A few terroir driven Valpolicella producers at the Anteprima Amarone

At the end of January the 2010 Antiprima Amarone took place in Verona. I was lucky enough to be the guest of the Valpolicella Consorzio who also scheduled several visits in the region for us.

Amarone is the most prestigious wine from the Valpolicella area; it’s specificity is that it is a dry wine made from dried grapes. The most popular varieties used are Rondinella, Molinara, Corvina and Corvinone but another 10 traditional grape varieties are allowed as well.

Whilst the Valpolicella is a old wine region, with grape vine and wine history going back to the Romans, Amarone is a fairly young wine. The traditional wines of the region were the Valpolicella (a lighter, fruit forward and easy drinking wine), the Reciotto, a sweet red wine made from dried grapes – where the fermentation is stopped to preserve enough sugars, and the Ripassa – a fuller style red dry wine made by re-fermenting Valpolicella on Reciotto skins and lees.

Grapes drying in traditional wooden crates

The first Amarones were in fact accidents which happened about 50 years ago: the fermentation of a few Reciottos was not successfully stopped creating a dry, tannic and high alcohol wine. Compared to the Reciotto, the wine was bitter (amare in Italian) hence the name Amarone. Bitter or not, this new wine style caught on quickly, among locals as well as in the export markets and soon enough Amarone became one of Italy’s top wines, a place it shares with Piemonte’s Barollo and Tuscany’s Brunello del Montalcino. All three wines are made from local native grape varieties according to a strictly regulated production method and due to their great tannin structure they are excellent food wines which benefit from extensive aging.

Both Brunello and Barollo have been DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – the highest AOP nomination in Italy), however Amarone only attained DOCG status from the 2010 vintage onward. And it was exactly this vintage which was shown at this year’s Anteprima. The Anteprima is a large En Primeur style tasting generally held the third weekend of January open to both the trade and for the public to present the new Amarone vintage. It is a great opportunity to taste through the multiple producers and assess the vintage overall – however I have to note here that young Amarone is not the easiest of wines on the palate. Its high acidity, big chewy tannin and elevated alcohol degree can have a numbing effect on even the most trained palates. Luckily most producers also displayed older vintage Amarone’s, which often more balanced and velvety then their younger counterpart – proving, at least for me, that Amarone is best drunk after at least 8 to 10 years of aging.

The day before the actual event, we had an in depth introduction to the Valpolicella region, the differences in terroir across the region and the characteristics of the indigenous grapes of the area.

According to Diego Tomasi, a Valpolicella terroir specialist, the region has almost as wide a variety of different terroirs as Burgundy.

Valpolicella vineyards around Marano

In the traditional area, the Valpolicella Classico, which is located between the Garda Lake and the city of Verona, there are 5 different valleys (Valle di Fumane, Valle di Marano, Valle di Negrar, Valle di Quinzano & Valle di Avesa), shaped a little like the fingers of a hand. Each of the valleys runs parallel with the Lake, running from the pre-alps in the north toward the Adige River in the South. Vineyards are planted at an altitude of 150m to 500 m above sea level, with the higher vineyards benefiting from a cooler micro climate. As Valpolicella grew in popularity, the area expanded, and now it also incorporates the hotter area from Valpantena to the the Val d’Ilasi further east.

The soils in the area are mainly sedimentary (limestone, clay, chalk) but a small minority(10%) has volcanic origins (Basalt). Since the soils are rich in minerals this adds an extra freshness to the wines. Large diurnal differences also make for good acidity. The vineyards were traditionally planted in Pergola system, and yields are generally pretty high (around 10,000 kg/HA and upward). A lot of growers are now converting to guillot training system, which is easier to work, and also gives a lightly smaller crop – thus increasing the quality. The traditional grape varieties such as Rondinella, Corvina and Molinara are thin skinned – which often makes for lighter wines (in style and color) and at the same time creates ideal conditions for the slow air drying of the grapes.

Tasting through the 2010 Amarones

Gaining a better understanding of the differences present in the area was a great help to get a grip of the wines at the tasting. Whilst Diego not particularly included the winegrower/winemaker as part of his terroir talk, I would (once again :-) ) like to include this fact here. As mentioned before it is eventually the winemaker who will decide on how (if at all) the terroir will be expressed. He will add the element of ‘soul’ of the terroir to the wine. And unfortunately I found that very few wines at the Anteprima had soul. Technically they were all more or less well made, but only very few really spoke to me…. I believe that the reason for this is that most wines were made in what I would call a “Parkereque” way. The focus seemed to be orientated toward a good potential Parker or Wine Spectator score making for a more or less homogeneous batch of 2010 Amarones with a bold structure, great fruit extraction and a healthy dose of wood. This way of winemaking tends to take the soul out of the wine, at least for me…

However, I did manage to pin down a few wines which really did speak to me. Luck, or positive terroir vibes had been on my side as the two wineries I had visited before the Amarone tasting did really focus on making “terroir wines with soul” :-)

Laura & Daniele Damoli

Damoli – i Merli is a small family owned winery in Negrar. The Damoli family came to Negrar from the Piedemont area and has been growing grapes in the area since 1643.i Merli, has been the family’s nickname as far as anyone can remember according to Laura Damoli. She is the first generation of the family to sell the wine made by her brother Daniele. Up till a few years ago all their grapes were sold to a local cooperative. However, when Daniele took over, he wanted to make his own wine. To do this he drastically changed the way the family used to work in the vineyard, which he now farms according to organic principles. The family has 1,5 HA of vineyards in the Negrar valley planted with Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and a little Merlot and they currently produce 4 different wines and have a total production of 5,000 bottles a year. The fact that Daniele chooses to add a little of Merlot to two of his wines, means these wines have been declassified to IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) status. However in my opinion the Merlot definitely adds value, as it adds soul as it brings a point of difference. Whilst the Amarone was very nice indeed, I totally fell in love (and bought) a bottle of the Brigasco, an Amarone style wine made with the addition of 20% Merlot. The Merlot grapes are dried in the same way as the others, and later vinified in the Amarone way. But I feel the Merlot makes the wine just a little easier to approach and palate friendlier as it adds an almost crushed velvet texture to the wine.

Overall I was pretty amazed by the freshness of all the Damoli wines – they seemed to lack that earlier mentioned ‘Parkeresque’ heaviness. According to Laura this comes from the soils of the Negrar valley which are Tuffo Biancone – a mixture of clay, limestone and chalk. I believe that it is also Daniele’s way of working in the vineyard, where is looking to restore the biodiversity and the cellar where vinifies and ages his wines both in barrique and stainless steel tanks. He believes this this way of working allows him to express the uniqueness of his terroir in the best possible way.

Terre di Leone

Terra di Leone is named after the grandfather of Federico Pellizzari, a farmer who made wine from his 1 HA vineyard in the village of Marano. He passed on his love for the area and nature to Federico and his wife Chiara and inspired them to settle in Marano. In 2004 they created the 10 HA domain planted on volcanic soils at about 400m elevation. They opted for quite a dense planting system in Guyot in order to cap the production and later when they built the winery, they chose a gravity fed system. The couple produce 5 wines: a Valpolicella Classico (Re Pazzo), a Superiore, a Ripasso, an Amorone and a field blend Dedicatum produced in IGT. The Dedicatum is an amazingly fresh wine, produced from the 14 traditional grape varieties found in the region. It comes from Leone’s original 1 HA vineyard, which always has been planted as a field blend and it is a wine dedicated to him. Like most of Terre de Leone wines, the Dedicatum grapes are dried before they are cold soaked and undergo fermentation. After this the wine is aged just under 1,5 years in large French oak barrels (Botte Grande) before bottling. The Re Pazzo, a Valpolicello Classico, was the other wine which really stood out for me. It is made 100% in stainless steel from undried grapes, and creates a really fruit forward easy drinking wine. Chiara explained that the Re Pazzo really is the flagship wine of the company, as it expresses best what the region is all about.

Grapes drying in wooden crates at Le Bignele

Le Bignele, is another family winery in the Marano Valley. The Aldrighetti family has been growing grapes in Valgatare since 1818 but only started to make wines a decade ago. The family owns 8,5 hectares of vineyards planted with Corvina, Corvinone, Molinara & Rondinella in the traditional Pergola system at an elevation of 300 meters. The soils are a mixture of sedimentary and volcanic soil. Angelo is in charge of the vineyard, whilst his brother Luigi looks after the wine making, and their children Nicola and Sylvia look after the bottling and labeling and the commercialization. The family produce 5 different wines: a Valpolicella Classico Superiore, a Rosso Veronese (Sula) in IGT, a Ripasso, an Amarone and a Reciotto. I absolutely adored the old Amarone (2002 vintage) which Sylvia poured me at the Anteprima – it was my last wine and definitely one of the best I had tried at the tasting. It was also the only Amarone that had been decanted. The extra oxygen had made the wine super velvetty and very seductive.

And once again I also was seduced by the IGT wine – the Sula, a wine produced exclusively in stainless steel in the traditional way Valpolicella used to be made. At €4 a bottle it is the best value wine I tried and one I can highly recommend!!

Secondo Marco in a nutshell

The last producer I would like to mention here is Secondo Marco. I noticed the beautiful labels on my first day in the region. The modern style confused me and I assumed the label was the best thing about the wine. I found out at the Anteprima that I had been wrong; Marco’s wines definitely had soul and were of excellent quality.

Marco Speri is the son of Benedetto Speri, one of the legendary Valpolicella winemaker families. Benedetto worked together with the Bertani family to make and perfect the first Amarones. He had a very precise vision on winemaking in Valpolicella and his son Marco followed in his footsteps for about 25 years. However in 2008 he created his own brand – Secondo Marco – to make wines according to Marco’s vision. His vineyards are located in Fumane and planted according to a Y shaped Pergola system, a variation to the traditional system, which allows for better aeration, more sunlight and easier picking. Besides Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella, Marco also planted 3 other indigenous varieties: Oseleta, Croatina & Pipionana.
In the winery he uses a combination of traditional and modern wine making techniques, and uses stainless steel, wood as well as old cement tanks he brought over from Tuscany. He feels that by fermenting in cement the wines are more likely to keep their sapidity and freshness, two essential characteristics of the the Fumane region.

Marco makes the 4 traditional wines of the region, a Valpolicella Classico, a Ripasso, an Amarone and a Reciotto. When he created his brand, he didn’t just put his mark on the vineyard and winery, he also invested a significant amount of time on designing the labels. Each wine has it’s own image to describe the wine. There is the elegant ballerina for the Classico, the stubborn donkey for the Ripasso, the weight lifter for the Amarone and the hare with his long ears to represent the Reciotto, which is produced from the ears of the bunches.

One can’t but feel that Marco has thought about every detail of his wines. I really liked the Valpolicella Classico, and believe the Amarone’s will be wonderful with a little more aging. The wine has a wonderful tension and energy and I am very much looking forward to try this wine again in another 5 years!

About Caroline

Caroline is a certified Sommelier (by the CMS) and WSET diploma student. In order to specialize in the wines of Champagne she moved to the region and currently works as a wine consultant, wine educator and wine writer. She is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and writes for several international publications including Palate Press, Snooth, Wine-Searcher, Decanter and Vinogusto; further activities include teaching Champagne related courses at Reims Management School and organizing personalized tasting experiences at http://www.tastingswithatwist.wordpress.com as well as being a regular judge at international wine competitions.
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