This week involves a chance to visit one of the great estates of Valpolicella. For publication in the week starting 6 February 2017.
Some wines from the Valpolicella region of northern Italy verge on greatness. The origins of the region’s name are vague, with the most common theory suggesting the word is a blend of Latin and Greek: “Vallis-polis-cellae” meaning the valley of many cellars.
Valpolicella consists of a fan-shaped collection of valleys and hills. The Adige River creates the western border, separating Valpolicella from the Bardolino region. The Illasi Valley, which Valpolicella shares with the Soave region, forms the eastern border. Italy’s biggest lake, Lake Garda in the west, acts like a giant hot water bottle and along with the Monti Lessini hills in the south helps provide mild climate conditions.
Over the past two decades the area under vines has doubled, reaching 7,844 hectares last year. Almost 60 million bottles of Valpolicella, Valpolicella Superiore, Ripasso, Amarone and Recioto were produced in 2016 and were worth about 565 million Euros (Amarone generated 330 million of those Euros).
Valpolicella consists of three sub-regions. Valpolicella Classica in the west is the best known (Italians use the feminine version of the word classico when referencing the area). Valpantena in the centre, north of the city of Verona, is almost as well known and translates as the “valley of the gods” – a reference to the greatness of the wines from Roman times. Valpolicella Orientale occupies the eastern half of the region and partly overlaps the Soave district.
Valpolicella’s main grape is Corvina Veronese. It typically represents anywhere between 45 and 95 per cent of the blend and provides complex aromas. Last week’s column described the process where grapes are dried for up to 120 days to concentrate flavours, the grapes losing about 40 per cent of their bulk. Corvina’s thick skin means it is well suited for the drying process.
Corvinone translates as “big Corvina” because people thought it was a relative of Corvina but recent DNA shows the grapes are completely distinct. It contributes higher tannins than Corvina to the blend. Rondinella is related to Corvina and its name comes from the round shape of the berries. Its resistance to fungal diseases makes it ideal for the drying process.
The above three are the main grapes in Valpolicella. Several others are sometimes added. Molina contributes acidity to the blend and gets its name from the Italian word “mulino” (mill) because the white bloom on the grape resembles a dusting of flour. Small amounts of Oseleta and Raboso Piave add colour and tannic structure.
Quintarelli is easily the most famous estate in Valpolicella. Its wines are so famous that demand outstrips supply. A group of South Korean sommeliers who visited last year were so impressed they tried to order 10,000 bottles. The family sold them 15.
Giuseppe Quintarelli founded the estate in 1924. When he died, aged 84, in January 2012 after six decades as a winemaker The New York Times said his wines “inspired passions … like few others in Italy”. “In an era that emphasised mass production over attention to detail, Mr Quintarelli sought to make wines without compromise.” Beauty shows in everything they do. Labels on the bottles are distinctive, handwritten by Quintarelli and his daughters.
A sense of serenity pervades the 11-hectare estate, as if untouched by the hands of modernity. They do not sell via a web site; nor do they bother with Twitter and other social media. Giuseppe’s gentle grandson Francesco Grigoli exuded calm during a tasting in the barrel room. Interestingly, a spittoon was not provided, and it seemed churlish even to consider spitting out these marvellous wines.
The estate still uses cane baskets instead of modern plastic trays during the drying process because, Francesco said, they are “kinder to the grapes”. The cane also absorbs humidity which helps stop grapes from rotting.
Some of the keys to the quality of their wine include organic viticulture practices, a respect for tradition plus the use of Slovakian oak for maturing the wine. Quintarelli employs a range of barrels from 10,000 litres to 550. Barrels are custom made and expensive (the largest costs 20,000 Euros). Many display carvings depicting local customs and practices.
The Rosso del Bepi, often called the “little Amarone”, was first made in 1924 and is one of the company’s signature wines. Guiseppe was known by the nickname “Bepi”. The current vintage is 2005. It is cellared for eight years after two years in Slavonian oak. This soft and serene wine with low acidity is delicious. Flavours of liquorice and a range of spices linger for an eternity; a magical wine that extends the possibility of Valpolicella.
The current vintage for both the regular and riserva Amarone is 2007. Both spend eight years in the cellar. The riserva smelled like walking in a rose garden while basking in the warmth of the sun on a winter’s day. It is the only wine I’ve tasted that caused me to cry: sweet nostalgia for a time before the rush of modernity plus memories of a love that has faded like the roses.
Quintarelli was the maestro. Giancarlo Begnoni is a contemporary and still goes to work at the Santa Sofia cellar every day at the age of 81. He made his first riserva Amarone in 1964 and only 17 versions have appeared since. The riserva is named Gioe (“joy” in English). Begnoni believes in giving wines time and said he had 80,000 bottles “resting” in his cellar. The riserva stays for 24 months in Slavonian oak and another 18 months in French oak, while the regular Amarone gets 36 months in Slavonian oak, before both spend another year in the cellar.
The 2011 Gioe, the current vintage, has a pronounced and delicious nose of mocha, tar and black fruits with soft tannins and energetic acids. Begnoni pointed out that 100kg of grapes produces only 50 bottles (winemakers elsewhere in the country make one 750ml bottle from 1kg of grapes).
Santa Sofia produces 550,000 bottles a year compared with Quintarelli’s 60,000. They export to 50 countries including China and Hong Kong. The estate is organic and plans to become biodynamic in future years. It was founded in 1811 and is housed in a villa built in 1560 once owned by the parents of the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri.
Other producers may not have the reputation of Quintarelli but many passionate and talented people are making beautiful wine in the region. These include Carlo Boscaini, whose 2013 Zane Valpolicella Classico Ripasso is a fine wine, artisanal yet precise with soft acids and a tannic backbone of fine chalkiness.
Mirko Sella, winemaker and owner at San Cassiano, makes about 60,000 bottles a year. His sophisticated 2012 Le Alene Valpolicella Superiore from a dedicated vineyard near the estate’s farmhouse cascades into several layers of flavour, with aromas of liquorice, coffee, spice and chalk; another beautiful “baby” Amarone.
The Novaia estate runs on solar power and has been organic since 2011. Its drying room uses a natural wind flow without fans. Marcello Vaona, assistant winemaker to his father Giampaolo, helped craft a lively 2014 Ripasso that tastes of sour cherry with hints of balsamic and chocolate.
“It’s important to grow Corvinone in poor soil,” he said, “because if you plant on good soil it produces lots of poor quality fruit. The limestone and tufa [rocks] in the higher hills give quality grapes.”