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.

The Scandalous Expansion of Amarone

Valpolicella is an area of extremes. On the one hand, Valpolicella tout court is simple, light, and fruity. On the other hand, Amarone is a weighty wine, with lots of extraction coming from the use of dried grapes, definitely in the direction of power and opulence. Given this bifurcation, you might expect the emphasis in the region to be on methods of vinification, but on a recent visit I discovered that in fact a major concern is the abuse of terroir.

You might say the problem started years ago, when the area of Valpolicella was extended. The original area, close to Lake Garda, is now called Valpolicella Classico, and remains (or should remain) the mark of quality. The general Valpolicella area extends far to the east, past Verona, and to the north of Soave.

Three types of wine are made in the Valpolicella region. Lowest in the hierarchy is the regular wine labeled with the name of the DOC (Valpolicella Classico or Valpolicella). Superiore is supposed to indicate slightly higher quality. These are very much wines for quaffing, a bit like Beaujolais. Then there’s what you might call an intermediate style called Ripasso, which I will discuss in tomorrow’s blog (When Ripasso Is Not Ripasso).

At the top of the pyramid come Recioto (sweet) and Amarone (dry), which have their own DOCGs based on the method of production. In the Appassimento technique, grapes are dried for a minimum of 100 days on wooden trays in drying lofts before pressing and fermentation. This concentrates everything to make wine in a rich, oxidative style, but the style isn’t due just to greater concentration: a wide range of aromatic changes also occur during the drying period (and are emphasized further if any botrytis occurs, although it’s discouraged by many producers). The basic difference between the two styles is that Amarone is fermented dry, but fermentation is stopped for Recioto to leave some residual sugar (typically around 100 g/l). Sometimes the grapes are dried a month longer for Recioto. Masi3 Grapes drying on traditional wooden racks at Masi.

It seems pretty obvious that if the basis for making the wine is concentrating the grapes before fermentation, those grapes are absolutely going to have to be of the highest quality. “You can’t just use any grapes for Appassimento. Large bunches don’t work well as they get too much rot. You need lighter bunches that are open and not too compact. Harvest occurs a few (5-6) days before what would be regarded as peak ripeness, to help to preserve acidity,” says Massimilla di Serego Alighieri at major producer Masi.

AllegriniLoftGrapes drying in plastic boxes in Allegrini’s vast drying loft.

Until the early nineties, Amarone production was 1-2 million bottles, which is around 6% of all production in Valpolicella. But then it took off exponentially, and now is around 10 million bottles, accounting for more than a quarter of the grapes. What does this do for quality? According to Marilisa Allegrini, “Production has increased drastically, and the only way to do that was to expand. People started planting on the plain in the sixties, in areas that aren’t historic for producing Amarone, because of the demand. There is no regulation. The Consorzio [who make the rules in Italy] are dominated by companies that pay more contributions (because of higher volume) – in Valpolicella it’s the coop. The irony is that the people who make the rules today are the people who didn’t make any Amarone ten years ago. Now much of Amarone is produced in areas that never made it before.”

ValpolicellaProductionThe exponential expansion of Amarone. Graph shows use of grapes; pie chart shows proportions of wine produced.

Single vineyard Amarone’s are relatively rare, so it’s difficult to get a direct feeling for the effect of terroir, but at Allegrini all grapes for Amarone come from hillside vineyards. In addition to the effects of increased elevation, the soil turns from clay to limestone. All this brings a certain precision, which in my opinion is needed to counterpoise the effects of the extra concentration from drying. It is awfully easy for the style of Amarone to slide into clumsiness. There’s not a trace of that at the top producers whom I visited, whose wines I’ll discuss in detail in a future blog (I Visit Four Top Producers in Valpolicella).

So what’s to be done? The Consorzio did take a step in the direction of quality by reducing the proportion of grapes that can be used for Amarone from the legal limit of 65% to a lower 50%, but the expansion of plantings has reversed the reduction in output. When Amarone (and Recioto) were promoted to DOCG in 2009, the rules specified the length of the period for drying, the proportion of grapes that could be used—but not which subregions within Valpolicella might be appropriate. It’s time to rectify this major mistake.