1 Apr 2012

This Is ITALIA!! (Valpolicella, Italy – Day One)

Driving south through the Adige Valley is quite a spiritual experience, as the Dolomites jut out of the earth in a very rugged and wild way, and houses and vineyards seem to sit precariously on the edges of cliffs. As Alto Adige becomes Trentino, one of the first things you notice is the difference in vineyards. Whereas in the north it is more common to have guyot trellising systems, in Trentino it is more common to have pergola-based vineyards, as Trentino tends to be a little bit more focused on volume. There are a number of great small producers who are focused on quality, and also on more traditional viticultural and winemaking techniques in harmony with nature. One of these is Elizabetta Foradori who I caught up with at Vinitaly, producing wines using biodynamics and using such techniques as amphora fermentations on skins. For white wines no less. It is a shame that I didn’t have enough time to spend in Trentino as I drove through, but Verona and Vinitaly beckoned. As did Valpolicella, less than 30 minutes from the city.

Valpolicella Rosso = pergola trellising
The first producer I visited in Valpolicella was one I was quite familiar with having stocked it at King & Godfree, and meeting my host last year when he showed me the wines in the store. The Speri family are now in the fifth generation to grow and vinify wines in the heart of Valpolicella, and are doing so in a very traditional and uncompromising way. The extended family all work for the business, making it truly family-run. Speri own quite a lot of hectares, but only use their own fruit for their wines. This is the first thing that distinguishes them from other wineries of comparable size. The second is their commitment to Valpolicella, by only producing red wines. Whilst many others only produce Valpolicella Superiore wines at their base, Speri are traditionalists and purists, producing Valpolicella as their entry. Whilst many others have given up on the most traditional wine, Speri continue to produce one of the best Recioto wines in the region. The general style of the wines is less is more, with less oak, less residual sugar, less alcohol and less extraction. They are not motivated by the markets, but about making traditional wines that best express the region and style.

Casks, an important part of Amarone della Valpolicella
Luca Speri is one of the fifth generation working in the winery, and I met him last year to look at some of the wines in the store. In the lead-up to Vinitaly it was very generous of him to give me some time to show me around and allow me to better understand the winery. The vineyards immediately surrounding the winery are on flat parts of the Valpolicella region, and are used only for the Valpolicella Classico. The better parcels of fruit come from vineyards planted on the sides of the hill facing south. Interestingly the fruit destined for Amarone and Recioto is actually harvested earlier than fruit for Valpolicella and Ripasso wine. The reason is that the completion of maturity of the berries is conducted through the drying process, much like fruit you buy from the market and let sit for a day or two. The winery has started to go back to using cement fermenters rather than stainless steel tanks, taking advantage of equipment that already existed and preferring the style and stability they provide. The winery only produces one Amarone (no riserva), and it comes from a single vineyard that ripens fruit for Amarone and Recioto exactly how they want it. In a time when Amarone is very much in vogue and many other wineries are making several levels, this integrity and stoicism is admirable if traditional.

Luca Speri
The first and last wines that Speri produces are currently not brought into Australia, but according to Luca’s grandfather, are the styles that determine how good a Valpolicella producer is. The Classico 2011 is a lovely bright light ruby colour, has a fresh spicy red cherry nose, and is very clean and palateable to match with simple local food or on its own. The La Roverina 2010 Valpolicella Classico (actually of Superiore quality but not classified as under a screwcap) is softer yet fuller, quite juicy and plump with great balance and flavour. The Ripasso, which technically is Valpolicella Superiore that has had additional maceration on Amarone skins, has a deeper dark cherry cassis nose, much more velvety and slightly toasty characters, but with good balance of acidity that would push it through at least five years. The Amarone della Valpolicella 2007 has had at least three years of cask age and another year of bottle age. Lovely chocolate and hazelnut aromas greet you, with dark plum and cassis fruit plumpness on the palate, but it is so gloriously well integrated that you don’t notice the alcohol or the residual sugar sweetness. As a treat I got to try the 1983 Amarone, which was still showing very young, but as the tannins alcohol and oak had subsided the fruit sweetness was coming through a lot more, supported with nutty toasty caramel and cocoa notes. The Recioto La Roggia 2008 to finish was showing gentle raisined chocolate notes, with some complex oxidative characters and intense tannin sweetness to boot.

Speri Amarone della Valpolicella 1983
Zenato was established just as the world was being introduced to Amarone, and was instrumental in ensuring that every great wine list had at least one on offer. The winery itself sits outside the classic Valpolicella area, on the south-western side of Lago di Garda, Italy’s largest lake. It is a purpose built winery, very modern and functional, and not restricted to space like many wineries at least 100 years old. In many ways it is like a new world winery; situated in the middle of one of the estates, outside of a village, precise efficient yet elegant and stylish. The winery produces a range of wines from different parts of Veneto, and in general they are market led. For example the winery doesn’t produce Valpolicella Classico or Recioto, and also makes a number of wines from French varieties. It is committed to delivering quality at all levels to their many and varied markets, and also produce a diverse range of wines which includes sparkling wines.

Zenato branded barrel
To begin with I looked at the Lugana 2008, a 100% trebbiano, which had a very ripe honeyed lemon barley nose, robust rich weight and texture partly from oak, and seemed somewhat aggressive and too heavily worked. The Valpolicella Superiore 2009 had a very full dark plum and currant nose, brightness and intensity at the same time, with good firm but soft tannins. The Ripassa Superiore of the same vintage had the same intensity but a more earthy character, with some dark floral notes and a little warmth that will settle down given time. A 100% corvina wine named Cresasso 2005 followed, bold and tannic, oak and alcohol very well integrated but looking a little too macerated and not enough fruit. To finish the Amarone Classico 2007 had a dense spicy jammy nose, very big and powerful on the front but a little disjointed and fruit sweet on the back. It is difficult to see the balance of acidity and fruit in this wine.

How a tasting should be
Click here to see more photos from Day One in Valpolicella, Italy.

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