Amarone Academy 2023
Various fashions come and go, although the lumberjack shirt seems to be in fashion on a worryingly regular basis. Fashion does appear to be a consideration when it comes to wine and there are a few examples that struggle to get out of their particular period or ubiquity. Valpolicella seems to be one of those wines - for a certain generation it was the cheap and cheerful carafe or house wine in old style Italian restaurants or for others it’s the Amarone version, a big, powerful, almost sweet red wine.
In order to combat this myth, I travelled to Verona to visit our fantastic supply partner Cantine Bertani alongside a dozen or so participants from around the world to take part in their Amarone Academy. This is an annual event that is designed to spread the message that not all wines in this area are the same, that the area is relevant in the modern age and that the Bertani “style” is something very different, something that can dispel any preconceived ideas that the drinker may have.
The week was led by the chief winemaker and CEO of the company (and newly qualified Master of Wine to boot – only the second in Italy), Andrea Lonardi, and ably assisted by numerous colleagues and even a journalist with a specific interest in Valpolicella wines. The setting was amazing. The classes were held in the 13th century Ognisanti di Novare Church (the church of the All Saints) in the heart of Valpolicella Classico, specifically the Negrar area and the Tenute Novare. This was a very bright, cool space, the perfect place to sample and learn about some excellent wines.
Firstly, we needed to look at why Valpolicella was maybe seen as something a bit light and easy to dismiss. Back in the 1970s the grapes were being harvested in October. The harvest temperature was 15°C whereas now the temperature is around 25-30°C at harvest and the picking begins in early September. The resulting wines in the 1970’s rarely got above 9.5% ABV whereas now the wines are regularly 12% or just above, making a big difference to the style. However, perhaps the biggest influence is a wine making practice known as appassimento: the drying of grapes. As the wines tended to be light in body and flavour, the appassimento method of concentrating the sugars and removing moisture increased the alcohol and/or the sweetness of the resultant wine. Bertani were masters of this process, they historically produced a sweet wine made with appassimento grapes; Recioto della Valpolicella, once the main product but now only accounts for 0.5% of the total wine produced in Valpolicella. They also realised that there was a growing demand for dry wines and were the very first winemakers in the area to produce and bottle a dry red wine – Secco Bertani (which hit the shelves in 1860 - after the original Bertani brothers travelled to Burgundy and fell in love with the dry wines produced).
Fast forward to the 1950s and there was a buzz in the area about making a dry wine that could utilise the Appassimento or, in Bertani’s case, the “Messa a Riposo” grapes. “Messa a Riposo” grapes are dried the most traditional way, in the lofts above the winery on large mats with the grapes only one bunch deep and the only airflow coming from the open windows – the grapes are drying much slower and completely at the pace of the outside conditions – so the autumn and early part of winter following the harvest can be just as important as the weather before picking. The wine was called Amarone della Valpolicella which meant big and bitter wine from Valpolicella (i.e. dry). The wine was kept in large oak casks for a long time. However, suddenly in the 1980s this style of wine became the thing, not just the Bertani wine, but they were at the forefront, in part due to the stock they had, but also because of the sheer quality of the Amarone Classico they produced.
What sets Bertani apart, I believe, is the commitment to the original style. Many great things are open to interpretation including the rules of the DOC and newly introduced improved DOCG rules. Not all variations are bad and there is no attempt to be critical of other producers, but Bertani have a particular style and believe they have a unique place in the history and the future of this wine. Even within the 60 or so years that Bertani have been making the wine, there has been attempts by some of the previous winemakers to alter the style a bit however these were all thwarted when it came down to it as they were veering away from the classic style. When Andrea Lonardi took over the reins in 2012, he wanted to push further into the roots of the “Bertani style” and then take that as a blueprint for his future work. There are many producers making Amarone and many making Amarone that is excellent but what exactly is the “Bertani Style”? To start with, I believe it’s being true to the terroir, true to the grapes and true to what the wine should actually be (Amarone, Ripasso, Valpolicella, Soave etc).
We ventred into the vineyard which was a great experience as the grapes were ripe and the harvest had started already. We experienced the three typical terroirs within the vineyards at Novare: the dark soils containing decomposed volcanic rocks, the white limestone (in the Ognisanti vineyard – which is made as a single site Valpolicella Classico) and the red limestone of Le Miniere (the Mines vineyard) – again made as a single plot Valpolicella Classico. The soils are different and the aspect and altitude in each is also slightly different but the common thread is the Corvina grape. These produce varying results: the limestone soils produce powerfully flavoured grapes and the salinity of the Volcanic soils was also very noticeable – which again showed in both the glass and the grape.
What does this have to do with the Bertani Style? The harnessing of these characteristics and not allowing over the top residual sugar (RS) to get in the way of this – the RS levels are low – hovering around 5g/ltr whereas some well-known producers are around 8-9g (9g is generally the maximum permitted but there is allowance within the rules of the DOCG for more if the grapes reach 15, 16 even 17% ABV - which is very possible these days). Although this does not sound like much, it makes a big difference in the character, perceived body and luxurious nature of the wine but also the ability of the wine pair with food. Great wines always show their best with food but if the sweetness gets in the way it can make food pairing clumsy.
Another aspect of the Bertani style is the use of oak. Never is the wine made in new oak. The barrels are large, not the stereotypical barriques of 225 litres, but rather, barrels of usually 6000 litres which have less influence of oak flavour but harness the micro-oxygenation of the wines over the course of time they are in barrel (6-7 years for the Classico).
The type of oak they use is often French but increasingly also Slavonian oak, which is more dense. The forests of eastern Croatia grow slower than those in France and this generally slows the aging process down because less oxygen can get into the barrel. There is even talk of using Austrian Oak, which is very rare in winemaking but is thought to be very suitable. The old tradition of using cherry and chestnut wood has virtually disappeared due to the mixed results achieved because these wood types are much harder to work with and lack the consistency of oak.
Another factor to consider is the acidity. Acidity is never the most attractive aspect to talk about but the thing I noticed in all of the wines that Bertani produce is an unflinching line of acidity in the palate, always balanced, which seems to hold the wines together and keep a much need freshness in the wines – which maybe for me the most distinctive ingredient of the “Bertani style”. Perhaps the most exciting part of the event, and what we were building up to, was the introduction to the “The Library”. As mentioned before Bertani have an unrivalled back catalogue of Amarone Classico in their Grezzana cellars – they hold the back vintages in huge quantities.
Going back to the 1960’s they have good volume available of each vintage they produced (not every year was made). We were selected seven different vintages starting with 2013 and then travelled through the decades until we hit the fabled 1964 vintage. As the glasses were lined up it was pretty difficult to tell which wines were the oldest, they all had a lovely garnet colour with an attractive amber note towards the rim. Even the wines that had been in barrel the longest seemed to show this - the 1964 had been in the barrel until 1983 (19yrs) plus another 40 in the bottle!