… so very excited to go on my first trip with the Association of Wine Educators (ASE). I have already met a few of them at UK related events and am curious to learn more about the Valpolicella region
Also very excited that Michelle Shaw is leading the group – I had last seen her in Manhattan possibly four years ago giving a very persuasive talk about Prosecco. I hope to learn more about Valpolicella and the region.
I zip onto a Newark flight on a stormy Manhattan Sunday and arrive in at the sunny Verona airport by noon the next day … a very laid back place where the only real drama is realizing that a cappuccino from the cafe costs five euros. By the time my Mac, IPod, and Blackberry are charged I meet our guide author Michelle Shah, whom I’d met a few years before when she spoke about Italian wine to Manhattan journalists, and Olga from the
A bit later a flight from the UK carrying a dozen of my fellow AWE members arrives and we all board the bus to Domini Veneti, a cooperative of about 225 members based in Negrar, one of five key communities in Valpolicella. Here lively PR director Antonella Margoni tells us about the different soil types of the region, and the hillside vineyards that produce such excellent wines. The winery’s claim to fame is that in 1939, one of their members accidentally created this famous Amarone (dry) wine when he was trying to make Reciotto ( a sweet wine) and forgot to stop the fermentation. Other companies have made the claim, but the bottom line is that this “mistake” has benefited the region as Amarone is among highest priced wines in the world.
To give you some perspective, earlier in the century sweet wines were all the rage. Some may argue that is the case today (for example, note the success of off-dry white zinfandel). The famous 21 Club in New York sold more sweet Riesling than dry wines back in the early years of the 20th century.
The swift popularity of Amarone made its producers a great deal of money and set the tone for competition in terms of quality. Every producer will tell you he or she is the best, and indeed, when our group tasted Amarone and other local wines (the simple fresh, fruity Valpolicella Classico, produced from the same approved grape varieties) virtually all seemed very good quality on the basis of balance, concentration of fruit, and for the more complex wines, complexity of flavor and ability to benefit from further maturation. Within the strict requirements of local law is much latitude … for example, though producers can age the wine longer than the laws require, can use only the “flower” of the fruit (free run juice), age in younger or older oak, use grapes only from superior hillsides with specific soils and aspect to the sun, etc. Producers may also place additional limits on themselves by only producing wine in excellent years (so as to hold their reputation).
Overall, the tasting was an excellent way to judge overall quality of the region’s wines, and in the case of some older members, a dramatic demonstration of how remarkably quality has improved over the last twenty years.
Domini Veneti also sponsored lunch, during which I had the pleasure of sitting next to Mr. Bissoli, responsible for exports. I began with questions about the world market, as many producers told me that they export seventy percent of their wine. It was curious to discover that according to Mr. Bissoli, every country seems to have a “taste profile.” The Russians like sweet wine, so Domini Veneti’s Reciotto is very popular there. Supermarkets in the UK like the reasonably-priced, fresh and fruity Valpolicella Classico. And New York? At my local wine store in mid-town, I usually get a bottle of Valpolicella when I ask for a mixed case of quality wines under $20 in accordance with my blind tasting exercises, so the wine seems to be making inroads.
Our next visit was the wines of Groupo Italiano Vini (GIV) which completed the acquisition of Bolla in 2008. Bolla is one of the region’s biggest wineries, founded by Abele Bolla in 1883. The tour of the large modern winery with its many sepia-colored pictures of the original Bolla family was led by Giannantonio Marconi, viticultural coordinator who explained that GIV was also working towards making the vineyards more organic.
After a tasting of Bolla wines we went to our final visit of the day, dinner and tasting at Roberto Mazzi , a winery that had been in the family since the early 1900s. It is located in the hills of Negar and has an interesting history. Tall, strapping Antonio Mazzi, who runs the winery for his family now, is literally brimming with enthusiasm as he shows us around the winery which has whimsical touches such as pictures of his great-grandmother Gesuina Dall ‘Ora (1899 – 1982) who when left a widow was able to build the winery into a major brand and served as president on the local consorzio in the days when women didn’t do such things. In fact, the quaint decoration of the winery and whimsical touches like hand-tooled lace curtains gives the strong impression that all members of the Mazzi family were born in that very house, yet it turns out the family bought it only twenty years ago. We taste Mazzi’s excellent wines and enjoy being his guests for dinner, where the home-cooked food (served by Roberto and some helpers) has been prepared with Amarone (i.e. risotto with Amarone, beef slow-cooked with Amarone).
A visit to Bertani is a good way to start the day when one must meet the bus at 7:00am on a sunny Italian morning. We are guests at the very charming Villa Quaranta Park Hotel, which is owned by the same family that owns the Tommasi winery. We do not have the luxury of time so I can’t tell you about the new spa or fitness center yet the grounds are gorgeous, sort of like the Villa Medici on a smaller scale. The air is succulent with fresh flowers and it would be a fun place to relax in the sun.
We arrive at Berani and fall into the capable hands of Gian Matteo Baldi, Commercial Director, who explains the Berani story possibly better than the Bertaini brothers could themselves. Gian explains that when the brothers founded the winery in 1860 they went to Burgundy to learn more about classic winemaking. It was there they fell under the guidance of Pasteur and Guyot, and learned the basics of fine wine production. I
In the vat room, Gian proudly points out the various kinds of vats – stainless steel, epoxy, wood — and explains that the winery has all the right tools to make the desired wine. The same is true in the cellar, where visitors can see all formats of barrels and all types and ages of wood, including cherrywood which Gian says is excellent for producing a long-lived wine from the Corvina grape as it accents the wine’s natural cherry flavors and softens the harsh youthful tannins.
The tasting here is formal and lavish, with Gian’s colleague Christian explaining the various wines as we taste. All of us reacted with excitement to the 1988 Le Lave Soave, made from 100% Garganega. The 2009 Sereole Soave we had before this was fine — an excellent, balanced, youthful wine made from quality sourced grapes. Yet this ’88 was absolutely spectacular and showed what the Garganega grape (say that three times fast) could do when grapes are grown on the most select limestone hilltop soils and aged in the right wood. As I wrote out my tasting notes, I realized they read like a description of a fine Meursault — butter and some ripe apple on the nose, amazing acidity, a long delicious finish. Many said it was the finest example they had ever had.
Gian and Christian kept the good stuff coming … next on the hit parade was a 1953 and 2006 Villa Ognisanti Valpolicella Superior, which they said was treated as if it was an Amarone in terms of quality (best vineyards, several selections, careful vinification in the best wood) but it can not be called an Amarone because no dried grapes were involved. The 1953 looked and smelled a little curious but it was quite fresh on the nose, and the 06 was fabulously rich and concentrated.
The next pairing was a 1967 and 2001 Amarone. The ’67 was faded garnet and a bit orange around the rim, but fresh and excellent with well integrated flavors. The 2001 was already delicious and showed incredible promise.
As a final treat, we enjoyed a 1940 Riciotto – sweet perfection in a glass. And it smelled fresh, delicious, and divine. In a funny exchange, a person near me gasped when she thought she heard the words “it’s corked.” “No,” explained the gentlemen. “I said, it smells like a Tawny port.”
Our next visit was to Scriani Winery in the village Fumane where we went off to the vineyards straight away. Our bus parked on the side of a long, winding, hilly road and up we hiked to the top of the hill where owner Stefano Cottini had his best Pergola-trained vineyards. It was a gorgeous day and butterflies were flying about. It is only early June, so the tiny Corvina grapes were just tiny berries. Yet Stefano showed us how the Pergola training method allowed the grapes to be shaded by the leafy canopy above. The vineyard is also organic so Stefano had to be quick to react to any potential disease because it could spread to a majority of the vineyard if not treated within 24 hours. Here it was explained that the winery name Scriani refers to the family’s historical occupation: that of being a writer.
The tasting was held in what looked to be a multi-million dollar tasting room in his very high tech cellar, with the floor of the maturation room studded with blue lights like the jetway of an airplane. One would think it a lunch visit given the cold curs and cheese and bread on the table. As a group, we tasted through the wines. Amarone is the leading Scriani product, aged eighteen months in barrique, eight months in large oak-wood casks and then refined a further six months in the bottle.
Azienda Agricola Nicolis was our mid-day visit in the village of Cariano. Leading us about the winery with its ancient buildings was the very capable Alexandra Mattern. It is a property of 90 hectares of which 42 are in vineyard. The most important are the Seccal and Ambrosan cru vineyards where vines are trained on a double pergola system. Over lunch (risotto with Amarone and more delights) we tasted through the Valpolicella Classico and two 2004 Amarone, one from Seccal and one from Ambrosan with the cheese course. Alexandra was very excited throughout the lunch, encouraging us to taste different wines with different courses and see how the flavors worked together, and her enthusiasm made for a delightful visit.
Villa Monteleone is a beautiful property in Gargagnago owned by Lucia Raimondi and producing ., Amarone, and Recioto. Originally from Colombia, Ms. Raimondi had met her physician husband in the United States. They married and came to Gargagnago with the intention to produce authentic Valpolicella Classico wines. The bought Villa Monteleone, a 17th century villa surrounded by vineyards and a historic park. The 1989 vintage was the first.
We gathered very intimately in the maturation room for our informal tasting and to hear Ms. Raimondi’s story … she and her late husband Anthony enjoyed their first months at Villa Monteleone, getting to know their neighbors and learning about the best way to make their wines. Valpolicella D.O.C Classico is grown on Classico hillside sites (220 m) with south-facing exposures on pergola veronese vines. The average age of the vines is twenty years and yield is 65 ha/hl. Corvina, Rondinella, Croatina, and Molinara grapes are picked at the end of summer. Grapes are de-stemmed and crushed. Fermentation and masceration on the grape skins takes place at controlled temperatures for 12 days in steel vats. Periodic pumping of the must takes place during the first phase of fermentation, and then manual punching down of the cap after fermentation. The must is aged in steel tanks for six months, then in bottle for another six months.
Villa Monteleone Valpolicella D.O.C Classico Superiore Ripasso “Campo San Vito” is also produced from Corvina, Rondinella, Croatina, and Molinara grapes from the same age of vine in the same manner yet the yields are lower, 55 ha/hl. Fermentation is longer (15 days) and refermentation over the lees of Amarone takes place the following year in March. It is matured in wood 24 months and aged in bottle 12 months.
Villa Monteleone Amarone is produced from three grape varieties (Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella) in the same classico elevated site, age of vine, and training method, yet yields are lower (30 ha/hl) and the grapes are picked at the end of September. The grapes are dried in wood crates for 120 days (the clusters lose half their weight). For vinification, the grapes are destemmed, with fermentation and masceration on the grape skins taking place at controlled temperatures for twenty days in wooden vats. Occasional pumping over takes place during fermentation and manual punching down takes place at the end. It is then aged in wood for thirty-six months, then in bottle for a year.
Finally, Villa Monteleone’s Recioto is made from the same grapes as the Amarone, from the same site as the Amarone, yet the age of the vines is thirty years and the yield per hectare is 29 hl. Manual harvest takes place in October, with the grapes drying in wooden crates for more than 130 days with the loss of 50% of original weight. Grapes are de-stalked and crushed, with fermentation and masceration taking place at controlled temperatures for 20 days with occasional pumping over during fermentation and manual punching down at the end.
For our next visit, I was happy to see Riccardo Tedeschi again. I had met him over a year ago in New York at a lunch set up by publicist Alice Ryan. At the time, actually visiting Valpolicella seemed such a remote possibility! Now I am here in his winery tasting his wines.
The Tedeschi winery is one of the oldest family wineries in Valpolicella. Documents date back to 1630 certifying that some vineyards were owned by his family’s ancestors. Tedeschi grows typical native grapes such as Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Oseleta, Terodola, and Dindarella and Negrara which give body, structure, and elegance to the wine. Actually, earlier today I had just heard that the law allows for 15% International varietals in the blend … and when I mentioned the prospect of Cabernet in a Valpolicella to a producer, he suggested that Dindarella or Negrara are very cabernet like and can provide the same structure.
After a tour of the winery we tasted through the many wines including the Valpolicella 2008 (very lively and fresh) and the 07 Ripasso that is deep and concentrated, with an interplay of red and black fruit as well as the 06 which was less tannic. The 06 Amarone was marked by a gorgeous purple color and elegant perfume. “I wanted these wines to pair better with food … to go down easier,” said Riccardo, explaining that he wanted to keep the acidity high and the alcohol lower. As a special treat, Riccardo brought out the ’05 Amarone to compare with the 1995. At fifteen years of age, the ’95 had a fresh nose and velvet scent of fresh cherries … very pure, clean and delicious with just a touch of oak. We also enjoyed the 1995 Capitel Fontana Reciota which was redolent of dark chocolate covered cherries – very concentrated fruit.
Our last visit of the day was the famous Tommasi Vitticoltori, were lively, energetic Pierangelo Tommasi welcomed us and explained he and his cousins (nine in total) are the fourth generation of this family winery and that they have many projects in the works, including a new cellar that should be ready in a few months. Sitting next to me at the dinner Tommasi so generously hosted was lively and elegant Annalisa Armani, who explained a bit the focus of the family (got their start in 1902) and that the brand really began to take off in the 1970s.
During dinner we tried four of the wines – the Pinot Grigio 2009, a fruity wine made from single vineyard grapes (Fossa Granara near Lake Garda), San Martino Lugana DOC 2009 (single vineyard San Martino is south of Lugana). The grape here is Trebbiano and the concentration of fruit and balance is quite fine. Next was the Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC 2008 Repasso which saw 18 months in Sloavian Oak (delicious) and finally Amarone 2006, from hillside vineyards and matured for three years in Slovian Oak barrels.
All of our hosts were fabulous and quite generous. Their passion for the region was apparent and am very excited to experience day 3.