Andrew Jefford gets to know a fractious Italian champion....

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Jefford on Valpolicella wine

Which is Italy’s biggest wine-producing region? My ignorant assumption has always been that it was Sicily or Puglia in the south, or just possibly Tuscany in central Italy.

Wrong. The engine of Italian wine production lies in the north of the country, in Veneto (1.27 million kg of harvested grapes in 2015 compared to nearest rival Puglia’s 1.2 million kg, with Emilia-Romagna at 931 million kg, Sicily at 785 million kg, and Tuscany at just 485 million kg).

Is this all down to the Prosecco explosion, where another 3,000 ha of vineyard are being planted to add to the existing 20,000 ha? Not at all – the margin over Puglia was even bigger in 2010, and the Veneto red-wine heartland of Valpolicella has also been surging in recent years. Back in 2005, there were 5,719 ha planted in Valpolicella (with 54 per cent of production exported); now it’s 7,844 ha (with 80 per cent of production exported).

The statistic which had me rubbing my eyes is that, for the last few years, far more Valpolicella Ripasso has been produced than ordinary Valpolicella (27.6 million bottles compared to 18.2 million in 2016). Amarone and Recioto are not far behind, with combined production of 14.9 million bottles. A quality revolution? I headed east in early March to try to find out.

Valpolicella Quintarelli vineyards

Quintarelli vineyards on hillside. Credit: Andrew Jefford

Let’s set the scene first of all. Don’t forget that the Veneto is a northern region in the European context – it not only lies north of Tuscany and Piedmont’s Langhe hills, but it’s also well to the north of where I live in Languedoc, and north of Bordeaux, too. If Verona lay in France, you’d find it just to the south of Ampuis; Valpolicella’s vineyards share their latitude with Côte Rôtie. This is cool-climate viticulture in the global context. Lemon trees spend winter indoors here.

Not only that, but the finest Valpolicella vineyards lie up in the hills, between 150 m and 400 m, in eleven different little valleys which fan out of the southern end of the Dolomites. Lake Garda, with its glacial origins, marks the western boundary to the region (it is Bardolino which laps the water); of no less significance is the fact that the narrow, steep-sided Adige valley, snow-rimmed for five months a year, spills out into the plain here, too. A constant hurrying to and fro of winds is the result, as local wind farms attest. Those winds must be regarded as part of the Valpolicella terroir equation, since the ease with which they allow grapes to dry in autumn explains why these hills have been famous for wine made from dried or partially dried grapes since the fourth century, and probably before.

It’s possible that a quality revolution is underway in Valpolicella, but that doesn’t mean that sweetness and light perfumes the Veronese air. When you start to talk to different key producers here, it’s not the passion of Romeo and Juliet you recall, but the implacable rivalries of the Montecchi and the Cappelletti (Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets).

Disagreements about practices and strategies run deep, meaning not only that large producers like Masi and Allegrini have long since left the local Consorzio, but that squabbles here between producer groupings often end in the plump hands of lawyers (at present these include a disagreement concerning the name of the ‘Amarone Families’ or Le Famiglie dell’Amarone d’Arte, as well as a challenge to the regulations controlling the permitted percentage of Amarone which can be made from each year’s crop).

Setting aside these technical issues, I thought it would be fun to run through some of the contrasting opinions on the ways to do things in Valpolicella. These lively divergences are probably an excellent sign. They show, after all, that the wily Veneti take nothing for granted.

Grape Varieties

Everyone agrees about one fact: that Corvina is the greatest of the Veneto varieties, and the one which takes most happily to being dried. Does this mean that you should try to make great wine hereabouts from Corvina alone? The rules forbid that (five to 30 per cent of juicy Rondinella, an offspring of Corvina, must also be included), so using Corvina alone would require you to build IGT brands. That is a course, for example, which Allegrini has been prepared to follow for La Poja, a wine which makes the case for Corvina convincingly. Beyond Corvina, though, the disagreements abound.

What, for example, is the role of the bigger berried Corvinone, once thought to be a variant of Corvina but now known to be a completely different variety? The rules allow up to 50 per cent if used in place of part of the Corvina percentage, but some omit it or don’t acknowledge it. The soft-berried, easy-going Molinara is another source of disagreement, with many regarding five per cent or so as adding to the classicism and drinkability of a blend, while others claiming (in the words of Michele Dal Forno) “it doesn’t make sense today to use Molinara”.

Molinara in fact is one of a suite of varieties allowed to provide up to 25 per cent of a blend (with local varieties not exceeding 15 per cent, and other Italian or permitted international varieties accounting for more than 10 per cent). The small-berried, tannic Oseleta is championed by a number of producers including Masi (who make the varietal Osar with it), Zymè and Dal Forno, and the Dal Fornos grow and use Croatina (for its colour, tannin and ‘complex sugars’).

The two Cabernets, Merlot and Sangiovese are also permitted – and many producers, including Masi, excoriate these varieties as alien intruders. But not everyone! Allegrini uses a little Sangiovese for Palazzo della Torre, while the Quintarelli family, no less, are enthusiasts for the Bordeaux varieties: they feature in Primofiore, Rosso del Bepe and Alzero.

Valpolicella wine Zyme cellar

The cellar at Zyme. Credit: Andrew Jefford

Noble Rot

There is almost violent disagreement as to whether noble rot (muffa nobile in Italian) has any role in the drying process. The great advocate for this is Masi: Sandro Boscaini says that the vital microbiological changes which happen inside the grapes during the drying process are “mainly conducted by noble rot”, and that this botrytis is vital to install high glycerine, gluconic acid and sotolon levels in Amarone and the ‘impression of sweetness’ without the presence of sugar itself. Winemaking director Andrea Dal Cin points out that “you have many different strengths of botrytis, and in a low level with the drying process it is everywhere, even if it isn’t visible. You get the effects of botrytis long before you see it.”

Other producers like Allegrini and Dal Forno counter that noble rot has no place in the drying of grapes in the Veneto. “We are not talking about Sauternes,” says Franco Allegrini. “For red varieties, the best part of the grapes is in the skins. We want perfect skins. If you have noble rot, you will not have perfect skins. You know there are three things that make all wines look the same. One is the use of international varieties even in places where you have a choice; another is brett. The third is oxidation — and botrytis is also an oxidation.” “Yes, appassimento does give you oxidised grapes,” says Andrea Del Cin, insisting that this is part of the complexity of wines made from dried grapes hereabouts, an idea which others reject.

Drying Racks

It might seem trivial, but go peeping round the drying attics at in the autumn, and you will see that the Venetian marsh rushes lining large wooden racks are long gone. But what replaces them? Out with magnifying glass and microscope; in with dissent. Many are happy with slatted plastic trays, which can be steam washed to sterility; but Masi says that moulds can form at the point of contact between the drying berry (which is unable to breathe) and the plastic, so it prefers to line its wooden trays with bamboo. Bamboo can be steam washed in the same way as plastic, but its naturally waxy surface helps repel mould.

Wood

Cherry wood was traditional in the Veneto – as the region has always been sprinkled with cherry orchards as well as vineyards, and as wines based on Corvina are famous for their cherry notes. But cherry wood barrels have a heavily oxidative effect on the wines stored in them, as well as ‘drinking’ a lot of wine. Serègo Alighieri (working in concert with Masi) is one of the few producers to give all of their wines at least a little time in cherry wood, and Masi also runs experiments with chestnut and acacia. Most, though, use oak – but new or old, and big or small? You’ll find every variant somewhere in the region, but if you wanted to pick one house to typify the use of long ageing in large wood, it would have to be Quintarelli (whose cellars are a kind of gallery of the contemporary coopering arts), while Dal Forno champions small wood (nothing but new French barriques for all wines).

Valpolicella

Vineyards at Masi. Credit: Andrew Jefford

Vineyards and Sub-Zones

The ‘Classico’ district of Valpolicella lies to the west of the DOC, and includes the Fumane, Marano and Negrar valleys, while the Valpantena valley in the central zone also has its own DOC mention (Amarone and Recioto, by the way, have a DOCG). Are these the ‘best’ areas? Producers such as Dal Forno in Illasi further east have comprehensively demolished that notion — but those in the Classico area vaunt its cool airiness as a source of difference, brought by the proximity of Lake Garda and the Adige Valley. Perhaps the best idea would be to sub-zone the entire DOC area, and let each establish its own character.

Training Systems

Pergola is traditional here – but many new vineyards are planted on ordinary trellis, and the vines Guyot-trained. “Guyot is good for flat land,” says Andrea Dal Cin of Masi. “It’s good for controlling leaf numbers and cluster numbers. But when it’s on a slope and south-facing, you can easily burn the grapes and get them too ripe – we’ve done measurements, and in summer you can get 42˚C on the surface of a berry. With a pergola, the berry is the same temperature as the air – about 30˚C. They don’t burn. That’s very important for our grapes.” Quintarelli has used both systems, but now prefers pergola as a consequence of climate change. Marcello Vaona of Novaia told me exactly the same thing: “we’ve had a lot of problems with sun in the last ten years” on trellis. But Allegrini and Dal Forno remain firm believers in trellising systems – but, importantly, planted at high density which reduces the risk of burn.

Ripasso

I’ve saved the most controversial topic until last, as it is one which seems to touch the soul and destiny of Valpolicella.

Masi was the pioneer of Ripasso, using it from the 1960s onwards to indicate a Valpolicella which spends time (usually 15 to 20 days) on the marc and lees of Amarone, deepening extract and phenolic content, lowering acidity and raising alcohol levels. It is, according to the Consorzio, a maceration rather than a re-fermentation – but it may involve some refermentation, since the lees themselves may only be partly fermented.

Valpolicella wine grapes

Oseleta grapes in appassimento. Credit: Andrew Jefford

Sandro Boscaini of Masi claims that this was, in origin, no more than an astute marketing use of a thrifty technique for getting the most out of a set of raw materials – like, he says, using a tea bag a second time. The term was trademarked, but the company grew unsatisfied with the technique and ‘gave’ the term to the Consorzio for general use; it became part of the DOC in April 2010. Now everyone is at it (see the figures above), though in part this is a consequence of the great increase in grape drying and Amarone creation in the region: Ripasso is an easy, value-adding by-product if you are going to dry a high percentage of your crop for Amarone.

The quality of Ripasso depends on the quality of the base wines, the ratio between the base wine and the marc and lees, the quantity of liquid left in the marc and lees and the length of the contact period. Boscaini is a fierce critic of the general quality of much Ripasso and Amarone produced in the region today. “Are we making a fine wine, or running a big business? At the moment, we’re running a big business. Is Amarone a unique wine, or a unique way to make money?” He claims that some producers “use the lees twice – and get three cups of tea from one bag”.

Franco Allegrini’s view is a similar one, and he resorts to the same disparaging analogy. “Ripasso cannot give you something good. The moment you take the wine from the skins is the moment you have decided that they have no more to give.” Both companies no longer produce Ripasso; instead they produce branded equivalents using a percentage of dried grapes, not maceration on marc and lees.

Celestino Gaspari of Zymè is another critic of Ripasso. “Today in my opinion Ripasso is only a big confusion and I don’t want to be part of it. The problem is that if you want to make it properly, the method is too expensive. You must make a very good Amarone but then use only the free run, and not press the skins. And each wine needs time with the skins, but most wineries are short of fermentation space and they have to hurry the process. The result is very different to what it should be.”

These well-placed private producers are free, of course, to follow their own counsel of perfection – but it’s also fair to say that the ‘democratisation’ of Amarone and Ripasso has proved popular with consumers around the world, and given the region an image which it certainly lacked back in my student days, when 3-litre bottles of basic Valpolicella were the butt of so many jokes. The challenge is to keep moving gently forwards, and in particular to avoid the drying of too much indifferent fruit, without the falcon-eyed supervision which the technique imposes on growers. (Sandro Boscaini’s suggestion, which is unlikely to be adopted, is that hill land should be allowed to dry 60% of its grapes, land at the bottom of the slopes 40% and land on the plains just 20%.)

There’s lots for today’s wine-producing Montecchi and Cappelletti to squabble about, in sum – but lots to be proud about, too. Next week I’ll explore the flavours of these astonishingly diverse red wines.

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