Amarone is the most fashionable Italian wine in North America. I’m in no way qualified to make such a sweeping statement, but I think the shelves of boutique wine shops offer ample testament. The wine is rich, concentrated, age-worthy, and expensive. It is by its very nature more pricey than most other wines: made from partially-dried grapes, it requires more kilograms of fruit to produce a litre of wine. The absolute cheapest bottles in Canada cost about $40, but most mid-level bottles sell for around $60. My first taste of Amarone was in the home of a self-impressed eye doctor. It was delicious.
Amarone is from Valpolicella, a small region in northeast Italy, just outside Verona. Valpolicella is an old word for an area that doesn’t have a modern administrative function, and so doesn’t appear on most political maps. Outside Italy the term Valpolicella is always used in connection to wine production, but the people who live there will patiently explain that it is a place with a long history and a unique identity within the Veneto. My instructor in this lesson was Davide Canteri, who offers wine tours of the area.
Almost every written source I have, including the Oxford Companion to Wine, says that the word Valpolicella comes from a mixture of Latin and Greek, and means “valley of many cellars”. I asked Davide about this, and he said if he were being completely objective he would have to admit the origin is unknown, but that the “many cellars” etymology is definitely not correct, and was clearly invented by advertising executives. (“Why would the name of this region have a Greek word in it?”) He then offered a few other possibilities that he thinks are much more probable (though admittedly less sexy). One involved the regional word for puddles. Another was based on the word for maiden, as one of the local coats-of-arms features a young woman kneeled in prayer.
Valpolicella proper is comprised of three adjacent valleys, their principle towns being Fumane, Marano, and Negrar. They are northwest of Verona, and east of the Adige River.
In the 1960s the Italian government set out to codify its wine regions and methods of production in a system similar to the French appellation laws. In several parts of the country the permitted production areas for specific wines were expanded well beyond the traditional borders so that more winemakers could benefit from labelling their wine with a famous name. Valpolicella, though traditionally confined to the three valleys east of the Adige, was expanded west of the river, all the way to Lake Garda. According to Davide, this enlargement was first met with resistance from the producers in the original region. The silver lining is that the enlargement increased production to a level that allowed Valpolicella wines to be sold all over the world. If it hadn’t been for the enlargement, Davide says, North Americans may never have heard of Valpolicella. But it also means that consumers need to know more about the producer, and where exactly their grapes come from. Wine produced in the original region is labelled Valpolicella Classico.
Valpolicella wines are made from a mixture of several grape varieties, the three most important being Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. Corvina literally means “crow” and refers to the dark colour of the grapes. This variety holds the highest regard. It produces wine with the best structure, but its yields are low, so it is supplemented with other higher-yielding varieties. Rondinella is the second most renowned grape of the region. Rondine is the word for swallow (the bird), and rondinella means little swallow. Davide said this is because late in the season these grapes tend to split, and then resemble a swallow’s tail. Molinara is the third most important variety. Unfortunately I don’t have a cute bird story about this grape. These three varieties are the backbone of viticulture in Valpolicella, but there are dozens of other local varieties that are permitted.
According to the wine cognoscenti, vine-growers in Valpolicella and the rest of Italy are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand they can grow a huge amount of ordinary grapes that will produce ordinary wine, or they can grow a small amount of high-quality, flavourful grapes that will make better, more concentrated, more expensive wine that can be exported. These grape yields are determined by vineyard site, the grape variety planted, and viticultural details like how the vines are trained. Vines grown on rocky slopes, for instance, have lower yields than vines grown in flat valleys with rich, loamy soil.
In Valpolicella the traditional way to train vines is up onto a pergola, about six or seven feet off the ground. Modern international wine-makers prefer to use the Guyot method, where the vines are cane-pruned and trained along wires, closer to the ground. If you think that this is an esoteric or trivial difference in viticulture, consider this: pergola-trained plants yield about 15 kg of grapes per vine, while Guyot-trained plants yield about 4 kg of grapes per vine.
That being said, as you leave Verona and drive through the endless vineyards of the Veneto, you will notice that some vines are trained on pergolas, others in the Guyot style. Later you will discover that good wines can come from either camp.
From Verona we drove to what Davide calls the heart of Valpolicella, the small hamlet of San Giorgio, which is perched on a hill with beautiful views west towards Lake Garda (photo above). In the centre of this town is a medieval church, formally called Pieve di San Giorgio di Valpolicella. It was this church as much as the vineyards that Davide wanted to show us.
The church, like most buildings in the old town, is made of burnished white stone. It has a blockish bell tower, and an elegantly crumbling cloister. Excavations on the adjacent hillside have revealed evidence of a Bronze Age civilization. There was also a Roman building on this site. In fact, some of the stones from that pagan temple had been salvaged and re-purposed during the construction of the church. You can still make out the fragmentary Latin inscriptions. A stone baldachin carved by Lombards arches over the main altar, and along the walls are frescoes painted as early as the 11th century. There’s one of Adam eating the bad apple, one of St. John, a scene from the Last Supper, all in the flat, slightly contorted medieval style.
I know: this kind of architectural palimpsest can be found all over Italy. In Rome there are numberless examples of Christian churches and monuments built with odds and ends from Roman ruins. But in Rome and in the Vatican that construction was done so lavishly, and on such an impossible, monumental scale, that they are now part of the collective cultural heritage of the western world, and congested tourist destinations.
San Giorgio is a living church. Davide went to mass here when he was little. The hot September afternoon when we were visiting a wedding had just ended. We had to drop coins in a box to switch the lights on. I could have touched the thousand year old frescoes on the wall. (I didn’t…)
Yes, here was the same story told throughout northern Italy of Bronze Age pagans, Roman imperialism and collapse, barbarian invasion, medieval Catholicism, and Venetian domination, but here that story was told on the smallest, most personal scale. A trip to Davide’s boyhood church was an intimate, humble gesture, something that I wasn’t expecting on an outing marketed as a wine tour. I guess the point is that while wine is an important part of Valpolicella, and central to its identity, it really is only one facet of the region.
Anyways: right now we’re talking about wine.
After we left the church we went to a winery.
It is called Salgari, after a famous Italian author. I had never heard of him, let alone read any of his books. He was described to us as an Italian Jack London, a writer of adventure stories.
We started our tour with a quick visit to the vineyard closest to the house. The vines were festooned on pergolas. It had been a miserable vinatge across northern Italy from the Veneto to the Piedmont, grey and damp and cool, but the harvest was underway.
In the house we peered into some cement tanks built into the ground. We also stuck our heads into an old cellar, musky and pungent with the smell of wet earth, with a fat salami and some ancient bottles of wine.
Finally we sat for a tasting of the four main styles of wine made in the Valpolicella.
Valpolicella is the standard, dry wine of the region. A red, made from a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and possibly a number of others including Molinara.
The most famous wines of the region are made from grapes that have been partially raisined. After the ripe grapes are harvested, they are spread out on mats in airy attics and storehouses to dry for three to six months, during which time they typically lose about 40% of their weight in moisture. Only once the sugars have been concentrated in this manner are the grapes crushed and fermented.
Recioto is the traditional premium wine of the region. It is a sweet red made from partially-dried grapes. It ferments for about 25 days, but then fermentation is arrested to preserve a good deal of sweetness in the wine. In modern wine texts Recioto is presented almost as an historical curiosity, a footnote, important only because it is the ancient progenitor of Amarone. These dismissals notwithstanding, the folks at Salgari unflinchingly stated that Recioto is (still) the most important wine of Valpolicella.
Amarone is the current darling of the region. Like Recioto, Amarone is red, and made from partially-dried grapes. Unlike Recioto, it is fermented until it is completely dry. This takes quite a while: usually forty to sixty days. The great irony of Amarone is that historically it was considered a mistake: a ruined Recioto, a Recioto scapà, which means a Recioto that has fled or run away. According to Davide the first time Amarone appeared on a label was in 1935, when the Cooperative Cellar of Negrar marketed a Recioto scapà as Recioto Amarone. Amarone literally means “big bitter,” though the wine is not bitter in the conventional sense: it’s bitter in that it is not sweet.
Ripasso is simple Valpolicella wine that has been aged with some of the pressed grape skins leftover from Amarone production. It therefore has a bit more depth and complexity than a straight Valpolicella, without the concentration and price tag of an Amarone. Ripasso wines are dry.
We sat at a table, three tourists, Davide our guide, and two members of the family. The proceedings took the form of a formal tasting: empty glasses lined before us on a mat. Each wine poured. We smelled, tasted, discussed. But truthfully it was not a formal tasting. It was social. There were cheeses and salami and olive oil and bread on the table. And we talked about all sorts of things besides the wine. Most memorably, what Italian food is like in Canada.
Formal tastings are for suckers.
- “val-poll-i-CHELL-a” – with the same “ch” sound as “cello”