is Moscato Giallo, which makes a range of white wines that are denoted on the nose by their similarities to honey, oranges, flowers and, most notably, lemongrass. The best of these wines (or rather, at least the ones accorded DOCG and DOC status) are called Fior d’Arancio, which means orange blossom. Styles can range from dry to sweet passito (the DOCG also allows sparkling), but its the passito wine that has the most acclaim in Italy. This is followed by the sparkling sweet wine.
Which brings us to why you’ve probably never heard of this place, especially if you are American: we don’t drink a lot of sweet wine. But if a young winery named Maeli is any indication, Colli Euganei might have its moment in the international spotlight yet, and it won’t be draped in residual sugar.
“I Want to Make All of the Versions”
Elisa Dilavanzo is a Moscato Giallo evangelist, and the locomotive behind Maeli. She is a vinous potter, molding and bending a single grape into as many shapes as the raw materials will allow.
A former sommelier, she came to the winery in 2011. When the owner wanted to sell — and Elisa saw a future of Moscato Giallo being ripped out in favor of Bordeaux varieties — she took matters into her own hands and called Gianluca and Desiderio Bisol, the brothers who run one of Prosecco’s most recognized wineries.
“If I had told Gianluca ‘I just want to make wine,’ he would not have been interested,” she told me during the tasting. “But I said ‘I just want to make all of the versions of Yellow Muscat [Moscato Giallo],” she then laughed. “He said what?”
The Bisol family was a perfect fit for a variety of reasons, but one stood out: they were already showing a keen interest in preserving the grape-variety heritage of Veneto. Roughly 40 miles away on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venetian Lagoon, Bisol had planted a small vineyard of Dorona grapes — the lagoon-adapted variety once preferred by the Dogi of Venice. The Venissa project has not only rescued the grape from extinction, but given it a modern twist as a clean, bright, skin-fermented orange wine.
Elisa’s pitch worked. Gianluca and Desiderio Bisol invested in Maeli, and the notion of advancing Moscato Giallo’s contribution to modern Veneto wine became a familial passion.
Over the course of an afternoon and evening, I sampled Maeli’s Moscato Giallo in a variety of forms: as a methode champenoise sparkling wine, an metode ancestrale with a crown cap, as a sparkling sweet, as a still white wine, and as a passito. The wines are thrilling: a wild mix of floral, feral, herbal, savory and mineral tones with precise balance on the palate. I was beginning to wonder whether anyone else was pushing Moscato this far, and if they were, why I hadn’t heard of them.
The Necessity of Experimentation
On matters of Italian wine, Veneto owns perhaps the broadest spectrum. On the one end, you have brooding Amarone della Valpolicella; on the other, featherweight Prosecco. Moscato Giallo fits somewhere along that line, but the vastness of styles makes it a bit fragmented. If anything, Maeli is fragmenting it further.
Arriving at her current mix of Moscato Giallo wines has been a tireless series of experiments for Elisa. To make her traditional method sparkling wine, she discovered it was best to conduct a rolling harvest beginning in mid-August when the grapes have high acidity. Steadily, through early September, she and her team will harvest the remaining grapes as they blush with ripeness.
“You have to have acidity on one end, and maturity and the flower [aromas] on the other end. Because Yellow Muscat is not a grape with a lot of acidity, you have to pick [a certain amount] of the grapes early to have it.”
Even with the ripeness of the September grapes, the wine is still vinified mostly dry (1.8g/L residual sugar), but even this process proved to be a lesson in experimentation. Finding the right yeast to ferment the juice to such a level proved to be tricky, and taking cues from Champagne was no help. When she introduced a yeast strand suited for Pinot Noir, it was a disaster. “I lost one year of my life to this wine,” she exclaims.
At the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum is her Fior d’Arancio Passito. It carries a tooth-sticking 136 g/L of residual sugar, yet it was my favorite wine of the entire tasting. To make it, Elisa dries the grapes for three to four months on flat racks, choosing to air-dry them both indoors and under protective cover outdoors. But even this process yielded surprises.
“I was really surprised that malolactic fermentation took place during the [drying] process … So we are still trying to find the best way to dry them to get what we want.”
But I wasn’t noticing anything inconsistent in the wine. The sugar was by no means cloying, presenting itself more as an illusion than anything, and the notes were so bright and sunny, the finish felt like a kiss. If there is a problem with this wine, it is that there isn’t enough of it.
“This is the first year I’ve been able to bottle this wine because we did not have enough to make the bottling. This is a kind of solera, because every year I put a little of the last year otherwise I don’t have enough wine.” She shrugged her shoulders as if to say I do what I have to.
It was a shrug that encapsulated so much of Elisa’s approach to making “all of the versions” of Moscato Giallo.
Maeli is heading into its third year of organic conversion; the winery uses some sulfites, but judiciously. According to Elisa, across much of Colli Euganei, there is a strong sense of organic practices because of the national park that mandates protection of the ecosystem. It’s a region I’d like to explore more, and you can go as well. Just don’t expect much cell reception (… maybe a good thing?).
2015 Maeli Moscato Giallo Metodo Classico Brut Nature
Elisa began the tasting with the wine that took a year of her life. The Moscato Giallo Metodo Classico Brut Nature (★★★★ 1/2) is a fascinating wine that is clean, bright and refreshing. Aromas suggest honey, lemongrass, lime, coconut cream, and white flowers. The palate is surprisingly sour, with little residual sugar (only 1.8g/L) and a savory, dry finish. Serve with raw oysters.
2016 Maeli Moscato Giallo “Dili” Metodo Ancestrale IGT Veneto
Yes, Elisa makes a pet-nat. This cloudy, feral, meaty, semi-sparkling wine (★★★★ 3/4) is even drier than the Metodo Classico, and suggests green cuts of mint and oranges on the nose to accompany Moscato Giallo’s archetypal aromas of honey and lemongrass. There was discussion over whether the sulfury note on the nose comes from the volcanic soil or the use of sulfites. Elisa noted that she uses some, but is insistent that the sulfur aromas are from the terroir.
Sometimes, these quirky pet-nat wines feel too cool for their own good. This wine flirts with that line, but never crosses it — because it is downright delicious. Win-win. Serve with fried snacks.
2015 Maeli Bianco Infinito Colli Euganei Fior d’Arancio DOCG
For this still white wine (★★★★★), Elisa has chosen as long a maceration as possible, yielding a remarkably intense, minty and fruity wine with a mineral finish. In my notes, I wrote “addictive,” as each sip brings a parade of wild, pretty notes — kiwi, lemongrass, cotton candy, aloe — without fatiguing the palate.
Elisa noted that she will likely bounce out of the DOCG in the future because the regulations for maceration don’t fit her objectives. Pair with roasted carrots with burrata.
2016 Maeli Colli Euganei Fior d’Arancio DOCG (Sparkling Sweet)
Surprisingly, the most herbal of all these wines is among the sweetest. This Colli Euganei Fior d’Arancio DOCG (★★★★ 3/4) is massively sweet (104 g/L) yet still preserves a precise, mineral finish. The wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in the tank, rather than bottle, making it more in line with the region’s other sparkling wines. This wine dances with aromas recalling oranges and peaches, lemongrass, peat and, on the palate, a bit of graham cracker. Serve with a savory ice cream followed by a nap in the sun.
2015 Maeli Moscato Giallo “Diloro” Colli Euganei Fior d’Arancio DOCG Passito
The final Moscato-based wine in the lineup (★★★★★) is the rarest, and hardest to produce. As noted earlier, Elisa struggles to have enough grapes to make this dense, concentrated wine, which perhaps makes it even more special. Aromas bring to mind oranges, roses, rosemary and once again — as all her Moscato Giallo wines do — lemongrass. The acidity is still very generous, and essential to making this ultra sweet wine (136 g/L) work.
In describing the wine in my notes, I wrote “so sunny, so happy.” Best to serve it on the coldest and darkest of days to lighten your mood.
Maeli makes two red wines as well, both centered on Bordeaux varieties with a substantial splash of peppery Carménère. After the thrilling highs of her highly expressive and unusual Moscato wines, these two wines had to battle for attention a bit, but in the end, they are both very good and should please most fans of Bordeaux blends.
2016 Maeli Rosso Infinito
Maeli’s Rosso Infinito (★★★★ 1/2) is a blend of Merlot (80%), Cabernet Sauvignon (10%) and Carménère (10%). The fruit aromas are distinctly on the raspberry end of the spectrum, conjuring everything about that fruit, right down to the crunchy seeds. High-toned on the palate and not as rich as I expected, the wine boasts a beautiful mineral finish with precise tannins. Serve with Peking duck.
2015 Maeli “D+” Colli Euganei DOC Riserva
Elisa told me that D+ is a saying that means very good, to which I noted on our side of the pond it means a horrible grade on a math test. I think she has heard this before, but “D+” it is, and the wine (★★★★ 1/4) is quite a high-wire act, balancing dark fruits and spice with appropriate tannin and very clear minerality on the finish. Serve with a lamb burger.
Note: My visit to Maeli was part of a press trip funded by Maeli’s importer, Wilson Daniels. Per my editorial policy, I am under zero obligation to write about anything from the trip, and I maintain all editorial discretion for this content. In the end, Maeli was definitely worth writing about.
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