Travel Guide: Where to Drink in Verona
Valpolicella Primer & Ten Producers to Know
Text and photos by John Szabo MS
The charming city of Verona with its spectacular Roman arena is the gateway to the wine region of Valpolicella. I’d start and end your exploration of the region there. A stop for a glass at the legendary Antica Bottega del Vino in the heart of the city is a must. It’s the unofficial headquarters of thousands of wine-crazed visitors who descend on the city each April for the annual Vinitaly Wine Fair. The wine list resembles a phone book, though the chalkboard listing a few dozen wine specials offers more than enough to choose from. Grab a glass and settle in the street outside, Veronese style. For better value, however, head to Alcova del Frate, an enchanting osteria a short stroll from the center near the Ponte Pietra, where the list is smaller but full of smart buys. Wine shop Signorvino, which also doubles as a wine bar, is also worth a visit.
Tourists drink their negronis in the Piazza Brà, insiders and the Veronese head to Piazza Erbe, the oldest square in the city and former Roman Forum. Sit on the terrace at Caffè Filippini and soak in history as you sip your aperitivo. And if you’re a gin fan, or aspire to be, don’t miss the Frz Lab, a superb cocktail bar featuring more than 200 gins from around the world. Even the simple gin & tonic is elevated to artistry, with each gin matched to its own special tonic and enhanced with carefully selected botanicals, fruit and herbs.
Valpolicella: Riding High
Valpolicella is riding high these days. It now ranks as the number one Italian region for exports by value, buoyed by international demand for ripasso and especially more expensive amarone. I’m willing to bet you’ve tasted these wines before. But the appellation alone is by no means a guarantee of quality. As in most large, popular regions, there’s a lot of rubbish being produced as opportunistic companies seek to cash in on the regional success. Read on for a brief primer on the region and wine styles, and a list of a dozen producers to know, whose quality I can guarantee.
Valpolicella: The Region
The sprawling, 8000-hectare region of Valpolicella takes its name from an Italianization of the Latin phrase “valley of many cellars”, an indication of the area’s long winegrowing history. It could well have been the “valleys”, since the region encompasses no fewer than 13 roughly parallel valleys scored by rivers tumbling out of the Mount Lessinia chain to the north, stretching from the banks of the Adige River near Lake Garda in the west to the border with Soave (with some overlap) in the east, some 240 kilometers. Each Valley is named after the principle township found within, such as Negrar, Fumane, Marano, Mezzane, and Illasi. The city of Verona itself and the snaking Adige River form a stretch of the southern border above the plains of the southern Veneto, following the Strada Statale 12/ Strada Regional 11.
The region is subdivided into three main sub-zones: Valpolicella Classica is considered the original heartland of production encompassing the western part of the region and the valleys of Fumane, Marano and Negrar; Valpolicella Valpantena lies in the center of the zone, and Valpolicella orientale (eastern, or “allargata” as it’s know colloquially, meaning essentially “extended”) covers the easternmost part of the appellation including the Mezzane and Illasi Valleys. Although it’s tempting to consider the classica zone as the best suited to top quality, in my experience, great wines are found throughout, including in the ‘extended’ zone where you’ll find some of the highest vineyards in the region and a clutch of key producers.
Calcareous-limestone ridges separate the valleys and thus soils vary from deep alluvial on the valley floors, the origins of mostly simple, soft, easy-drinking wines, to well-drained, exposed limestone on the mid slopes and upper parts of the valleys where the most fragrant, delicate and refined wines are grown. A few rare outcrops of basalt-derived volcanic soils, notably in the upper part of the Marano Valley, yield Valpolicella with an extra degree of structure and power, if less finesse. Elevation matters too; wines grown in the lower, southern end of the valleys abutting the plain tend to be fuller, richer and riper, while those from the upper slopes in the valley interiors ripen more slowly, retain more acid and alcohol levels are lower.
Valpolicella is devoted exclusively to red wine production from indigenous varieties, headlined by corvina and corvinone, which together represent about 2/3rds of a typical blend, the former a small, thick-skinned variety with a characteristic flavour of sour cherry, also perfectly suited to the appassimento process, the latter a larger berried, even thicker-skinned variation (apparently unrelated to corvina) with more peppery flavour and higher tannins. Reliable rondinella and acid-rich molinara, and a handful of other minor local grapes round out the options.
Valpolicella: Production and Style categories
The most historic wine from the region is sweet Recioto della Valpolicella, whose origins stretch back to at least the early 6th century. Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman serving in the administration of the Ostrogoth King Teodorico, described in detail the process of air-drying grapes to produce a celebrated sweet wine called acinaticus in 503 AD, a technique still used today.
To produce recioto, healthy bunches – the finest first pick of each vineyard – are hand harvested and put into a special drying room called a fruttaio. There they are left to dessicate naturally, without artificial heating, cooling or dehumidification (only fans are allowed to circulate air), for several months – usually until the February following harvest. During this period water evaporates and everything else in the berry is concentrated. The length of time it takes for grapes to lose about 40% or more of their weight is critical – the longer the better. It takes about twice as many days for corvina compared to cabernet sauvignon, for example, which allows for greater complexity to develop as continuing metabolic activity creates new aromas/flavours not found in the fresh grapes, such as bitter chocolate and dark spice.
The semi-raisins are crushed and partially fermented, retaining some residual sugar, and the wine is then aged in wood (small or large, new or old, depending on the producer, though old, large, Slavonian oak, cherry wood and chestnut casks are traditional). The result is a unique, structured, sweet-bitter red, rarely cloying thanks to both acids and tannins to balance sugar, which tastes of raisins, figs and plums, dried cranberries and macerated cherries.
The discovery of amarone was an accident, and a relatively recent one at that. In the early 1930s, the cellarmaster at the Cantina di Negrar was horrified to discover that an entire cask of sweet recioto wine had been ‘ruined’ by turning dry; the fermentation had continued unintentionally, transforming all of the wine’s sugars into alcohol. At the time, sweet recioto was the most prized wine of the day.
But the unusual, big, powerful bitter red (as in not sweet) found favour. The term “amarone” was coined to describe it, derived from the Italian word for bitter, amaro, and the suffix –one, meaning big. Bertani made the fist commercially available Amarone in 1959, and production, especially in the last two decades, has continually increased, while recioto has continually declined. At the Cantina di Negrar, for example, which represents nearly 20% of total production in the appellation, the production of amarone has increased 6 fold in the last 25 years.
Amarone is made in essentially the same way as recioto, though the grapes are dried for a slightly shorter period of time, legally until at least the beginning of January following harvest, but more frequently until the end of January. Most are released after three years of ageing, the minimum requirement, while more rare examples, such as those from Quintarelli, or Bertani’s classic amarone, spend far longer in cask, up to a decade. With 15%-17% alcohol, these are big wines, mostly dry but occasionally with a pinch of residual sugar, thick, glycerous texture, and flavours of dark chocolate, figs, dates and dried cherries. The Veronese sip amarone meditatively, or serve it alongside strong, well aged cheeses like the local specialty Monte Veronese.
Ripasso is an ancient spin-off of product, made by taking the pomace leftover from recioto/amarone pressing and adding – re-passing – it back into basic light, dry Valpolicella (see below) where it soaks for a short period. The wine gets a boost in alcohol from the sugars remaining in the skins that are extracted and fermented, gaining also some fat along with raisined fruit flavours. Timing the pressing of the amarone is pivotal to quality: “It’s a fine line when to drain the amarone off the skins”, says Andrea Sartori of Sartori di Verona. “Too long and you’ll have a great amarone but a poor ripasso, too early you’ll have a weak amarone and an excellent ripasso.”
Legally you can produce only twice as much ripasso as amarone, i.e. 200 liters of ripasso for every 100l of amarone, a law designed to maintain a minimum level of quality and prevent producers from stretching amarone pomace too thinly.
But other than that, regulations are pretty vague, which in turn makes ripasso the most confusing and variable category in the Valpolicella catalogue. It’s a minefield, really; you never know exactly what you’ll get. Some producers’ ripasso is a gentle step up in concentration from straight Valpolicella, while others make something far closer to amarone, trading on the sales pitch “it’s a baby amarone” to justify a higher price. Some use only leftover pomace in the traditional fashion, others include a portion of partially dried grapes in the blend. Others still blend in some amarone with valpolicella and call it ripasso, or some other variation thereof.
Then consider that most commercially oriented versions are noticeably sweet, cashing in on the popularity of off-dry reds that masquerade as dry. In sum, ripassos are neither as light and refreshing as straight Valpolicella, nor as rich and satisfying as amarone, waffling in between. Despite the commercial success of ripasso, or perhaps because of it, I avoid it most of the time.
The Valpolicella Superiore category is similarly fraught with variability. It’s supposed to be a slightly suped-up version of Valpolicella, with a bit more ripeness and slightly longer ageing, legally, but like ripasso, you never know what you’re going to get. Some are sweet and raisiny like ripasso, others fresh and lively. Knowing the producer is key.
Classic straight Valpolicella/Valpolicella Superiore, on the other hand, is the region’s greatest strength, even if few believe it. Made from fresh grapes, crushed, fermented and aged usually in stainless steel or occasionally large old barrels for a short period, it can be one of the most fragrant and delightful reds of Italy, like a bowl-full of fresh red cherries. Corvina, the main grape, is a challenge to ripen much beyond 12.5%, further adding to Valpolicella’s natural lightness of being (and probably the reason why producers took to drying grapes in the first place, to make more concentrated wine).
Considering that fresh, light reds are gaining in popularity worldwide, and that the number of regions truly suited to their production is seriously limited (and becoming more scarce), basic Valpolicella should be the calling card of the region. It’s the most direct and transparent reflection of the region and its unique grape varieties. As Celestino Gaspari of Zymè points out, “In some ways it is more difficult to produce light Valpolicella, there’s nowhere to hide, no obvious wood to mask deficiencies. It’s the purest expression of grape and territory.”
The trouble is, few producers take it seriously. As mentioned above, the best grapes from each vineyard generally go to amarone or recioto production, understandably, since it’s much easier to sell high-priced amarone than straight Valpolicella.
And thus the ‘second selection’ of grapes finds its way into the Valpolicella vat. Most are designed for immediate sale and consumption, to pay the bills for the prolonged and expensive ageing of amarone. Often, it comes down to the bottom line. “The more Valpolicella you make, the less amarone, and thus less ripasso you can make. Then you look at the excel spreadsheet, and you have to rethink the strategy”, points out Giampiero Rotini, sales executive at Tenute Salvaterra in answer to my question as to why the region doesn’t focus more on Valpolicella.
So until vineyards are designated exclusively for Valpolicella production, and the average bottle price increases, Valpolicella will remain an afterthought, sadly. It’s a vicious circle admittedly. In the meantime, I’ll be tracking down the small handful of producers who do strive to make more serious, structured and even age worthy Valpolicella, such as Ca’ la Bionda’s superb Casal Vegri Valpolicella Superiore, or Corte Sant’Alda’s Mithas. When it’s good, it’s so very good.
Valpolicella: A Dozen Producers To Know
There are hundreds of producers in Valpolicella, and I’ve hardly visited them all, so take this list as representative, not complete. It’s an excellent starting point for discovery in any case. (I’ve assigned my own 3-star rating for overall quality for the ones listed)
The Top Dogs:
Ca’ La Bionda***
Alessandro Castellani’s grandmother was a blonde (“bionda”) woman, hence the name of this top level estate, avoiding confusion with the Castellani estate owned by distant relatives. La Bionda’s 29ha of certified organic vineyards are in the cooler, upper part of the Marano valley on mostly limestone soils, with a small parcel of basalt-derived organics in the upper part of the property. This is one of the few cellars to put maximum emphasis on the ‘basic’ Valpolicella, a wine of class and finesse. Casal Vegri is Castelanni’s cru Valpolicella Superiore from 20+ year old vines, aged 18 months in old 3000l casks. It’s the finest Valpo Sup in the region, full stop, the most ‘Bugundian’ wine in the region. Out of sheer commercial survival he makes a ripasso aptly named “Malavoglia” (“Reluctant”), although it too, is excellent. Pure limestone, single vineyard Ravazzol Amarone has uncommon class, finesse and delicacy, also one of the region’s best. Everything here is recommended without reserve. (Represented in Ontario by Le Sommelier)
The welcome at Marinella Camerani’s Corte Sant’Alda is invariably warm, like coming home, even if it’s your first visit. The warmth and hospitality also transcends the wines; these are among the most genuine, honest and forthright in Valpolicella, without artifice or guise, like Camerani herself. The place, too, is special, a certified organic/biodynamic estate (Demeter) perched on the blinding white limestones of the upper Mezzane Valley (Eastern Valpolicella. The approach is sensible: “No excess or leaps forward… Only personal dedication to the search of the best possible balance between things”, writes Camerani. Each wine in the Sant’Alda range comes from its own dedicated vineyards (i.e. no first/second selection for Valpolicella and amarone)
Ca’ Fiui is the excellent, restrained, classy Valpolicella, Mithas the step up to Superiore, a single site selection made from the fist guyot-trained vines in the region with near endless finish. Campi Magri Ripasso and amarone are at the top of their class. Also excellent Soave; the property overlaps with the Soave DOC.
The Newcomers To Watch, Soon to Be in the Top Tier:
Just a few minutes down the Mezzane Valley from Corte Sant’Alda, Camilla Rossi-Chauvenet’s Massimago estate is aimed at the top level. The vibe here is likewise warm and welcoming, immediately promising, and I’m not surprised to learn that the young Rossi-Chauvent, a self-declared millennial, considers Marinella Camerani a mentor. The property, named after the Latin phrase maximum agium, or “greatest health”, has been in her mother’s family since 1883, though winemaking/bottling began in 2003. 12ha are planted, the oldest by her grandfather over 60 years ago, a mixed field blend. All vineyards are certified organic.
Despite winemaking studies in Montpellier, Chauvenet-Rossi is content to let the place speak more loudly than her craft. And what a spectacular place it is: breezy series hillsides on pure fractured limestone overlooking the old manor house and the valley below. One can’t help but sense the enormous potential. Marketing is a bit quirky: “Marchesa Maria Bella Valpolicella” and “Conte Gastone Amarone”, are examples of the amusing wine names coupled with cartoon character labels designed to appeal to the millennial generation. But make no mistake; the wine inside is serious, refined, on the fresher and more elegant side of the style divide in all categories. I’d expect things to only get better here.
Marco Speri comes form a long line of growers in a well established, leading Valpolicella family. But in 2008, he decided to leave the Speri company and follow his own path. The name he chose for the new enterprise, Secondo Marco, which means “in Marco’s way”, reveals his forceful personality and strong vision. Speri wished to return to a more traditional style, using concrete vats and large old casks, with no new barriques, and producing dry, firm, genuinely concentrated wines designed to be enjoyed at the table. The vineyards and winery are in the heart of the Fumane Valley in the Valpolicella Classica zone. Years of research and experiments have led Speri to use a modified “Y”-shaped pergola trellising system, which according to Speri, allows more light and air to penetrate the canopy, and provides more foliar surface area to promote photosynthesis while bunches hang unhindered beneath. The results in any case are are excellent.
Marcello Vaona is the fourth generation to grow grapes on the family property in the upper Marano Valley in Valpolicella Classica, taking the reins officially in 2005. He’s brought new life, shepherding the farm into organics starting from the 2011 vintage, now certified. Wines have evolved, too, in terms of finesse and refinement, as tastings of older amarone showed. Vaona’s guideposts in the winery and balance and freshness, a philosophy evident across the range. The Ripasso Superiore is a fine example, showing more spicy-earthy character than raisined fruit, bone dry, without wood influence. All wines are solid. (Represented in Ontario by B & W Wines)
Vigneti di Ettore**
Ettore Righetti has been growing grapes since the 1930s, but until 2011, all grapes went to the cooperative Cantina di Negrar where Righetti was Director and President. But rather than retire, the indefatigable Righetti decided to start making wine, supported by his grandson Gabriele, a recent oenology graduate. Ettore counts 20 hectares of vineyards, the oldest over 40 years old, in a prime spot on the hills of Negrar in Valpolicella Classica zone between 250 and 400 meters. For now only the top 5ha are used – the balance still goes to the cooperative – but from 2017 the plan is put all under the Vigneti di Ettore label. Soils vary from alluvial to basaltic tuff and clay.
The range is on the dry, high acid and fresh side of the spectrum, particularly salty. The straight Valpolicella is especially bright and lively, a sheer pleasure to drink. And while some cuvees are still in the experimental stage, the potential is high.
It’s questionable to include Valentina Cubi in the list of newcomers to watch, but it’s where I feel this estate belongs. Her husband Giancarlo purchased the property in the Fumane Valley in 1969 and modernized vineyards and began making wine. But nothing was bottled under an estate label, until Valentina, recently retired from teaching at a primary school, decided it was time to stop selling in bulk and start bottling. The vineyards, after all, are in prime crus, notably Monte Tenda, Monte Crosetta and Rasso, and include parcel of old pergola-trained vines. Vineyards were converted to organic farming, and the base material is clearly excellent.
An experimental no sulphur Valpolicella cuvée from 2015 is lovely, and shows the potential of the property, yet missing is the last spark that fires these wines into the top echelon. For now, the range is more than competent, elegantly styled in general, highly appealing though variable, with a frustrating mixed approach of safe and envelope-pushing. With a touch of courage, Cubi’s wines could well count among the region’s best.
Marco Mosconi *1/2
Marco Mosconi’s story is familiar: his father and grandfather grew grapes and made wine, though not commercially. Mosconi had no plans to change that; he studied engineering, then trumpet at the music conservatory. But inspired by local cellar visits with his friend, son of famed Valpolicella producer Romano Dal Forno, in 2006 he took over the family’s 5ha of vineyards in both Valpolicella and Soave. Experiments with organic/biodynamic viticulture began in 2013; the intention is to expand the program after seeing positive results. Soave is competent if not outstanding, held back by limited terroir potential in my view, but the Valpolicella range shows great promise, classic character with freshness and precision. Mosconi’s philosophy and approach are spot on. This is an estate to watch.
The Best of the Old Guard:
Santa Sofia *1/2
Headquartered on the grounds of a former monastic property from the middle ages, in a villa designed (though never completed) by the famous Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, his last major work, and with wine production reaching back to 1811, Santa Sofia is as much a part of Valpolicella’s historic fabric as anything. The estate’s first vintage of amarone emerged in the vanguard of the genre, in 1964, just five years after Bertani released the first commercial bottling. The gorgeous property now belongs to Giancarlo Begnoni and son Luciano. The amazingly youthful, 81 year-old Giancarlo is still very much hands on in the winery and a traditional approach is the rule, unsurprisingly; here the winds of fashion are buffered by the thick walls of the villa.
There are currently 38ha of estate vineyards in production, including 6ha in Bardolino, and 4ha on the Montefoscarino cru in Soave. The purchase in in 2015 of a 45ha estate in Valpantena, now in the process of being replanted to create a sustainable vineyard with vines up to 420m a.s.l., will eventually double Santa Sofia’s output. For the moment, the range is well crafted in a restrained and properly reserved manner, befitting the aristocratic surroundings exuding Venetian classicism.
Producers of the first commercial amarone in 1959 (the 1958 yielded the first example, but it was not sold as amarone), Bertani remains a classically-styled house through and through, one of the grand old estates of the Veneto, reliable and consistent. It was founded in 1857 by Giovanni Battista Bertani and brother Guglielmo. Bertani had taken political refuge in France during the fight to unify Italy, where he met the famous viticulturalist, Professor Guyot. Guyot became his mentor, and Bertani returned to his home filled with knowledge and carrying a few vines of cabernet and syrah for experimentation. (Represented in Ontario by Churchill Cellars)
“Secco Bertani” was the first big commercial success from the 1880s, designed to be a fully dry, “elegant” wine, like those made in France, a rarity at the time. In 2009 the old label and recipe were dusted off and re-applied: a blend of 80% corvina, 10% sangiovese grosso, plus 5% each of syrah and cabernet sauvignon, aged in large old cherry and chestnut wood casks. Labelled as IGT Verona, it’s broad and powerful, bone dry and structured, with more depth and complexity than Bertani’s ripasso. Amarone Classico is the arch-classic bottling of the region, the wine that wrote the textbook. During the 1990s the ageing period was dropped from ten to seven years due to a production shortage, though current vintages resting in the cellar will be given the full ten years again, as Signore Bertani would have had it.
Sartori di Verona*
Andrea Sartori, the gentleman of Verona, is at the head of this family company whose origins began in 1898 when Pietro Sartori bought Villa Maria, a vineyard with a small cellar attached to assure a source of high quality wine for his hotel. Well-known Tuscan consultant Franco Bernabei (originally from the Veneto) guides winemaking, but there’s no flash or bling here, and wines are on the lighter side of the style spectrum, attractively priced. Valpolicella Superiore I Saltari, from a stony vineyard in the Mezzane Valley is a highlight, especially salty and bright. (Represented in Ontario by Family Wine Merchants)
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS