Amarone: The Slow Wine of Valpolicella
In Valpolicella, a postcard-perfect valley near Verona, Italy, Bertani has mastered a rich, regional wine called Amarone. Its secret, according to our wine correspondent: patience.
By TIM TEICHGRAEBER
If you place your left hand palm-down on a table in Northern Italy, with your fingers facing south, your pinkie and ring finger will point toward the city of Verona. The spaces between your fingers now represent the four steep valleys of Valpolicella, as they descend from the Dolomite mountain range.
Lake Garda is west, to the right of your thumb, moderating daytime temperatures and breathing cool air across your fingertips toward that drowning beauty that is Venice, about 80 miles to Verona’s east. Along the sides of your fingers, the hillsides of Valpolicellla are so steep that most of the vineyards are terraced into stone-girdled steps supporting one or two rows of vines. The terraces not only help prevent erosion, they also make the grapevines easier to prune and harvest by staggering flat workspaces up and down the hillside.
The stingy soils beneath the Corvina, Rondinella, Corvinone, and Molinara vines around here are a rocky mix of white pebbles, basalt, clay and iron. Lean, hillside vineyards like these are expensive to farm because everything has to be done by hand, without heavy machinery, but these same hillsides also yield exceptional quality grapes. Here, grapes grow in smaller bunches than are found in the lowlands, with thick skins full of color, flavor, and the bitter tannin that helps wine age gracefully.
Of all the wines that come from this region, the greatest is Amarone, which is made from Corvina grapes that have been dried for weeks before being fermented. This process, called appassimento, has been a tradition here for centuries; it makes for sweet, concentrated recioto wines, which were the Red Bull of the Roman empire. Because of their high sugar content, recioto traveled well, energizing the Roman legions.
Today, dry Amarone della Valpolicella has become an aristocratic beverage that is cellared, traded, and collected. Mature bottles from producers such as Dal Forno, Quintarelli, and Bertani often sell for several hundred dollars a bottle. Much has changed over the centuries, but that distinctive appasimento drying of the local Corvina grapes is the thread that ties these times and styles together.
Traversing these valleys by car on ribbon-like roads makes you feel pretty small, and a little bit nauseous. You climb up and over one crest, dive deep down, snake back up, head over the next crest and pretty soon you’re just wishing the whole adventure were over. As picturesque as the views are, at times I would gladly have paid twenty bucks to be back in my hotel room sipping a glass of Valpolicella Ripasso delivered on a tray.
Although the suburban apartments and homes of the Veronese now encroach on the hillside vineyards, no real estate agent has yet developed an argument for a better use of Valpolicella’s hills than growing grapes for this wine.
I am here at the behest of one particular winemaker, Andrea Lonardi from Bertani. To stage a blind tasting of Bertani’s wines next to those of other local producers, Lonardi and his export director, Stefano Mangiarotti, have invited me to join15 sommeliers and wine merchants from around the world. There are Americans from Chicago, Portland, Miami, New York and Los Angeles, along with a scattering from Europe: Hamburg, Prague, and Amsterdam. While each of us is knowledgeable about Italian wine, a complex and arcane subject to be sure, it quickly becomes clear that we are all here to learn, enjoy the tastes of Italy, and leave a little bit wiser.
In the afternoon we convene at Tenuta Novare, Bertani’s home estate in the Valpolicella foothills. This epic estate includes hillside vineyards that only produce Amarone-grade grapes. Ownership of the property has been documented back to the sixth century, but it was most recently acquired, by Guglielmo Bertani in 1957, through a card game. That year, Bolla, another local producer, had been renting the property from a Veronese count, who apparently wasn’t a great gambler. On one particularly bad night, the count was losing so badly that he put up Tenuta Novare and Villa Mosconi, a run-down château and winery at the time, as collateral for his debt.
Unfortunately, the debt had to be paid by sunset the next night; sensing an opportunity, Bertani stepped in to satisfy the debt and suddenly the estate was his. The villa’s magnificent building still exists on the property, and the owners welcome visitors and host 90-minute tours and tastings for about $25 per person. You’d be hard pressed to get the same treatment in Napa Valley.
During our tasting, we are served four unknown Amarones. Then we’re given 10 or 15 minutes to swirl, sniff, and savor in silence. To my tastes, the first one is pretty high in alcohol and has a sweet finish. The second smells like vinegar. The third is seamless, fresh, and dry—I’m thinking a couple of vintages older than the others. The fourth is very raisiny. It tastes of baked fruit that has lost its freshness.
When Andrea Lonardi asks who thinks the first wine is from Bertani, one hand is raised in the air. The second? Two hands. The third? Fifteen hands go up. No one votes for the fourth. You can see the relief in Lonardi’s face, and he waves his hands. “Ok, you got it right…”
There’s always room for difference of opinion when it comes to wine, but this crowd could sniff out the more restrained, polished Bertani Amarone like drug dogs at a Central American airport. It’s flawless from a technical point of view—in other words, the wine is “clean” in that there is no musty aroma or taste of mold, which is always a concern when working with dried grapes. Nor is there any hint of volatile acidity, or vinegar, also common problems when working with dried or late-harvested grapes. And the alcohol doesn’t overwhelm, leaving a hot or burning impression on the finish. Instead, there are floral aromas and a freshness that some of the others lack.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, an average bottle of Amarone contained 15 percent alcohol and approximately 4 grams of residual sugar. Today, the percentage of alcohol in the average Amarone is slightly higher (16.5 percent), but the sugar content has more than doubled—to 9 or even 10 grams. In large part, this is in response to wine critics in the United States and elsewhere, who have increasingly applauded bigger, more unctuous, ultra-ripe wines.
In the process, restrained wines like Bertani’s, which take time to reach their peak, get lost in the rush to ever riper, sweeter, more powerful wines. To those who appreciate the unusual, that can be a good thing. “Bertani is unique in terms of style,” Lonardi explains. “We don’t follow trends.”
The underbelly of Bertani’s winery offers a living portrait of the steps that Bertani takes to make sure their wines age gracefully. The cellars, which are stacked with thousands of dusty bottles, hold stashes of Amarone dating back to the late 1950’s. Each cubby hole contains Amarone from a single vintage, the numbers hand-written in chalk below or above the storage nook. The wines are baby-sat by darkness, their health carefully monitored by hand-written ledgers. Visitors are allowed to tour these dusty, sleeping wines, but only rarely.
“Why can’t you find old bottles from other producers with 16% alcohol and residual sugar?” Lonardi asks me before answering his own question. “You can’t age it. It will be ruined by high alcohol and low acidity.”
After the wine tasting we all return to Verona for dinner at Trattoria al Pompiere, the cozy restaurant that both locals and tourists hold in high regard. As soon as we walk in, Lonardi and Mangiarotti are greeted with open arms by the bow-tied waiters who know them well; the chef prefers to use Bertani wines in his dishes, and Bertani clearly drops some euros here from time to time.
Named for the retired firefighter who opened the then nameless restaurant, at Trattoria al Pompiere, there’s an old fireman’s helmet hanging on one wall, and hams and other cured meats dangling from the ceiling. The walls are covered with black and white photos of celebrities who have visited over the years. Within minutes there are two massive plates of cured meats in front of us and the red Valpolicella Ripasso is flowing.
After the salumi comes a risotto made with white wine and mushrooms. It’s creamy, comforting and with just the right toothsome bite that the local rice always seems to deliver. Then, to my surprise, another risotto. This one is made with Valpolicella wine and butter, smoothly complimenting its predecessor. Deep purple with a buttery sheen, it is impossibly delicious for having only three ingredients. Almost anywhere two consecutive risotto courses would be overkill, but this is Italy, where the simplest pleasures are often the greatest.
Over more wine, Lonardi argues that these are interesting times in Valpolicella. Some Amarone has become absurdly ripe, sappy and sweet. Maybe global warming has something to do with this trend, but fashion seems to be the primary culprit. From what we can discern, some Amarone producers recently figured out how to cut corners in the appassimento drying process. Instead of leaving the grapes to desiccate slowly and naturally in an open warehouse, they move them into temperature and humidity controlled walk-in coolers. In those chambers, they can dry the grapes more quickly without having to continually monitor them for rot.
As a winemaker in most job interviews, Lonardi says, “people show you a certain bottle of wine that they like, and they ask you to replicate it for one or two Euros less.” At Bertani, he says, “They ask you to taste through the older vintages and reproduce what they have always done.”
We had already tasted the difference between these two methods. One afternoon in a technical presentation, I learned what might be causing it.
Professor Diego Tomasi, a researcher I spoke to from the Research Center for Viticulture in nearby Conegliano, has compared grapes dried in these two different methods. Tomasi found that traditional drying methods—which occur on straw mats, in an open warehouse—allow the grapes to desiccate slowly, thereby metabolizing the sugars, tannins and anthocyanins in the fruit at a different rate. That slower process creates very different aromas and chemistry than are found in wine from what are essentially speed-dried grapes.
These findings confirm what traditional winemakers have suspected for a long time, and Tomasi was understandably excited about it. “Only in the last ten years have we had the tools to measure this metabolic activity,” he tells me. The sommeliers seemed excited too. By all indications, the aromas in what might be called Bertani’s old-fashioned, slow wine are what caused those 15 hands to go up during our tasting. Lonardi now wants to study the differences between grapes dried in different locations around Valpolicella, which he suspects might open a new window into those constant discussions about terroir. “I think the terroir can be reflected both in where the grapes come from in a vineyard, and also the place where they are dried.”
At Bertani, it seems, virtually everything is done the original way. Women who pick the incomparable local risotto rice, Vialone Nano, are valued for their nimble fingers; in the off-season, they assist with the appassimento process by picking through the racks of drying grapes each day. This weeds out any rotten berries, and ensures that the flavors of Bertani’s Amarone are pristine and fresh.
The goals and values at this winery seem to be old-school as well. Lonardi noticed as much in his first interview at Bertani. “As a winemaker, in most interviews,” he says, “people show you a certain bottle of wine that they like, and they ask you to replicate it for one or two Euros less.” That’s where Bertani is different. “They ask you to taste through the older vintages,” Lonardi says, “and to reproduce what they have always done.” By this point, Lonardi seems completely in love with Bertani’s steadfastly classical approach. “I’m a guy who grew up in the area,” he says, “and Bertani is a dream. You hope it is your final destination.”
For more about Shakespeare’s love affair with Italy, start here.
And last, to find the perfect rice for Veronese risotto, Italy in SF offers these tips.