Valpolicella is a wine region we all think we know. Many of us may have cut our teeth on this light, fruity red when we first began to drink wine, but, like in many great wine regions, nothing stands still. I discovered there is always something more to learn on my first trip of 2016 when I attended the 13th edition of Anteprima Amarone. This is the big showcase event where the newly-released Valpolicella Amarone wines are first shown to the press at the end of January; it is held in the beautiful city of Verona in the Veneto.
Valpolicella! It has such a poetic name, meaning ‘valley of many cellars’, and comprises an incredibly pretty series of valleys dotted with the pink and white blossom of cherry trees in the spring and bathed in a beautiful, mother of pearl, opalescent light in winter. Something about this soft light reminds me of a Veronese painting I once saw featuring Venus where the colours of skin tone, though audaciously striking up close because of a juxtaposition of pink and green, reveal a delicate milky glow when viewed from a distance. Then I remember that Veronese was born in Verona so perhaps he had internalised the natural light there.
Valpolicella comprises eleven different valleys and two sub-zones, stretching from the Sant’Ambrogio sub-zone, just a stone’s throw from Lake Garda, and the Fumane valley in the west to the Tramigna valley in the east. The most famous valley is the Negrar which is in the heart of the Valpolicella Classico zone, but several valleys like the Marano valley and Valpantena valley have distinctive qualities that are reflected in the wines.
As in so many wine regions around the world the climate here is changing. Summers are generally hotter and the weather is more unpredictable, witness the unusually wet and cool 2014 vintage in northern Italy. Many producers pinpoint the start of this cycle of climate change to 2003, a very hot year in many parts of Italy and in France. Carlotta Pasqua remembers how she had just started working at her family winery in the summer of 2003; she had a 7am photo shoot in the vineyards and it was already 30 degrees C.
One effect of hotter summers is to make the exact location of the vineyards even more important. Perhaps counterintuitively, the hotter vineyards, without the mitigation of Lake Garda or the cold mountain air descending from Monti Lessini at night, are producing grapes with fewer anthocyanins and tannins, and therefore wines that are less tannic and lighter in colour, than those with a more moderate average daytime temperature and big diurnal differences. Alberto Franchi from the Consorzio explains: “The wines near the lake have more colour and tannins. This factor is due to the fact that the average daily maximum temperature (in August and September) is lower near the lake.”
This may be because at high temperatures the vine just shuts down, stops working and goes into survival mode so producing less colour and fewer tannins. By coincidence, I discovered I liked many of the wines from the Sant’Ambrogio and Fumane in the blind tastings. These areas are nearer to the cooling effects of Lake Garda.
Climate change is affecting the choice of training system for some producers too. Although some are using Guyot, many are keeping or returning to the traditional high-trained Pergola system (80% of the region is pergola-trained according to Alberto Franchi) because the shaded cover of leaves offers more protection from the intensity of the sun in summer. Meanwhile other producers are planting at higher altitudes.
We are also witnessing the rediscovery of older varieties such as Oseleta and Spigamonti which produce more tannins, more colour. Spigamonti is said to produce better quality tannins and more decisive aromatics too. Corvinone is also more talked about now whereas the lighter coloured and more acidic Molinara has fallen out of favour in the classic Valpolicella blend (typically Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara). Corvina is still the most important variety grown.
There are of course four major styles of Valpolicella:
* Valpolicella DOC – normally a light, fruity, bitter-cherry flavoured wine with lightish tannins;
* Valpolicella Ripasso DOC – a richer wine with more body where the Valpolicella Classico DOC is passed over the fermenting lees of the Amarone;
* Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG, a more powerful, riper style of Valpolicella made from grapes dried over a period of months (known as appasimento) and producing dry red wines with alcohol levels from 15.5% to 16.5+% and a touch of sweetness (residual sugar) from the dried grapes.
* And finally the Valpolicella Recioto – a traditional sweet red wine also made from dried grapes.
As the name suggests Anteprima Amarone focuses on the Amarone style. The culmination of the event is the tasting of the newly released Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG wines – in this case the 2012s. Tasting 78 concentrated wines made from partially dried grapes (so 15.5%- 16.5% alcohol), some heavily oaked and some with residual sugars up to 12-15 g/l, all in the space of about 4 hours is no mean feat but what a great variety of styles I discovered!
For me there were at least three different styles of Amarone: big, modernist, fruit-driven styles with some evident sweetness and lots of creamy, vanilla oak and sweet spice (some of these I liked); rather subdued styles which seemed a bit stuck in the past with muted, dusty, cherry and faded rose aromas; and those in the middle, many of which I really liked, with clear aromas and flavours of black cherry, red fruit, bitter cherry and gentle spice. These wines were neither monumental nor too weak but poised, balanced wines with more aromatic complexity and a more inviting, gentler style. There may even be a fourth style emerging which is a little cutting edge, veering towards natural wines.
Around this main event, our host, the Consorzio had determined that the 40 or so foreign journalists would arrive two days before and be split up into 6 groups and taken by minibus to see four wine producers a day. It is easy to be snobbish and dismissive about these visits, particularly if the producers are ones you have never heard of, or if they are very large scale companies producing commercially successful but not quite top end wines. I decided to be open minded and accepting about the whole approach and I found something to enjoy and learn at each visit.
* Standing in the misty, hilly vineyards at Novaia with its stoney soils, winemaker Marcello Vaona revealed that the wines of Marano, are easily recognisable because they have a distinctive spiciness.
* The owner at Santa Sophia was expressively eloquent when asked about the split of the Amarone Famiglia from the rest of the zone. Plus he took us for lunch to one of those secret little places, Trattoria Caprini in Torba which all the locals know and one dreams of finding (their freshly made ‘Tagliatelle con ragu’ was beyond delicious).
* At the Pasqua winery, we were given a very generous vertical tasting of some of their best wines going back to 1985. Sartori also showed us some older vintages like 2003. Our charming hosts at Rubinelli Vajol gave us a fun barrel tasting.
* At Tezza I began to get a feel for the Valpantena valley and its characteristics and at newcomers La Giuva, the distinctive soils and altitude of the zone stood out as well as their enthusiastic hospitality.
* The visit to Giovanni Éderle’s organic vineyards showed me someone living the dream many of us aspire to; from his hilly vineyards you can walk 20 minutes through his olive groves to the city of Verona. There is not only an appealing B&B (Agriturismo San Mattia – www.sanmattia.it) but also a characterful restaurant and a shop selling homemade products such as olive oil, wine and honey. The wines are intriguing especially the white, though the reds for me are still finding their way, but he is definitely one to watch.
Below is a small selection of some of my favourite wines tasted blind.
Boscaini Carlo – Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2012 – Very ripe and precise aromatics with a touch of roses and crushed leaves – interesting, multi-layered nose. The palate was very well integrated with an understated use of oak, integrated alcohol and long, fine-textured savoury tannins.
Buglioni – Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2012 – Rich, concentrated, dark fruit and firm flavours of liquorice, tight tannins and a tightly controlled structure. Concentrated, with hints of opulence. A wine to age and a drier style with less noticeable residual sugar.
La Dama – Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2012 – Sweet new oak and spice, well-integrated with a little heady, green spice note. Very smooth, unimposing, round and balanced with fine-textured chalky tannins. I like the balance and weight of this wine. Fine, nuanced and silky.
Pasqua ‘Famiglia Pasqua’ Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG 2012 – This is quite a big, bold, and concentrated style but it is very well done. For my personal taste I would like even less residual sugar but this wine has lots of appeal. The 1985 was a totally different, drier, firmer and leaner style but wonderfully tenacious and lively. Fascinating view of how things have evolved.
Tezza – Making some well balanced wines from the Valpatena Valley.
Corte Sant‘Alda – an organic producer making some really exciting wines, especially their Valpolicella DOC Superiore ‘Mithas’ from the single ‘Macie’ vineyard. Although for me the 2014 Ca Fui Valpolicella was less successful than usual. Imported by Michael Paji MW into the UK.
Novaia – fresh, lively, balanced wines which are not heavy handed. I especially liked their Recioto. Imported by BBR into the UK.
Pietro Zanoni – His concentrated and lively Valpolicella 2012 was the best of 15 similar wines tasted blind.
La Giuva – a new producer making big, bold statement wines. The 2012 Amarone is their first release, so if you like this style they are ones to watch.
Many thanks to Olga Bussinello, Alberto Franchi and Federica Schir from the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella.
© 2016, Susan Hulme MW. All rights reserved.