The concept of “terroir” is wonderfully expressed in this area. It has everything it takes for unique wines: steep hillsides, dry, stony, varied soil, warm sunny summers and cold winters. Nearby Lake Garda mitigates the cold winter days with its soothing, warming breezes. The same winds bring relevant temperance in the summer, ensuring cool nights that allow for aromatic richness to develop in autochthonous grapes Corvina, Molinara, Rondinella and Corvinone (and others). And it has centuries of tradition in unique winemaking, using specific techniques, such as “appassimento” and “ripasso”, which were documented already in Roman times.
Yet, perhaps no winegrowing area of Italy has been a “victim” of its success as much as Valpolicella, land of great reds, such as the famous “Valpolicella Ripasso” and the imperial “Amarone”. In my youth, when I attended university in Venice, I met many people from Verona and Valpolicella. We would share wine experiences where everyone brought bottles from their region. “Ripasso” was difficult to get. Those who worked could not drink such a strong wine at lunch, or even at dinner. In those days, “Amarone” was almost impossible to find. Only small amounts were made, in the best vintages only, aged for a long time and kept for the holiday celebrations, weddings and other special occasions. Nowadays, both Ripasso and Amarone can be found on the shelves of certain “low cost” supermarkets, all over the world, and in every price category.
What has happened over these years? In a nutshell, while traditionally these wines were brought to neighbouring countries, Austria Switzerland and Bavaria, in our age of mass-tourism, attracted by nearby Verona and Lake Garda, travellers from all over the world have discovered these great wines and spread their fame. As demand became higher than supply, prices increased rapidly. It was the beginning of a golden age, and everyone wanted to profit. Vines were planted in flat and less optimal areas, where once wheat, rye, corn or potatoes were grown. Intensive viticulture boosted yields at the cost of quality… but with the right scientific adjustments, a good average product could be released. In a few years, the hunt for “red gold” has transformed the once prestigiously “exclusive” Valpolicella into a large vineyard, with high yields and an industrial output that feeds supermarkets around the world.
Does this mean that these wines are not good? We also adore Valpolicella wines! Even the simple (so to speak) “Classico” with its velvety warmth and richness of fruit and berries is a feast for the palate. And like most people, we love Amarone and Recioto – the real ones!
However, we found it difficult to find good, authentic wines in Valpolicella. We spent three days there and tried many good ones. Few of them, though, gave us the feeling that we had discovered the “essence” of the land.
Like the Amarone we tasted at the Musella biodynamic farm, known as “Senza Titolo” (Untitled), or the wines from Corte Rugolin, Corte Sant’Alda and Monte dall’Ora. And then there are the wines from “Monte dei Ragni”, produced according to tradition by Zeno Zignoli, with respect for the balance of nature. Our favourite Valpolicella wines!
We arrive on a dirt road, winding its way between traditional dry-stone walls. Around us there are houses, olive trees, fruit trees, meadows, fields. A small vineyard can be seen at the top of the hill. Below us, vines are also grown at the bottom of the valley where we would expect other crops. Zeno and his little dog Julia give us a warm welcome. Slender, with even features, curly hair and beard, he looks a little like we imagine an ancient Greek philosopher and instantly starts sharing his ideas with us.