When Riccardo Pasqua became CEO of the third-generation family winery in the Veneto, he and his cousin Cecilia (global brand ambassador) set to work on a business plan. Rather than serve up well-made but conventional Valpolicella, Soave and prosecco in elegant bottles, they decided to shake things up by marketing wines with provocative names, such as Mai Dire Mai (“Never Say Never”) and the barely fitting “Hey French – You Could Have Made This But You Didn’t”.
They staged collaborations with *fuse art collective, had labels designed by the likes of CB Hoyo, and their presence at Frieze and other art events has given Pasqua a certain creative and rebellious cachet.
But the idea of the “house of the unconventional” is not all about presentation and marketing. The winery has a similarly experimental approach to winemaking – and the results have been spectacular.
In fact, prestigious US magazine Wine Enthusiast just named Pasqua “Innovator of the Year” in its annual Wine Star Awards, making it the first Italian winemaker to win the prize. It has meant taking some risks, but they have paid off, as Riccardo Pasqua explains:
‘When we decided to produce a rosé that could take on the ones from southern France, people said, you are crazy, you’ll never sell a bottle. But that’s because, before 2016, Italian rosés were very dark in colour, flabby and flat. But Lake Garda is a mini-Mediterranean, a perfect microclimate, with biodiversity from lemon trees to olive trees. By making decisions that took it out of the rules for the appellation, we came up with this very pale, very vertical rosé. Now, we are one of the biggest rosé producers in Italy. So, we made a big statement, and it was a huge risk, but it was a happy ending.’
The rosé in question is 11 Minutes, referring to the very brief skin contact during the pressing of the grapes. In addition to noble native varietals Corvina and Trebbiano di Lugana, the blend includes Syrah (more associated with the Rhone) and Carménère (with Médoc).
Pasqua has taken the “Super Tuscan” model of the 1970s (planting untraditional varietals in terroirs that nonetheless are ideal) and run amok with it.
‘In 2013, we were looking to make a super-bianco – one that has potential for ageing,’ explains Riccardo. ‘We found an incredible vineyard, with volcanic soil, 600m above sea level, in the heart of the Soave Classico area. But making another good Soave Classico with the vintage year on it? That’s not the way we think… We took a multi-vintage approach and ignored the warnings that it was synonymous with table wine, not quality wine. And we blended Garganega with Sauvignon and Pinot Blanc – again a big risk – but our winemakers are pretty good.’
Pasqua briefed the Cuban-French artist CB Hoyo – known for his provocative statements scrawled over “fake” modern art – that they wanted a label to reflect both this challenge to Italian wine convention and their ambition to take on world-respected white wines. And, in another unconventional move, when his artwork came back with a metaphorical middle finger raised to France, they decided to adopt “Hey French” as the name of the wine.
Even with the wines that do adhere to Veneto denominations, Pasqua is trying something new. Riccardo explains the “never say never” project:
‘Mai Dire Mai embodies the vision of our house for the Amarone and Valpolicella of the future. Amarone, for example, has traditionally been a wine of technique. Back in the day, the grapes were unable to achieve the right level of sugars unless they were partially dried. Then, Amarone had a huge success with wines that were very bold, very large, very opulent. But very often without ageing potential. By making an Amarone that is an expression of the soil, rather than being all about technique. Our Amarone is lighter in colour, more agile and feminine, and definitely with a lot more ageing potential. In fact, the vintage that we have out now is 2015. It’s an Amarone that you can open in 20, 30, 35 years.’
These are wines that may challenge the regional traditions, but also raise the profile of Veneto by showing its potential as a wine region. Riccardo sums it up:
‘With our wines, and our art collaborations, we are trying to put Verona and Veneto on the map, both as a great wine region and as a place of talents that have a lot to say.’
Christmas wine pairings
As it’s close to Christmas, Brummell asked Riccardo Pasqua for some pairing recommendations for the season…
Mai Dire Mai Amarone – It has ripe black fruit (morello cherry), dark chocolate, cedar wood and leather notes, as well as clove. That suits game such as venison, pigeon or pheasant.
Mai Dire Mai Valpolicella Superiore – It’s a little more versatile. It still has the cherry and spice notes, but with tobacco and coffee on the nose. It would work well with most dark meats, such as a braised beef pot roast in Italian red wine.
Hey French – This has a floral nose and intense minerality. Then on the palate, it offers such complexity, with almonds, citrus, chamomile, even hints of white pepper and tropical fruits. I like to eat it with a risotto – either a saffron risotto or a risotto alla parmigiana, with a little sprinkling of liquorice powder on top.