I Visit Four Top Producers in Valpolicella at Extreme Ends of the Size Spectrum

Valpolicella is going through a continuing identity crisis, with the growth of Amarone and Ripasso production threatening the existence of “regular” styles of Valpolicella, the expansion of Amarone from the hills to the plains raising questions about its position as a peak quality wine (see The Scandalous Expansion of Amarone), and a switch from Ripasso to “double fermentation” meaning that some leading wines are labeled as IGT Veronese instead of Ripasso della Valpolicella (see When Ripasso Is Not Ripasso.) I visited four leading producers, all still run by the founding families, but varying from the largest (Masi and Allegrini) to the smallest (Bussola and Quintarelli) to see how they view the future of the region.

Massimilla di Serego Alighieri at Masi provided a fantastic introduction to the region. The wine from her family estate, just up the road from Masi HQ, has been made by Masi (under the Alghieri label), and the estate has a wonderful palazzo in the center of the vineyards. Masi takes its name from the first vineyard acquired by the Boscaini family, Vaja dei Masi (the little Masi valley), in 1772. There are 993 ha in the Veneto and more in Tuscany. A huge drying loft where grapes are prepared for Amarone is a mix of tradition (grape bunches dry on wood trays with bamboo bottoms to allow air circulation) and technology (humidity and temperature are controlled by a computerized system that assesses the state of drying). There’s a whole laboratory area devoted to experimentation.

Seregeo-Alighieri-VillaThe Seregeo-Alghieri villa.

Masi’s thinking altogether is characterized by that mix of traditional and innovation. They are still using all three grape varieties for Valpolicella: Corvina, soft and sweet, is the predominant, of course, supported by Rondinella and Molinara, which is no longer required by the rules, but Masi retain it because they feel it adds useful spice and acidity. But they have resurrected an old variety, Oseleta, which has very small grapes and ripens late. It has lots of tannin to add structure, and is matured in barriques to soften the tannins.

The house style at Masi is rich and opulent, with a sense through all the wines of glycerin – this is one of the main results of the Appassimento drying technique. In fact, the house style is maintained by using smaller proportions of dried grapes in other wines, such as the Masianco white and the Rosa dei Masi (rosé).

The next day, we spent the afternoon at Allegrini, which is rather discreetly run, to the point at which I had some difficulty identifying the right location. We started out at a vast drying facility, which handles all Allegrini’s grapes, as well as those of several other producers. It’s just identified as the Center for Appassimento Research. Grape bunches are collected in plastic bins in the vineyard, and then bins go directly into the drying center.

From there we went to Allegrini’s new headquarters. They’ve made wine from the vineyards of the Palazzo Della Torre for a long time, but in 2008 the opportunity arose to buy the villa in the center of the vineyards. Villa is a bit of a misnomer – it’s a splendid Renaissance palazzo, currently being extensively renovated. This may be a lifetime endeavor. The 110 ha of vineyards are on the hills in all the communes of Valpolicella.

Palazzo-della-Torre-VillaThe villa at Palazzo della Torre.

A splendid tasting in which we compared current vintages with those of the past decade demonstrated Allegrini’s range. Unusually it’s not focused exclusively on Valpolicella; some of the top wines are IGT Veronese. What is now one of the major vineyard sites of the region, the La Grola hill, was abandoned in the 1970s as everyone wanted to plant on the plain to make the simple fruity wines of the era. Giovanni Allegrini invested heavily into buying it, in fact he borrowed twice the annual turnover of the company to do so. Today two wines are made from the hill. La Grola started in the nineties as a blend of Corvina, Shiraz, and Oseleta; since 2012 it’s been only Corvina and Oseleta. “Oseleta works exactly like Petit Verdot in Bordeaux,” says Alberto Lusini. La Poia is the vineyard right on top of the La Grola hill, and is planted only with Corvina, in fact with a specific clone called red stem Corvina. so deeply colored that some of the color goes into the stem. Both wines are made conventionally (no dried grapes), and La Poia offers an unusual opportunity to see Corvina as a monovarietal. “When La Poia was being planted, at that time they were focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but my father said, I think we can make a special wine with Corvina,” recalls Marilisa Allegrini.

“We are called modernists– but we are modernists in the sense that we produce Amarone without oxidation and Amarone tastes traditional with raisined notes. We do some modern things and some traditional things,” is how Marilisa explains the house style. Her father was among the first to move from the traditional pergola pruning to Guyot; at the time, another winemaker asked: “what are you doing, are you planting vines or growing salad?” Now the pergolas have more or less disappeared from most quality producers.

The style at Allegrini is unusually refined. La Grola and La Poia are smooth, sophisticated wines. The equivalent of Ripasso, the Palazzo della Torre (the largest production wine), is made by double fermentation (When Ripasso Is Not Ripasso) and is elegant for this style. About 10% of production, the Amarone is intense, but shows a rare sense of precision. “Unlike other producers, our style for Amarone is completely dry,” says Marilisa. Recioto comes from a selection of the ripest grapes, which spend an extra month in drying.

We spent the morning at two smaller, but exceedingly high quality, producers. Tommasso Bussola is located round the back of Negrar, with the winery somewhat hidden behind a group of slightly shabby looking buildings. The range from their 14 ha is all Valpolicella, except for l’Errante, a Bordeaux blend.

I’m not sure you’d quite describe the style as modern, but it is more forceful than most and there’s a good deal of new oak around. Certainly the Amarone’s are very rich, really reinforced when you move from the basic cuvée to the special bottlings of TB (from 50-year-old vines) or Vigneto Alto (from 65-year-old vines, made in about half the vintages). The sweet wines give a positively decadent impression. There’s a classic Ripasso, one of the very few I’ve had where the style really comes off as adding extra complexity as well as weight.

L’Errante is a Bordeaux blend, started in 2003 with grapes that were in the Ca’ del Laito vineyard which they bought in 2001 (the most recent purchase). “We made an experiment We started by making it like a Ripasso. Then in 2007 we started to make it like an Amarone. It’s a little sweeter than Amarone, with 18 g/l residual sugar. It’s 50% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Production method is now the same as Amarone, with 42 months in new tonneaux,” explains Guiseppe Bussola.

Quintarelli stands out above everyone else in Valpolicella, both literally and metaphorically. The winery is in a spectacular locale on the heights above Negrar. Access is up a narrow mountainous hairpin road with views right over the valley. It was dramatic when we arrived as we were above the clouds on the other side of the valley. The facility is a modern building going storeys underground, basically underneath the house constructed two generations ago. The winery was founded the generation before that, in 1924.

There are 3 ha of vineyards immediately below the house. Corvina is grown under pergola; Guyot is used for the French grapes. There are another 8 ha farther away. Quintarelli’s wines have a level of subtlety and sophistication that is rare for Valpolicella. All are marked by an extremely elegant balance, there is never too much extraction, the style is if anything understated. Layers of flavor have to be teased out of each wine. One mark is that the Recioto is of course sweet, but perceived sweetness is much less than you would expect from residual sugar, and the wine is simply deliciously balanced.

Quintarelli3The view from Quintarelli.

Alzero is an unusual wine that Francesco Quintarelli’s grandfather started to produce in 1983. “The idea was to make Amarone with Bordeaux grapes. It was almost all Cabernet Franc at the beginning. Today there is also some Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot,” Francesco explains. Personally, I have mixed feelings about the use of Bordeaux varieties for Amarone-style wines. Indirectly they seem to make the point that Corvina is such a good grape for Amarone because it offers an aromatic lift that helps to avoid a massive style. There are fewer aromatics with the Bordeaux varieties. However, there is no wine at Quintarelli that isn’t simply top of its class.

I would like to get a more direct feeling for the characters of the different grape varieties in Valpolicella. Allegrini’s La Poia shows the smooth aromatics of Corvina, and really makes me wonder what a monovarietal Amarone (not allowed by the DOCG) would be like. Rondinella and Molinara probably don’t have enough intrinsic interest to justify monovarietals, and Oseleta would be too powerful. Corvina with a pinch of Oseleta might be the perfect combination.


When Ripasso is Not Ripasso

Ripasso is a very curious compromise in winemaking. Originating in the need to strengthen Valpolicella – which by itself is a rather light and flighty wine – it was originally made by taking the pommace (skins and seeds) left after pressing dried grapes to make Amarone, and adding it to the wine that had been made previously by fermenting grapes after harvest. There was enough sugar left in the pommace to start another fermentation, increasing alcohol and extract in the wine. But as producers who have abandoned the technique say, “you wouldn’t use a previously used tea bag to make another cup of tea.”

Ripasso has become wildly popular, to the point at which it now represents 40% of production in Valpolicella, more than Amarone or Valpolicella per se. Ripasso della Valpolicella has had its own DOC since 2009. (Production of Ripasso is supposed to be limited to twice the production of Amarone, but the regulation hasn’t had much effect in stifling its growth given that Amarone production has also increased exponentially: see The Scandalous Expansion of Amarone).

Official figures under estimate the extent of Ripasso production, as producers who abandoned the traditional method have relabeled their wines as  IGTs instead of Valpolicella Ripasso. “The original pommace used to leave a bitter residue, and we worked to eliminate it. The solution was to use semi-dried grapes to avoid the bitterness coming from material that had already been fermented. So now we call it double fermentation rather than Ripasso,” explains Massimilla di Serego Alighieri at Masi, whose Campofiorin is a flagship wine now made by double fermentation, when a quarter of the grapes are dried for six weeks and then added to the wine to start a second fermentation.

Masi14Grapes drying for Amarone and Ripasso.

Another IGT is Allegrini’s Palazzo Della Torre, which started as a Valpolicella, but in the 1990s Allegrini decided to take out the Molinara (one of the three major varieties of the region, which was required at the time) when they replanted, and so the wine came out of the DOC. Today the wine is made by double fermentation, which would not have been allowed for classic Ripasso either. “We wanted to have the style of Ripasso but without its oxidative notes,” says Marilisa Allegrini. It’s an old story that the authorities always catch up too late to the needs of quality, so the best producers may be forced to take their wines out of the DOC.

So how much better is it to do double fermentation than classical Ripasso? The problem with Ripasso, to my mind, is that the residual bitterness is a symbol of a certain lack of balance. The second fermentation bumps up extract and alcohol, but the fruit level still corresponds to the original fermentation. I find that sometimes this gives the wine a certain sense of being artificially inflated. That’s not so much a problem with double fermentation using partially dried grapes, although I think there’s still a risk of outrunning the fruits.

I’ve been wondering what effect it has to do a second fermentation with dried grapes, compared to what would happen if it were possible to perform a single fermentation with a mixture of fresh and dried grapes. I suspect the difference is that with double fermentation, the skins are added to wine, so there’s a significant effect of macerating the skins in an alcohol solution. This is likely to extract more astringent tannins, and may explain some of my problems with the taste profile.

You need to be pretty skilled to produced a wine that’s fully integrated using these techniques: here are four really good examples, tasted on my recent visit to Valpolicella. (I discuss the producers in tomorrow’s blog, I Visit Four Top Producers in Valpolicella.)

Masi: IGT Veronese, Brolo Campofiorin Oro, 2011

This special selection is less obvious than Campofiorin, more of a savory impression to the nose with hints of spice. Black cherry fruits are not so obviously aromatic as Campofiorin, and have been damped down by the sense of structure – but with less bitterness on the finish because the extract has given the wine more genuine body.

Allegrini : IGT Veronese, Palazzo Della Torre, 2012

This spends 15 months in old barriques. Very much the classic nose of bitter cherries. Light on the palate, with a smooth, elegant impression. Everything is well integrated. Good fruits with nice balance on palate, but the typical bite on the finish.

Giuseppe Quintarelli: Valpolicella Superiore, 2007

Half the grapes are fermented fresh; half are dried for two months and then there is a second fermentation. This spends 6 years in oak. Cherry fruit impression to nose has hints of piquancy. Rich on palate with bitter cherry fruits increasing in bitterness at very end. Balanced acidity gives a fresh lift to the palate.

Tommaso Bussola, Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso, Ca’ del Laito, 2011

From a mix of young and old vines, this is a classic Ripasso. There’s a round impression from the nose with a touch of chocolate. Round and rich, the palate shows good flavor variety and a nice balance, definitely a cut above the normal Ripasso. It’s light and fresh with a characteristic touch of bitterness at the end.