Bella Valpolicella

  • Monday 1 July 2002

New proposals to improve quality are in the pipeline, and land prices are rocketing. MICHELE SHAH visits a revitalised Valpolicella.

alpolicella takes its name from the Latin Vallis polis cellae, the valley of many cellars, and is an area with a strong tradition in winemaking. However, over the past 50 years it has witnessed a series of dramatic changes in its viticulture and winemaking. During the 1960s and 1970s a surge in demand for cheap wines encouraged Verona's big wineries to export vast quantities of mass-produced Valpolicella. In the late 1980s, as the demand in quality wines increased, Valpolicella was left behind. Today its renaissance is very visible. Back on track, Valpolicella is flexing its muscles and showing its real potential.

Located in Veneto, northeastern Italy, Valpolicella's scenic vineyards start in the fertile plains north of Verona and climb up steep terraced hillsides, offering magnificent views over the city of Verona. The area takes the shape of an outstretched hand, and the finger-like hillsides and in-between valley areas of Negrar, Marano, Fumane, Sant'Ambrogio and San Pietro in Cariano are known as Valpolicella Classico. To the east lies the more recent area of expansion, which includes the areas of Grezzana, Mezzane, Illasi and Cassano.

Valpolicella has always had its back bench of quality-minded traditional producers such as Allegrini, and the larger wineries, Masi and Bertani, along with a small number of niche producers who had the courage to pursue quality and not quantity. At the venerable age of 75, 'Bepi' Quintarelli is one of the few producers to have upheld Valpolicella's ancient reputation, producing exceptional quality wines. He inspired a new generation of winemakers such as Accordini, Bussola, Brigaldara, Dal Forno and Zenato and a host of others, who today testify to Valpolicella's potential and who strive for quality. 'We have had our problems, yes, but Valpolicella should not be looked upon as an underachiever,' says Tommaso Bussola, a small producer who is rapidly expanding. 'Up to 10 years ago it was really difficult to name 10 good producers; today it's the reverse. The area is still underrated.'

Bussola considers himself a modern-traditionalist, somewhere between an innovative Dal Forno and a traditional Quintarelli. His wines, labelled TB, which took off from 1995, show characteristics of ripe fruit and velvety textures. His success, and increase in demand, have encouraged him to invest t2.5 million in a 15ha (hectare) property and winery in the area of Negrar with 8ha of vines. Bussola is already negotiating a further 9ha with a southern exposition, planted with Corvina, Corvinone and the almost extinct variety Dindorella. His future production will also include a new IGT. According to Bussola Valpolicella is defined by its very diverse microclimate and terroir, which can change completely within a few metres. Its poor mineral soils favour rich, complex wines.

According to Marilisa Allegrini, one of Valpolicella's leading winery owners, some of the most significant changes have come about over the past five years. 'Our consorzio (growers' association) has been instrumental in promoting, implementing and monitoring new viticultural methods in addition to introducing innovative technical changes in winemaking,' says Allegrini. In addition, an increase in the use of French barriques, temperature- controlled fermenting vats, with various automatic systems for breaking and stirring the cap, have been introduced. However, traditional methods of vinifying, at natural temperatures and using 20- hectolitre wooden vats, are still used by many producers.

Grape shake-up

The 1990 DOC appellation regulations are at a turning point. The consorzio has sent a proposal to Rome in the hope of implementing the new regulations this coming harvest. 'The three main issues deal with improved grape varieties, lower yields and higher extracts,' explains Emilio Fasoletti, director of Vapolicella's growers' association. The proposed new regulations increase by 10% the main (and best) varieties of Corvina and Corvinone, taking it from 70 to 80% of the total blend of both Amarone and Valpolicella. The less than exciting Rondinella would be decreased by 10%, to make up between 5 and 30% of the blend, and the uninteresting Molinara variety would be eliminated altogether. The proposals also allow the inclusion of up to 15% of other red varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Negrar, Oseleta and Rossignolo. Most Valpolicella vines are trained on high pergolas planted in the 1960s and 1970s. Recent measures implemented by the DOC to improve quality and reduce yields include simpler pergolas with higher plant density, spurred cordons and French high density, low-yielding vineyards. Training and pruning is done to give relatively few buds per plant – using a method such as Guyot.

Producers such as Allegrini believe the simple pergola system, if used properly, can offer optimum aeration for the production of Valpolicella, Amarone and Recioto. Until five years ago, plant density per hectare averaged between 1,500 and 2,500. The new regulations propose a minimum 3,300 plants per hectare, and according to Allegrini, pergolas of Corvina can successfully go as high as 6,500 plants per hectare. Today most quality producers in the region, depending on the exposition and terrain, tend to go for denser planting along the French lines. Recent plantings may vary between 6,000 and an astonishing 13,000 plants per hectare, as adopted recently by Romano Dal Forno. Influenced by Bordeaux-style wines and viticulture, Dal Forno is a firm believer in high fruit concentration and uses only new French barriques for ageing. This explains the high cost of his exceptionally high-quality Amarone, Recioto and Valpolicella wines. According to Dal Forno, the time is ripe for Valpolicella to make a decisive leap in quality. 'There should be a greater surge for quality wines. There are still many producers whose criteria of quality is limited to the “exceptional year”. We've only reached 50% of our potential.' Dal Forno is currently investing more than t3.5 in a new multi-storey cellar, and he recently spent over t1 million on new vineyards, all of which are planted to high density and use the Guyot pruning method.

A gradual move from the fertile plains back to the steep terraced hillsides has been instrumental in producing quality wines. The optimum altitude for vines in the area seems to be between 200 and 350 metres above sea level. Scanning Valpolicella's hillsides a visible number of new vineyards are being built with the traditional, dry rock walls (marogne). Some producers such as Stefano Cesari of Brigaldara believe that, due to global warming, it is necessary to go as high as 450m. Cesari has recently rented an additional 60ha at this altitude, of which 20ha are planted to Corvina in order to increase his production of Amarone.

Many Classic Valpolicella wines use the traditional ripasso method of re-fermenting the young wine on the skins of the grapes dried for Amarone and Recioto. This adds body and character to the wine and one can sometimes perceive the oxidised and botrytis flavours of the Amarone. Dal Forno's Valpolicella DOC Superiore is made partly from partially dried grapes, which he does not consider typical of the ripasso method.

Dry matters

Although tradition has been to dry grapes in airy lofts (see panel, left), the DOC now allows the use of various systems of air conditioning, as long as they operate at natural temperatures. The large drying warehouse, Terre di Fumane, partly funded by the EC and partly by estate producers such as Allegrini, Brigaldara, Speri or G Campagnola, assures perfect controlled drying conditions, essential to the initial phase in order to keep the grapes free from forming botrytis. The new DOC regulations propose that Amarone be fermented and aged for a minimum of two years and the new Amarone 'Riserva' for a minimum of 47 months. 'The next step will be to lift the DOC to DOCG status,' says Fasoletti, 'but 'piano, piano, one step at a time.' 'New technology in drying the grapes has made a real difference,' says Cesari. 'Until 1995 it was very difficult to sell Amarone. In 1996 I was selling mine at t4 a bottle but in 1998 it shot up to t18 and has been rising rapidly ever since.'

Official data shows that in 1995 the production of Amarone was just over two million bottles – by 2000 production had doubled, reaching a peak of 4.5 million bottles. Production of Valpolicella Classico, meanwhile, was 11.5 million bottles and Valpolicella DOC 20 million bottles. Today Valpolicella covers about 5,600ha of vines and includes 160 wineries. Of these, says Fasoletti, director of Valpolicella's growers' association, there are approximately 70 quality producers who export. 'The recent increase in the number of small and medium-size estates has been phenomenal, and a competitive factor in improving quality,' says Fasoletti. Most of these growers previously sold grapes or wine in bulk to cooperatives or large wineries including Bolla, Pasqua, Speri, Montresor and others. Grape growers were paid low rates by weight and there was little incentive to produce quality grapes. Today with the change in market trends, these families are making their own quality wines. Estates such as Lorenzo Begali, Stefano Accordini, Musella, Tenuta Sant'Antonio, Corte Sant' Alda, Brunelli, Marion, Viviani and Roccolo Grassi represent this new generation of young winemakers, who are establishing their own personal styles. 'Ten years ago we were selling our grapes to one of the larger wineries. Today we produce 35,000 bottles from our 7ha,' says Begali, producer of single vineyard Amarone Ca' Bianca. Certainly the standards of viticulture have risen. The appreciation in quality has increased the price of land which up until 10 years ago was selling for t30,000 per hectare. Today the average price of a hectare of land ranges from t300,000 to t500,000 per hectare. 'My father taught us to invest in land,' says Allegrini, who today owns 70ha of selected vineyards. 'He never bought grapes. Whenever he could he bought a plot of land and planted his own vines.' Today many producers are investing large sums in new plots. Investments are way above their annual profits and this is the best proof of the confidence of the growers in the potential of Valpolicella.

Michèle Shah is a freelance wine writer, based in Italy.

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