The Valleys of Valpolicella
Vinnie and I were heading north through the town of Negrar di Valpolicella when we came upon a strange sight in the centre of a roundabout. “What is that?” he exclaimed. “That is where art meets science” I responded. “It is a metal sculpture that is also an astronomical clock.” Today, science and art seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum but it was not always so. In the 11th century in Persia there lived a renowned mathematician and astronomer called Omar Khayyam who penned the following couplet as part of his famous poem The Rubaiyat.
I often wonder what the vintners buy
One half so precious as the goods they sell
With that in mind, we left the town behind and headed deep into hills and valleys where they make the rich red wines of Valpolicella. To understand properly the wines they make in this area, read the article here: http://blog.italydecanted.com/the-valpolicellas-meet-the-family/ We were heading high into the hills to meet Claudio and Sandra who make some extremely fine wines from 10 hectares of vines with an annual production of 80,000 bottles.
Looking over the vineyards, Claudio explained that the area is made up of five ranges of hills, with four valleys between, spreading like fingers towards the south. To the north it is protected from the worst of the winter weather by the Lessini mountains and to the west by the Monte Baldo range. Claudio and Sandra’s cantina, at around 400 metres above sea level, high on the western slopes of the Negrar valley, has the fresh dry air that is perfect for the drying process called appassimento that is an essential element of the production of Amarone and Recioto wines. The soil types are varied, with both clay and chalk, but Claudio is philosophical. During a wet year the well-drained vineyards prosper and vice versa during the dry years. Here we are at the limits of cultivation; in the past the land higher up was the province of shepherds and their flocks but today it is left to nature. There is a sense of the elemental here as you watch the raptors circling high in the crisp, clean mountain air.
But we were there to sample the wines and we started with a 2019 Valpolicella Classico. Ruby with hints of garnet, this was fermented in stainless steel before maturing for 12 months again in steel. Normally, I would report on the percentages of the different grapes used, for Valpolicella wines are a blend of Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella grapes but Claudio says his blends vary according to the year. It is a bit like the old Rolls Royce; when asked about the power of their engines they simply replied, “sufficient”. The bouquet is full of plums and blackberries and on the palate the tannins are light with a good acidity. Try this with a pasta dish, though Claudio warns against dishes with strong tomato content as they will be too high in acidity. Perhaps a rich ragu, a very Veneto dish, would be ideal.
The Valpolicella Classico Superiore ‘Campo Morar’ has won the coveted tre bicchieri from the Gambero Rosso guide and we tasted the 2017. There are secrets here and all that Claudio would tell me is that there has been a slight appassimento or drying of the grapes to enhance flavours and colour. After fermentation in steel the wine is matured for 18 months in tonneaux of French oak. These are barrels that have been used once or twice previously, chosen to allow just the correct amount of flavour to percolate into the wine. The colour is an intense ruby with a bouquet of plums with hints of vanilla and leather and in the mouth it is full of cherries with good tannins and a full structure. This would be a great accompaniment to grilled or roast red meat.
Ripasso is a technique to produce a wine half way between a Valpolicella and Amarone. Amarone is made from grapes that have been air dried at least until December and usually longer. To make the best use of these, the skins are recycled and used to add flavour and colour to Valpolicella and that, put simply, is ripasso. Claudio’s 2017 is dark ruby with hints of garnet and spends 18 months in tonneaux and botti grande. On the nose it is rich with cherries, liquorice, vanilla, and tobacco with a good structure and long finish. I would try this with a barbecued steak.
Amarone is the star in the Valpolicella firmament and whilst that is probably unfair to the other wines that all have their place, to quote Bruce Hornsby, “That’s just the way it is”. The name literally translates as the big bitter one and to obtain a wine that lives up to the name requires patience, time, and skill, all qualities that Claudio possesses in abundance. The appassimento, or drying of the grapes, requires constant monitoring and the balance of barrique, tonneau and botte for maturing the wine before the final blending and bottling is a skill that cannot be taught, In his 2016, the result is a deep almost opaque ruby with hints of garnet. Bitter cherries combine with vanilla and the leather of old books to give a delightful bouquet and in the mouth the tannins have softened with age to give a full structure.
But that is not all, for Claudio then let me taste his pièce de résistance. Again an Amarone, it is called Casa dei Bepi and this has also gained the tre bicchieri award . At a whopping 16% ABV this is, in effect, a riserva and the couple produce only around 3,000 to 6,000 bottles of this nectar per year.It is a deeply fulfilling and complex wine with vanilla, soft cherries, and liquorice on the nose. On the palate the tannins have softened and the acidity combines to produce an experience that fills the mouth with deliciousness. Claudio thinks it will have 30 years of life in the bottle. I would term both of these wines as vini di meditazione to be enjoyed by themselves or with mature cheese or perhaps bitter chocolate.
Claudio and Sandra welcome visitors but theirs is a working cantina and of necessity groups must be small, less than six, and booked well in advance.