You may not think of Valpolicella as one of the great wine regions of Italy, but think again. Amarone, its concentrated, cellarworthy red, ranks as high on the prestige ladder as Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo. Yet, Valpolicella’s inherent greatness is only one component of the Wine Region of the Year equation. The real clincher is its uniqueness: saying that Valpolicella is unlike any wine region in the world is not hyperbole.
“The world of wine is divided into two schools,” says Sandro Boscaini of Masi, one of the region’s most successful wineries. “Ninety-five percent of the world follows the Bordeaux school in which wine is made from freshly picked grapes. Valpolicella is its own tiny school in which wine is made from dried grapes.”
Valpolicella, the gorgeous, hilly region between Verona and the pre-Alps, is bordered to the west by the beautiful Lake Garda. It looks to Venice for its cultural identity and is steeped in natural beauty and architectural wonder. From a winemaking point of view, it represents something of an anomaly. Appassimento, the art of air-drying grapes before pressing them into wine, is a unique tradition and is the technique responsible for the distinctive richness, intensity and opulence you will find in wines like Amarone, Ripasso and Recioto (a dessert wine). “We enjoy an incredibly strong link to our indigenous traditions,” says Emilio Pedron. “We have native grapes like Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella; and we have a native winemaking technique: appassimento.” Pedron should know: he is one of the most important figures in Valpolicella as president of Gruppo Italiano Vini (Italy’s biggest wine group), president of Bertani (one of Valpolicella’s most historic estates) and former president of the consorzio’s some 300 members.
Valpolicella hasn’t always been synonymous with quality. As our own wine culture developed in the United States 30 or so years ago, we embraced Valpolicella’s basic red wine (called “Valpolicella”) because it was cheap and went down easily. “We’ve suffered from an inferiority complex compared to Tuscany and Piedmont,” says the current president of the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella, Luca Sartori. “We’ve now moved past that barrier.”
Pedron explains that changes in the region, fueled by three main factors, helped the region claim its identity alongside its famous neighbors. The first is a generational shift that has resulted in an even mix between big, historic estates and small, up-and-coming producers. “This relationship between big and small creates enormous synergy and is rare in Italy,” he says. The second factor is recent investments in vineyards and wineries. Valpolicella is divided into two zones. Both the Classico zone (closer to Lake Garda) and the non-classico zone are dotted with construction sites and other signs of positive development.
The third factor, says Pedron, is that Valpolicella makes wines that truly speak to the tastes of both European and American wine devotees. Thanks to appassimento, the grapes used in making Amarone lose much of their water content. The resulting wines are distinctively rich in flavor and power.
As further testimony to the region’s dedication to quality, 10 wineries (that together represents 40% of total Amarone turnover) have recently banded together to form “Amarone Families.” The focus of the group (that today includes Allegrini, Brigaldara, Masi, Musella, Nicolis, Speri, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Tommasi and Zenato) is to protect the identity of Amarone around the world and to adopt even more stringent standards of quality.
“Nowhere else in the world can you say that four different wines are made from the same vineyards, and in some cases the same grapes,” says Pierangelo Tommasi of Tommasi. Thanks to special selections during harvest, one vineyard can produce fruit for the entry-level Valpolicella, for the intermediate wine Ripasso, for the dessert wine Recioto and for the top-shelf Amarone. “This means that Valpolicella has the natural flexibility to address all prices and all pocketbooks.”
Emilio Fasoletti has been director of the Consorzio for 30 years and has seen the Valpolicella evolution first hand. “Robust and vibrant” is how he characterizes it today. With so much hard work behind him, says Fasoletti, it’s time to set off for Lake Garda for a little trout fishing at sunrise. He deserves the rest, as his efforts have helped to make Valpolicella Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Region of the Year.
Read about Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Awards Ceremony, in which we honor all the wine industry superlatives of 2009.