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Decanter travel guide: Valpolicella, Verona, Italy

With its gracious villas and ancient churches, the valleys of Valpolicella harbour as much heritage as they do winemaking dynasties. Local Alessandra Piubello shows how to make the most of this inviting region in his Valpolicella travel guide.

Fact file

Valpolicella & Amarone planted area: 7,564ha

Main grapes: Corvina, Corvinone, Molinara, Rondinella, Oseleta

Appellations: Valpolicella DOC, Valpolicella Ripasso DOC, Amarone DOCG, Recioto DOCG

Climate: mild with a little rainfall

Main soil types: calcareous, basaltic, muddy clay

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This historical and fascinating foothill area with its vineyard landscape is both magical and enchanting. The hills are a patchwork of lush Veronese pergola vineyards, criss-crossed by lines of marogne, the dry-stone walls typical of the region. Dotted here and there are cypress trees, ancient churches, age-old fountains and magnificent Venetian villas, all accompanied by the eternal gushing of progni (fast streams).

Colours capture the eye. The warm burnished pink of the local stone characterises the environment just as much as the bright green of the vines. We are heading northwest of Verona to Valpolicella, an area that extends over 240km2, bordered by the Lessini Mountains in the north and the River Adige in the south, by the Val d’Adige in the west and the romantic city of Verona in the east. Lake Garda is just 15km further west.

The etymology of Valpolicella remains uncertain but the favoured interpretation, based on val-policellae from the Latin for cellar (cellae), is ‘valley of many wineries’, and vine-growing among these hills has always been a way of life. Fossil remains dating back to the Iron Age prove that the European vine, Vitis vinifera sativa, was cultivated here. And Greek and Roman literature makes numerous mentions of winemaking activities in Valpolicella, testifying to the importance that wine production in this region had in those times.

Over the centuries, vine-growing expanded and became more specialised, mainly due to the area’s particular geographical relief, featuring valleys running south to north. The identity and complexity of Valpolicella wines originates in these valleys, where warm breezes from Lake Garda meet the cool air from the Lessini Mountains, creating the ideal microclimate for growing vines as well as cherries and olives.

From volcanoes to clay

This varied geological conformation produces a diverse range of soils, thus giving the wines widely different characteristics. The historical zone, defined as classic, includes the three valleys of Fumane (stratified calcareous rock), Marano (basaltic volcanic rocks, known as Toari) and Negrar (muddy clay) from west to east, and theareas around St’Ambrogio di Valpolicella (calcareous soils) and San Pietro in Cariano (of alluvial origin). Production regulations also include the Valpantena region with the Squaranto and Mezzane valleys, and East Valpolicella with Val d’Illasi and Val Tramigna (carbonate soils).

The area produces four wine styles: Amarone, Valpolicella, Valpolicella Ripasso and Recioto. Although made with the same grapes (Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and other lesser varieties), their winemaking techniques are different. Valpolicella, a historical illustration of ancient farming rhythms, is a fresh, spontaneous and enjoyable wine; the soft Ripasso (‘re-passed’ over Amarone pomace) is soft; and the two passiti brothers, Amarone and sweet Recioto, are made from dried grapes. Amarone has stolen the international limelight with its splendid concentration, structure, elegance and unique complexities. Power unites with a delightful softness, giving a durable opulence.

Wineries to visit

So where might you most enjoy tasting these? Why not start with San Pietro in Cariano, the heart of Valpolicella (the Roman church in San Floriano is also worth visiting), or Monte Dall’Ora (montedallora.com), six hectares of vineyard where biodiversity rules, producing biodynamic wines with an identifiable and well-interpreted style.

Nearby Brigaldara (brigaldara.it) has a refined stylistic code which results in austere and elegant wines with enormous personality. Meanwhile, the co-op Cantina di Negrar (cantinanegrar.it) has recently built a visitor centre. Here you can stock up on quality wines without breaking the bank.

Not far away in Fumane, interesting places to visit include a prehistoric cave; the Molina Nature Reserve, an oasis of waterfalls set among woods with an adjoining botanical museum; the Madonna delle Salette Sanctuary, built in 1864 to seek protection from the devastation of phylloxera; and the boutique producer Scriani (scriani.it), with its tardis-like cellar. Lastly, Le Salette (lesalette.it), a wine-producing company established in the 19th century that makes complex, energetic wines.

Part of the wealth of the Valpolicella area lies in its ancient villas: taking a detour towards Gargagnago takes you to Villa Serego Alighieri (seregoalighieri.it/2011), which still belongs to the descendants of the poet Dante. Not far from here are the offices of the Strada del Vino wine route (stradadelvinovalpolicella.it), where you might be directed to Villa Mosconi Bertani in Arbizzano – arguably, the most beautifully sited villa in Valpolicella – here, Gaetano Bertani has the headquarters of his Santa Maria alla Pieve estate, complete with tours and wine shop (mosconibertani.it).

In Valpolicella free time can be spent on long walks, exploring the area on a mountain bike or on horseback (Circolo Ippico Valpolicella, +39 347 035 6560), or relaxing at the hot springs (aquardens.it). The surrounding areas further east are also very beautiful and it is no coincidence that Valpantena is known as ‘the valley of all the gods’.

The historical Bertani company – founded in 1857 and an indisputable icon of Valpolicella – islocated in Grezzana (bertani.net). Its wines continue to act as absolute reference points by uniting tradition and innovation.

Further east, at Cellore d’Illasi, the winery of Romano Dal Forno (dalfornoromano.it) has affirmed himself as one of the best Amarone producers and leads the entire east Valpolicella area. His world-famous wines are intense, concentrated and the result of almost maniacal work in the vineyards.

How to get there

Verona Airport is two hours from London by plane, and from there the Valpolicella area is 30 minutes by car, or 20 minutes from Verona’s train station.

Veronese journalist, author and wine judge Alessandra Piubello writes for a number of leading Italian and international publications and wine guides

Written by Alessandra Piubello

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