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Eastern wisdom

Published:  23 July, 2008

When wine folk speak of Valpolicella, they are almost invariably referring to the magnificent hilly zone lying north and west of the city of Verona.

But while the best-informed can come up with the names of major communes such as Fumane, Marano, Negrar, San Pietro in Cariano or Sant'Ambrogio, and can cite the most illustrious estates in these areas, there are few who remember that there are two other zones that to all intents and purposes are also Valpolicella. These zones may not be able to mention Classico on the label - a matter of little importance to most consumers, for whom that designation is less magical than one might suppose - but they nonetheless produce Valpolicella, Recioto and Amarone. Indeed, they bring to the party a diversity of approach and style that obliges the observer to let go of the received idea that true' Valpolicella is necessarily the Classico version, while the others, those of Valpantena and especially of eastern Valpolicella (Valpolicella Est), are strictly second-division stuff.

According to the figures from the Valpolicella consortium, Valpolicella consists of 5,592 hectares (ha) of vineyard, of which 2,862ha are in the Classico zone and 2,730ha are in Valpolicella Est and Valpantena. More than 60 million kilos of grapes are produced, of which 17.4 million in Valpolicella Classico and 26.7 million in the east. The Classico zone predominates, however, in grapes put to dry for Amarone and Recioto: 13.5 million kilos against 2.7 million in the east.

Valpolicella Est lies to the east of Verona, along the axis that leads to the production zone of Soave, in the communes of Verona, San Martino Buon Albergo, Lavagno, Mezzane, Tregnago, Illasi, Colognola ai Colli, Cazzano di Tramigna, Grezzana and Montecchia di Crosara. It is an area that began making a name for itself from about the mid-1980s, largely because it was here, in the frazione of Cellore di Illasi, that one of the great prophets of the new' Valpolicella, Romano dal Forno, set up his winery. Valpolicella Est, then, may seem a recent and perhaps opportunistic arrival on the scene, cashing in on the Classico zone's name. Yet there is evidence to support the contention that the east has an oenological history, since there exist certain studies carried out in the early 1980s that testify to viticultural activity in Cellore and Illasi during the Middle Ages and even as far back as the ninth century.

More recently, an important academic, Giovanni Battista Perez, in the early years of the 20th century, included Mizzole, Marcellise, Mezzane, Illasi and Val Tramigna among the best areas in the province of Verona for the production of red wine. And perhaps today's greatest living authority on Valpolicella, the consultant oenologist Nino Franceschetti, has said of Valpolicella that it was made up of a plurality of zones, each having its own characteristics'. He recalled how, in the inns of Verona during the 1970s, it was normal to find small advertisements announcing that we sell wines of the Valley of Illasi, of Valpantena, of Negrar and of Fumane' (ie not just of the classic' zone).

Nevertheless, Valpolicella Est has long suffered from a sort of ostracism in comparison with Valpolicella Classico. In the mid-1960s, when the Valpolicella DOC was under discussion, there was talk of extending' the area of production to the east of Verona. There was scepticism and resistance on the part of Valpolicella Classico, and it took Lamberto Paronetto, an important name in the history of Veronese oenology, to end the impasse, declaring that the east was strongly analogous (to the west) from all points of view: climate, soil types, vine varieties, viticultural and oenological practices, methods of conservation and ageing, chemical composition of the wines as well as organoleptic characteristics'. It was thus that it became possible, in 1968, to stipulate that the rules of production for Valpolicella DOC also include the so-called extended zone', which straightaway, in the eyes of some, was seen as a compromise.

Similar arguments against the enlarged' zone, including an absurd attempt to dismiss the east as a sort of oenological ghetto, emerged when people began talking about Amarone and Recioto DOCG. The polemics thus received another gust of wind in their sails, with the somewhat pathetic result that the two genuinely classic wines of the zone remain DOC until this day. It is only very recently, after a thousand discussions, that a proposal was presented to the Ministry of Agriculture for a disciplinare (or set of regulations governing particular DOC/Gs) that makes a clear distinction between the quantity of grapes that may be put to dry from hillside sites (70% of production), flatland sites (35%) and intermediate sites (50%). Thus Amarone from the east will qualify for DOCG status by the same rules as that from the west.

But it is the wines emerging from a few estates of the eastern zone that testify, to a greater extent than any words or scientific research or zonal study, that the east's ability to produce at the highest level is beyond dispute. We are talking not just of dal Forno, a cult figure in Italian oenology, proud of having created his estate outside of the classic Valpolicella zone, a man who has rethought the concept of the Veronese vineyard, rejecting Molinara in favour of Oseleta, introducing high-density plantings (10-14,000 plants per hectare), bringing forth a new model of Amarone that is as thick as cream and almost for eating rather than for drinking.

In the valley of Mezzane today we find quality-conscious estates like Corte Sant'Alda (famous for its Amarone Mithas), Tenuta Sant'Antonio (with its Amarone Campo dei Gigli) and Roccolo Grassi, run by Marco Sartori, considered one of the most promising producers of the denomination. Then there are others like Trabucchi, Baltieri, Villa Erbice, Musella, Marion and Fattoria Garbole at Tregnago in Val d'Illasi, and in Valpantena Tezza and Cantina Sociale Valpantena. These are all estates that have developed a certain house style, something that would not have been possible if their terroir were not suitable. Even producers of the classic zone are today investing in the east, people like Franco Scamperle of Le Salette in Fumane, who has purchased a vineyard in Val d'Illasi.

In what respects, then, does Valpolicella Est differentiate itself from Valpolicella Classico? According to Paolo Grigolli, one of the best oenologists working in Valpolicella, The east has soils of a calcareous and fairly clayey character, lightish of colour, often of volcanic origin (especially near to Soave and Colognola ai Colli), deficient in metals, although conditions vary from place to place. In the Classico zone, on the other hand, soils are more compact, quite deep, rich in iron, red in colour, clayey, with subsoils of Eocenic chalk as well as of basalt. A large proportion of vineyards in the east are on hillsides.'

This is a wine zone that has radically renewed itself in the past 15 years, and that has tended towards vertical training systems (cordon, Guyot) as distinct from the pergola that one finds much more frequently in the west. In this context, Vanio Tezza, of the house of Tezza, observes: Our Amarone and Valpolicella are produced entirely from plain-grown grapes, with 5,000 vines per hectare and a production per plant of under two kilos, while the proportion of bunches put to dry is never higher than 50% of the total. One question, then, for the hillside growers: is it better to have a hillside vineyard with 3,300 vines per hectare and a yield of 12,000 kilos per hectare, or a flatlands vineyard with 5,000 plants per hectare and a yield of 10,000 kilos?'

But what of the wines themselves? According to Grigolli: In the east low yields in the vineyard and long drying periods produce full wines of high extract, sweet tannins and aromas less of cherry and violet - more of fresh fruit compote and spices.' In the view of Filippo Finetto of Fattoria Garbole, The wines of Val d'Illasi are characterised by more intense colour tones with violet reflections; they are fresher on the nose, with notes of dried herbs, balsam and spice, yet with the characteristic cherries under alcohol typical of Amarone.' The aim is to make these wines more in tune with modern tastes without losing the intrinsic characteristics of the Veronese classics.

In the east, the area devoted to viticulture is growing apace, as is the number of producers. Considerable investment is being made, though it may take some years before the potential translates fully into reality. Meanwhile, the arrival of the DOCG will perhaps be the catalyst for overcoming the rivalry between east and west in Valpolicella, a rivalry that no longer makes sense for any but the most entrenched traditionalist.