‘Over there is the hill of La Grola,’ says Franco Allegrini, as the rain drips from my head on to my notebook, ‘and right on top is La Poja vineyard.’ I peer ahead, and can vaguely make out a cypress-fringed hilltop in the far distance. I try scribbling with a wet pen on a wet notepad, and give up. We dart back into the warm shelter of Allegrini’s new Mercedes and head down the lane.
La Poja was purchased and planted by Franco’s father Giovanni, who died before his vision could be realised. So for almost 20 years the next generation, brothers Franco and Walter and their sister Marilisa, has pursued the work he began. Walter prefers to stay in the background, looking after the vineyards. The charming Marilisa is the public face of the winery, looking after visitors. And Franco is the ceaselessly innovative winemaker, never entirely satisfied, always reaching for another cigarette, voluble but nervous.
Their father’s vision was to show that Valpolicella could be a great wine. The immense power of the cooperatives had reduced its reputation to that of a simple quaffing wine. Any real renown the region enjoyed stemmed from the small market for wines from dried red grapes: the dry, powerful Amarone and the lightly sweet Recioto. There were remarkable wines from Masi, Quintarella, Allegrini and others, but standard dry Valpolicella was mostly nondescript. More than any other producer, Allegrini has turned things around.
Franco guides his car through the driving rain to our next port of call: a hangar-like structure in the valley. It looks like a winery, but is in fact a gigantic drying shed. The traditional way to produce passito wines (from dried grapes) was to lay the bunches on rafters in a well ventilated attic for a few months, then press and ferment them.
‘The traditional method had one drawback,’ Franco explains. ‘It was difficult to keep botrytis in check. Botrytis brings oxidation and off-flavours, and that’s the last thing we want in Amarone or Recioto. For 15 years I’ve been working on this problem. My first solution was to select the bunches carefully, trimming away any signs of rot. But that wasn’t enough, as botrytis could attack the grapes after they were laid out for drying.
‘I realised that all the careful work we do in the vineyard could be ruined by damp weather during the drying period, from October to February. In 1987 the autumn was very wet and we couldn’t produce any Amarone. But a few years ago I devised this system. After the grapes are picked they are brought here in small bins and stacked. This space is partitioned with curtains to create a series of “rooms” in which the grapes will dry faster.’
The purpose behind this controlled process is to dry the stems within three to four days. ‘The stems retain moisture and are the cause of any problems once the drying begins. So it’s essential to remove that moisture as fast as possible.’ The bunches remain in plastic boxes and are then dried in the usual manner. But the hi-tech shed allows for the large doors and windows to be opened in fine weather, and for giant de-humidifiers and fans to be switched on during humid spells. The huge investment has been shared with other growers, as the shed, known as Terre di Fumane, is a joint venture with Speri, Brigaldara, and other high-quality producers. But Franco Allegrini is the driving force behind it.
Recioto and Amarone are splendid wines, but the mainstay of any Valpolicella producer has to be dry red wines. The Allegrinis have found that the only way to ensure consistently good quality is to throw away the rulebook. Exactly the same thing is happening in the Veneto that happened 15 years ago in Tuscany. In Soave, Roberto Anselmi now bottles his Soave as IGT, to avoid the irksome regulations that undermine quality. And in Valpolicella the Allegrinis have done the same.
There are three permitted grape varieties in the zone: Corvina, Molinara, and Rondinella. ‘The only outstanding variety,’ Franco insists, ‘is Corvina. But the DOC regulations require that we use no more than 60% in any wine. Rondinella does not make exceptional wine, and Molinara in my view is worthless and often has a negative influence. I believe the rules should be changed so producers can use any of the three varieties in any proportion, but that change has not been made. I want my wines to be mostly or exclusively made from Corvina. As that is not permitted, I must sell them as IGT and not as Valpolicella.’
It’s the usual maddening story, echoed in so many regions of Italy: the best wines of the area cannot bear the name of the region because they don’t conform to pointless regulations. There is also another issue: how the vines are trained. In the Valpolicella region the overwhelming majority of vines are planted on the pergola system, trained high on to frames. With a density of only 2,500 vines per hectare (ha), yields can be very high. Allegrini would like to double that density so his new vineyards are planted along wires, using the French double Guyot system.
Allegrini produces four dry reds, other than Amarone. The first is a juicy, cherryish Valpolicella Classico intended for fairly early drinking. Then there are three more serious wines: Palazzo della Torre, La Grola and La Poja. All are made using indigenous yeasts, and there is some micro-oxygenation of the wines during their ageing period in barrel.
Palazzo della Torre comes from a single pergola vineyard surrounding a handsome palace in Fumane. There is some Sangiovese but not Molinara in the blend, which Allegrini insists is an old tradition in the region. The wine is made by an amended ripasso technique in which dried bunches of Amarone grapes are added to standard Valpolicella, provoking a further fermentation that adds richness and alcohol to the wine: 30% of the crop is not fermented straight away but is set aside to dry before being added to the new wine in December. La Grola comes from a historic site bought in 1979 and replanted with Corvina and Rondinella. No ripasso is used and although the wine is barrique-aged, there is no new oak. At the very top of La Grola is the celebrated La Poja, a 2.5ha site, remarkable for its white chalk soil and perfectly ventilated. The wine, pure Corvina, is aged for 16 to 20 months in largely new barriques, and is Allegrini’s finest effort, a highly concentrated elegant wine that demonstrates the true potential of Valpolicella. La Poja is the star wine, but the other two are exceptional too: Palazzo della Torre with its spicy dried-fruit character, and La Grola with its damsony nose and seamless texture. Needless to say, the Amarone, which is aged in new oak, is sumptuous, and so is the Recioto, which has 90 grams of residual sugar but does not taste nearly as sweet as that suggests.
Others have followed where Allegrini has led. An increasing number of growers are using barriques, but a slick of oak can be used to cover a multitude of sins. For Franco Allegrini, what happens in the vineyard is infinitely more important than manipulations within the winery. He wants to exalt Corvina as a great red variety, and to ensure that so-called traditional viticultural practices do not obstruct his goal of nurturing the finest possible fruit. But even he has been unable to resist the lure of international varieties. Franco has planted 7ha of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. ‘The land is flat here,’ Franco explains, ‘and far from our Valpolicella vineyards. So we decided to do something different. The vines aren’t yet producing, so we must wait and see.’ No doubt the wait will be worthwhile.