Andrea Lonardi points to a stone-lined channel that runs past the back of Villa Novare, a gracious eighteenth century property in the heart of Valpolicella that’s owned by Cantine Bertani. The stones are Roman, he explains, and the stream here still supplies the city of Verona with water.
It’s been a busy morning touring the property, and there have been many remarkable things to see. “I started working at Bertani in 2012,” says winemaker Lonardi, adding it was the fulfilment of a dream. “Bertani always had a kind of mystery to it. When I arrived, it was quite emotional.”
This year is an important one for Bertani, because it marks 50 years since the company made the first commmercial dry Amarone, a style they are credited with creating. Amarone is a red wine made from dried Corvina and Rondinella grapes, that is extremely rich and multi-layered. It ancestor was the sweet Reciotto della Valpolicella Amarone; legend has it that someone at Bertani neglected to rack off a barrel, and fermentation continued to dryness. This new wine became an international hit during the 1980s, particularly in Germany, Scandinavia and the USA, and helped build Valpolicella’s current prosperity.
The hills around the 220 ha property form a natural amphitheatre, protecting the vineyards that rise from the flats to the slopes. “During the 1960s and 1970s, the vineyards were reduced in size,” says Lonardi. “We’re working to bring them back again, but it’s a long process.”
In one direction, red and sandy soils. Grapes grown on these have a floral note and light structure, says Lonardi. In another direction, limestone. Over there, where the best grapes can be found, basalt.
Workers move methodically between the rows, picking grapes and standing them upright in their baskets. “Every grape here has a destination,” says Lonardi. “Everything we make is estate bottled – we don’t buy in grapes.”
Although Valpolicella is a cool climate region, climate change is proving to be a challenge — the harvest date has advanced 20 days in the past 50 years, and every year the alcohol levels rise. “Probably we need to dry the grapes less,” he says. Not only that, but the grapes ripen differently, and Lonardi thinks intelligent irrigation will become more important to the region. He stops to taste a Corvina grape. “We’re developing our own clone,” he says.
Lonardi says that as the grapes ripen, they produce new flavours each week, which will eventually appear in the wine, in a set order. In the first few years, fresh cherry. Then comes milk chocolate, proceeding through pepper to dark chocolate. After 50 years in bottle come mushroom and truffle flavours.
The vineyards are bucolic, with a springy green lawn growing between the vines. But here and there are patches of esca, the vine trunk disease, another consequence of climate change. “We urgently need research on this,” he says. “The situation is very dangerous.” At the moment, the only solution is a special pruning technique, to get right inside the vine. “We clean it, like a dentist.”
Lonardi gets into the car and drives up into the hills that form the shoulders of the amphitheatre. “The hills weren’t planted in the 1930s and 1940s,” he says. “People moved to the flatlands to get better revenue. Now, with the renaissance of Amarone, we decided to go back to the hills.” Every so often, a door suddenly appears, drilled into the stone. They look like hobbit holes, but they were once mine entrances. “They mined iron and manganese, but it stopped in 1943,” says Lonardi. “We want to fix them and use them for bottle ageing.”
At the winery, grapes are laid out on arele – bamboo racks – and left to dry. Here and there is a fan, blowing away the humidity, but there isn’t any air conditioning, as Lonardi believe it dries the grapes too quickly. Slow drying is key, as it intensifies the flavours. The wine is fermented in concrete and then spends two months in traditional cherry barrels, “to give it dryness and a sense of nerve,” says Lonardi. Then it spends up to six years in large Slovenian oak barrels.
These are glory days for Amarone, which has attained the status of a classic. It will always attract high prices, because it’s made in small quantities. And high prices for wine are good news for vineyard owners: farm land here is some of the most valuable in Italy.
It’s a testament to how fast things can change, even in an ancient region where the Romans once made wine. When he was growing up, Lonardi says, being a wine grower was work for peasants. Now, he says, with an infectious smile, “winemakers are like lawyers or doctors”.