A deep-rooted love of wine

Allegrini Vini, in the heart of Valpolicella, was always a humble company. But then Giovanni Allegrini decided to shake things up. Elisabetta Tosi reports.

Marilisa Allegrini, Allegrini
Marilisa Allegrini, Allegrini

What happens when you tell a child they can’t have something? His or her curiosity about the prohibited thing gets even bigger. That’s more or less what happened to Marilisa Allegrini. When she was a little girl, wine was forbidden to her and her brothers, Walter and Franco, despite the fact that their parents had a small vineyard.

Whenever her parents left the room to accompany guests to the door at the end of the meal, she used to go around the table trying the wine left in each glass. Allegrini has never been a non-drinker, even when she was very young, and she still smiles today when she recalls these childhood episodes. As a grape-grower’s daughter, brought up in a winery in Valpolicella – close to Verona – it was almost inevitable that she had her first glass of wine early – in the past, it was almost a tradition in many Italian rural areas to initiate young children into it. And from those early sips has come a passion for wine that has helped create one of Italy’s most renowned wine companies.

Small beginnings

When she first worked for the winery as a young woman, Allegrini remembers that the business was very humble, similar to those of many other producers in the region. “A day a week of my time was enough to organise its papers, the documents, and the bureaucracy.” Today, the company has 120 employees.

Its headquarters are in Villa Della Torre in Fumane, a small village in the heart of the Valpolicella Classico region. The manor house is a jewel of 16th century Italian architecture, surrounded by the Palazzo della Torre vineyard which gives its name to one of the company’s most famous wines. The family acquired Villa Della Torre in 2008, and nowadays it is both home to the company management and a meeting place with 10 luxury rooms open to Italian and European intellectuals. Apart from its 150 ha of vineyards in Valpolicella, the company has 98 ha in Tuscany and produces 4.3m bottles a year. In 2015, the company turnover was an estimated €30m ($32m).

Landowners and farmers since the 16th century, the Allegrinis had lived through and helped to lead a winemaking revolution starting from the late 1960s and ‘70s, when Giovanni Allegrini introduced some major innovations. “My father hadn’t ever been to France, so, despite his passion, his knowledge of farming was as limited as almost any farmer [in the region], at that time,” says Marilisa Allegrini. “One day he had the opportunity to take a trip to the USA and visit California and its vineyards. There, he experienced some new concepts, like the importance of the yield per vine, rather than per hectare.”

Allegrini was also a pioneer in his belief in the potential of individual-vineyard wines, which were almost unknown in Valpolicella at that time. In 1979, he bought the La Grola vineyard in the hills of Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella, and in a major departure from tradition, began to train the vines using the double Guyot system recently introduced in Bordeaux, rather than the overhead pergola Veronese that was the custom in the region. “Giovanni’s goal was not making an Amarone, but a totally new wine, from richly concentrated grapes,” says Allegrini. That revolutionary change of mindset brought an innovative approach to every aspect of winemaking.

When Giovanni died unexpectedly in 1983, before the release of the first vintage of La Poja – a wine made with grapes from the La Grola vineyard – his children took over the business. Franco was winemaker, Walter took responsibility for the vineyards, and Marilisa handled communications and sales. From the outset, they set out to pursue their father’s vision and ambition.

This included following his lead in breaking with tradition in order to improve quality. In particular, Franco resented regulations that restricted the use of the Corvina grape variety to 60% and required the inclusion of the Rondinella and, especially, the Molinara, which he thought had far less potential. He wanted the freedom to make wines exclusively from Corvina, to include Sangiovese in blends and to experiment with other varieties.

By the 1997 harvest, he finally got the chance to break away from the rules by releasing that year’s wine as a Veronese IGT rather than DOC Valpolicella. The Allegrini Palazzo della Torre had already become one of the most prestigious wines in the region, and the change had no effect on its sale. Indeed, the following vintage was included in Wine Spectator’s list of Top 100 wines of the year. With the freedom provided by IGT status, Allegrini modified the traditional Ripasso technique. Instead of simply following the recipe of adding dried Amarone skins to Valpolicella to start a second fermentation, he set aside a third of the harvest to be added to the finished wine at the end of the year. No Molinara was included at all.

Another concern for Franco was the rot that sometimes developed on the passito grapes as they dried on the rafters of the winemakers’ attics. His solution lay in the construction of vast purpose-designed drying sheds with fans and dehumidifiers.

Company expansion

While Franco’s efforts were focused on producing wines in Valpolicella, his siblings were also looking to innovate, and were eager to start something from scratch beyond the borders of their region. Thus, in the early years of the millennium, Marilisa and Walter began to explore the potential of Tuscany. They traveled along the coast until reached Bolgheri where, in 2001, they founded a new winery called Poggio al Tesoro.

When it came to choosing which parcel to buy, Walter chose plots both on the hills and on land close to the sea, in order to diversify the planting of the grapes, which included Sangiovese, Vermentino, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot. Sadly, just a couple years after their purchase, Walter suddenly died. Marilisa did not give up on their Tuscan dream, however, and over the following years completed the planting of the vineyards.

Furthermore – in partnership with Leonardo LoCascio, a prominent wine importer in the USA – another estate, San Polo in Montalcino, was purchased in 2006, and a winery was built following the newest trends of bio-architecture.

Today, Allegrini owns 70 ha in Bolgheri and 22 ha in Montalcino, eight of which are intended to produce Brunello. Care for the environment is an approach the Allegrini family learned in Tuscany and initially applied to their Tuscan estates. This year San Polo will achieve organic certification, and the same will happen to Poggio al Tesoro in Bolgheri. “We are getting more and more convinced that sustainability and respect for the environment are the future of wine. That’s why we are also trying to apply this approach in our vineyards in Valpolicella,” says Allegrini.

Nowadays, you can find a bottle of Allegrini in the most remote places of the world. In fact, since the beginning of their move into exports, no market was considered insignificant. “You can only claim to be a brand when your wine is everywhere, or almost everywhere,” says Allegrini. Today, about 90% of the total production is exported, to 65 countries.

Apart from viticulture and wine, the Veronese wine company is also involved in a number of other fields, of which culture is arguably the most important. In 2013, Allegrini became a member of Intrapresae Guggenheim Collection, a project supported by a number of major companies with the aim of promoting cultural exchange as an innovative form of business communication. In the same year, to celebrate the 30th birthday of their iconic La Poja and La Grola wines, Allegrini organised a special event at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York, introducing a limited edition of La Grola, whose label bears a picture by the famous Italian comic illustrator Milo Manara.

Another important partnership was sealed in 2014, when the Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella was chosen as the ‘vin d’honneur’ of the famous Hermitage Museum for the following five years. In the famous Russian museum’s council chamber, Marilisa Allegrini and Mikhail Piotrovsky, the general manager of the museum, signed an agreement to develop a scientific and cultural collaboration to promote the relationship between art, culture, and wine.

Cultural events are also frequently held at the Villa della Torre, ranging from wine tastings, food courses and cooking shows, to conferences and book presentations. Giulio Romano’s Renaissance architectural masterpiece is not only the ideal location for these kinds of initiatives, but also as a starting point for exploring the region. Over the next few years, the Allegrini family intend to develop wine tourism in their Tuscan properties, introducing accommodation facilities in Bolgheri and Poggio al Tesoro.

Marilisa Allegrini also believes in the need to stand alongside other high-quality Italian producers in an effort to promote the image of Italian wine. This has been translated into strategic partnerships such as ISWA (Italian Signature Wines Academy), an association of wine companies founded to support the Italian wine sector and train future industry leaders. The academy includes leading producers such as Arnaldo Caprai, Feudi di San Gregorio, Fontanafredda, Frescobaldi, Planeta, Villa Sandi and Masciarelli.

Another organisation, Altagamma, promotes Italian excellence abroad, by gathering together the most-prestigious ‘Made in Italy’ brands in the fields of industry, design, fashion, hospitality, and food and wine. Finally, Allegrini is also a member of the the Famiglie dell'Amarone (the Amarone Families), a group of wineries in Valpolicella that a few years ago decided to leave the regional consortium in order to fight to safeguard traditional values and high-quality standards for Amarone della Valpolicella.

Her experience at Allegrini and her relationships with other producers has given Marilisa some very clear ideas of the strategy that an ambitious, young, small winery should ideally follow. “Nowadays, you can no longer improvise. You have to start with a deep analysis of your strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “Exploit new channels – even the digital ones – to sell your wine. If you are just a small winery, be clear on what you are and what you are doing. There is an audience of people looking precisely for your wine – artisanal, natural, vegan or whatever.”

She also advises producers to “forget Saturdays and Sundays. Your winery has to be open all year long. If you are prepared to work hard and to talk about your wine, your family story, and your region tirelessly, 365 days a year, success cannot fail you.”

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