One of the funny things about the creative process, at least as far as we left-brainers are concerned, is that what you end up with can often bear little resemblance to that which you set out to create. The travelling is more important than the arriving; the artistic endeavour more significant than the resulting artwork. Even more bafflingly, this is perfectly acceptable. Try to run a business that way and see what happens.
I usually have a clear idea as to the direction my writing will take, but this time my journey proved more noteworthy than my destination. When I sat down to write this post I realised the tasting I had intended to describe was of secondary interest to those things I saw and experienced over the rest of my trip.
Unexpectedly, and somewhat serendipitously, an invitation landed in my dad’s inbox on 17th January for the fourth “Amarone in Villa” tasting being held just outside Illasi only seven days later. As an Amarone advocate and having been unaware of the previous three events, he couldn’t pass up the chance to taste forty-seven examples under one roof. The fact that this meant a quick trip to the Veneto was an added bonus. And, of course, he would need a travelling companion…
A quick search of Ryanair’s website yielded a couple of return tickets to Bergamo, bookings for a hire car and a hotel room swiftly followed, as (miraculously) did two days off work at somewhat short notice. Seven days duly passed and, after a ridiculously early flight, we were soon motoring along the A4 autostrada towards fair Verona. Due to the uniquely self-aggrandising way Ryanair schedules its flights’ arrival times, and because it had only taken a few minutes to collect the hire car rather than the hour we had allowed, we were early for our table at the Enoteca della Valpolicella so we took the opportunity to squeeze in two extra-itinerary detours before lunch.
The first of these stops was at the veritable Aladdin’s cave that is the macelleria Caprini in Negrar. Their award winning sopressa, offered at three different ages, is always a treat and the lovely ladies behind the counter quickly carved a couple of slices and magically made some pieces of bread appear to keep us occupied whilst they served the customers in front of us. A short time later we emerged with a couple of sopresse, half a kilo of the most beautiful, tiny homemade tortellini and various other delicious bits and pieces all vacuum packed and ready to be loaded into a suitcase.
Having been up since before four o’clock, this little taster merely served to whet our appetites and reminded us quite how hungry we were. It was only twelve o’clock and we still had some time to kill before lunch at half past one, so rather than taking the shorter cross-country route through the hills from Negrar to Fumane, we headed back down to the main road to make our second stop. We’d passed Zýmē’s cave on the way up to Negrar and, with time in hand, I wanted to pop in to purchase a bottle of Oz as a gift for my brother if it wasn’t yet closed for lunch.
I’d noticed the hoarding next door to the cave when we drove past initially, but I had simply assumed it to be part of the building boom the entire region is experiencing as a result of the recent exponential rise in the popularity of Amarone. However, when we actually pulled up outside the cave, the Zýmē sign on the hoarding and the immensity of the hole behind it left us in no doubt that this was the genesis of a new winery.
Fortunately, no-one had yet left for lunch and, even though we didn’t have an appointment, we were made most welcome both by a very helpful lady named Ilaria and by Celestino Gaspari himself who wandered in and out of a meeting with his bank manager to chat to us. He proudly showed us the architect’s drawings of his new three-storey complex, incorporating a brand new winery, warehouse and maturation space and offices on the top, all of which will finally be linked to the cave and tasting room. We tasted a selection of his wines, which were as fine as always, along with his excellent white Harlequin grappa and a new, oak aged dark grappa made from the pomace of his La Mattonara Amarone Riserva. This was hugely complex and mouth filling, redolent of mocha in both colour and flavour. Not cheap at €30 for a 350ml bottle, but I couldn’t resist adding some to the bottle of Oz I was buying for Rick. Good thing we’d had the foresight to check in one of our bags as hold baggage for our return flight.
Happy but hungry, we headed back up into the hills for lunch. The Enoteca della Valpolicella is one of my favourite restaurants anywhere, and I have to say that I was looking forward to lunch as much as I was looking forward to the tasting that evening. I wasn’t disappointed. When we sat down, our waitress brought an encyclopaedic wine list, a basket of crunchy, salty bread rolls and asked us if we wanted to see a menu or if we would prefer a selection of the chef’s house specialities of the season. No contest really. A complimentary glass of Talento Brut soon arrived – gently smokey and toasty with soft citrus fruit and a lovely mousse – it made a delicious apéritif and it even stood up to a really interesting amuse bouche of a ragu of lightly smoked and salted herring on a spoonful of wet polenta.
An Amarone was ruled out to drink with lunch as we still had another drive plus a tasting ahead of us, but when in Valpolicella… Faced with such a comprehensive wine list, I opted for something I hadn’t tried before from a really good producer: Le Ragose’s Marta Galli Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2007, although I didn’t realise it was 14% ABV until it arrived! A deep ruby garnet colour, with a nose that exhibited aromas of dried flowers, black cherry and soft blackcurrant fruit, plus pencil shavings and sweet dark chocolate oak notes on top. All of these aromas transferred across to the palate: delicate floral flavours, dark fruit and a pinch of woody spices mingled with cocoa and cherry clafoutis notes. Surprisingly light in body, its very fine-grained tannins and modest acidity balanced the fruit beautifully. A delightfully long finish echoed the flavours from the mid-palate.
To eat with it, we enjoyed an antipasto of cotecchino with cabbage and a dab of horseradish sauce, then tagliatelle with the house ragu of duck, turkey and rabbit, ending up with a breast of pheasant in a delicate pomegranate sauce served with polenta and spinach. I had no room for dessert, but dad managed a little aged Monte Veronese to accompany the last of his wine. The whole meal was a triumph, perfectly judged and perfectly executed; I wish I lived closer to Fumane.
A leisurely drive over to Illasi, half an hour with my book at the hotel, a quick wash and change and it was time to head off to the Villa de Winckels for an Amarone marathon. Not quite knowing what the format of the tasting was going to be, we arrived at about five thirty, half an hour after the doors opened. We needn’t have worried: as we signed in and collected our glasses, in true Italian style three of the exhibiting winemakers arrived right after us.
The good thing about arriving when we did was that the venue was empty enough for us to start in the smaller back rooms and work our way forwards. We tasted the wines of twenty or so producers before taking a break to sample the extensive buffet of local delicacies that had been laid on for the occasion. After our late and quite substantial lunch we weren’t especially hungry, but after thirty or more different Amarones our palates needed a change of scenery. By the time we had eaten and re-joined the fray, all of the rooms were as packed with people as they were stiflingly hot. We tried another ten or twelve producers’ wines, but by then our palates and our enthusiasm had started to flag. The heat, the difficulty in moving from table to table and the fact that we had been up since four o’clock that morning meant that as the clock struck nine we’d pretty much had enough. It was a shame not to have tasted all of the wines on offer, but the combination of our jaded palates and the dense scrum of people in a tight space meant that the thought of staying much longer didn’t hold very much appeal.
What we tasted proved to be very interesting: there was a good mix of new and long established producers, some of whom we were familiar with and some of whom we weren’t; many of the wines showed very well, a few disappointed greatly; a number of them were old friends, several of them are destined to become new favourites. I won’t dwell on the disappointments, but I’m happy to highlight the wines that really tickled my fancy.
Worth the price of admission on its own, it was a privilege and a pleasure to taste the current release of the estate that literally put Illasi on the map of the Valpolicella region: the 2006 vintage of Romano dal Forno’s Amarone. Inky dark, redolent of dark forest fruits, chocolate/vanilla oak flavours and a whiff of smokey minerality, this was a heavyweight that was surprisingly light on its feet. Deep, enveloping, velvety smooth and remarkably accessible for such a young wine from this estate, its incredible elegance and sophistication belied its density and shrugged off its 17% ABV with ease. As always, this was a wine that somehow seemed to defy the laws of nature and my words fail to do it justice. Sell your house and buy a case.
Some of the other winning wines of the evening were also from estates already well-known to me: Allegrini, Musella, Zýmē, Tenuta Sant’Antonio et al, but the rest were exciting new discoveries: Fasoli Gino, Roccolo Grassi, Monte Faustino, Terre di Leone and Massimago for example.
I have to say that my hastily scribbled, somewhat repetitive notes make less interesting reading than my other observations. Not so many years ago it was a relatively easy matter to divide Amarone into one of two styles: traditional and sweeter, aged in large old oak botti or modern and drier, aged at least partially in new oak barriques. This tasting quickly proved that these distinctions were no longer so clear-cut. Because of the unique nature of Amarone, it is far less prone to being rendered unrecognisable by new oak and, most fortunately of all, there appears to be no interest in adding hefty amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot or any of the other international gatecrashers into the traditional blends of the area. Indeed, both sweeter and drier styles of wine were on show, raised in myriad combinations of old and new oak barriques, tonneaux and botti, suggesting a maturing approach to winemaking in an appellation coming to terms with the legacy of its heritage and with the potential of its future.
It was also hugely encouraging to see so many dedicated, passionate, enthusiastic and well-educated young winemakers taking such pride in the fruit of their labour. Their media and marketing savvy and their fearlessly international focus, combined with their commitment to and their belief in the quality of the terroir they have inherited, all point towards even greater recognition and demand for their wines henceforward.
It was with these thoughts in my head that fatigue of both my body and my palate finally caught up with me and bedtime began to beckon.
We had nothing planned for the next morning and, after a leisurely, coffee-dominated breakfast, we had about an hour to kill before we needed to set off to the airport. After our memorable lunch the day before, we were inspired to do a little shopping en route back to Bergamo with the intention of sneaking a cotecchino or two into our luggage. Dropping down from our hotel, we needed to turn left at the bottom of the hill onto the SP10 to head back to the A4. However, if we turned right onto the SP10, some two minutes later we would arrive at Azienda Agricola Romano dal Forno. Strangely, we rather lost interest in the idea of a spot of shopping.
We didn’t have an appointment, but I thought it would be a lovely final treat to pop in and buy a bottle of dal Forno grappa. It had been about six years since we last visited the dal Forno estate; at that point he had not yet finished all of the building work on his monumental new winery and drying room. This time, all of the building work was complete and there were only one or two final pieces of landscaping work left to finish. To say the results were impressive is to do them an injustice; so grand is this new “château” that it would not look out of place in Pauillac. It was impossible to even begin to estimate the cost of these improvements: the doors alone for each wing of the property were over twenty feet tall, were made from solid steel clad in wood and were electronically operated.
S. dal Forno senior was busy with other visitors, but his son Marco very generously took the time to show us their new winery and to explain its design philosophy, centred on eliminating oxidation to preserve the freshness of the fruit in their wines. We then moved on to see the uniquely innovative and futuristic-looking drying room. Marco did not speak English, but we managed to understand most of what he said and we hopefully succeeded in making ourselves understood in the process. Unfortunately, there were points in the conversation when we didn’t quite grasp the meaning of all that he said and Marco very kindly went to find his brother, Michele, who did speak English.
Michele was also extremely kind in spending his time talking to us, explaining what it takes to produce wines of such character, concentration and complexity. As you would expect, this began in the vineyard. The usual planting density of the Valpolicella area is approximately 3,500 vines per hectare. Dal Forno plants on a Burgundian scale of 13,000 vines per hectare. If this stiff competition for light, root space and nutrients wasn’t demanding enough, the estate has a policy of green harvesting that makes even Lalou Bize-Leroy look cavalier in the yields she achieves. Vines are pruned to produce only two bunches of grapes. Of these bunches, only the upper halves are left to ripen fully as they will have had the optimum exposure to the sun and the ideal amount of shelter from the leaf canopy. Only vines of at least ten years old will have their grapes used in the estate’s Amarone, the fruit of the younger vines is used for its Valpolicella.
It is impossible to discuss Romano dal Forno’s Amarone without also mentioning his Valpolicella. The philosophy behind this wine is as individual as everything else this maverick sets his mind to. It has always been a substantial wine, but around ten years ago its style changed and it became even more Amarone-like in its structure. I’d read various snippets of information about this paradigm shift, but I’d never had chance to discuss it in person until now. Listening to Michele explain his family’s thought processes was enlightening. Their overwhelming desire is to convey the very essence of Valpolicella, to make the very best expression of the region’s grape varieties and vineyards. They do this by using all of the techniques they have perfected in crafting their Amarone, merely halving the drying time of the grapes (40 days rather than 80) and altering the blend of grapes very slightly to deliver a fruitier, lighter sibling. It spends the same three years in new oak barriques and two years in bottle prior to release, but to describe it is as a baby sibling can only ever be a relative term as it is a bigger and better wine than the Amarones from many other estates.
In case the miniscule yields and the obsessive attention to detail in the vineyard don’t sufficiently concentrate the characters of the grapes, nothing is left to chance with the appassimento process either. Dal Forno has designed a drying room unlike any other. Computerised temperature and humidity sensors ensure that windows on either side of the room are opened and closed as necessary depending upon the position of the sun, the external temperature and the wind speed and direction. Banks of fans, suspended from motorised ceiling tracks, patrol there and back across the room along the passages between the stacks of plastic trays holding the grapes. Despite appearances, the role of these fans is to circulate the air and control the humidity, eliminating the incidence of botrytis rather than speeding up the drying process.
From here, grapes are taken to the equally hi-tech winery. Ergonomic design and skilful mechanisation permit minimum handling of the grapes and must whilst preventing exposure to oxygen wherever possible. Marco explained that the biggest change in the style of the dal Forno wines over recent years is the increased emphasis on a fresh fruit character and the upon the lightness and delicacy of wines that regularly reach 17% ABV.
Unfortunately our spare hour rapidly came to end and we didn’t have time to see the beautiful vaulted brick cellars or to taste any of the treasured elixirs stored therein, although we had at least tasted the current vintage of Amarone the previous evening.
Dal Forno doesn’t offer a grappa for sale so I couldn’t buy a bottle, but I came away with something far more valuable instead. Our conversations with Marco and Michele and our brief tour of their winery lead me to re-evaluate my opinion of dal Forno’s wines. Previously I had regarded them as brilliant, provocative but overly expensive, whereas I was now left with the distinct impression that such perfectionism and experimentation had simply been ahead of its time. Rather abstractly, Bugatti’s Veyron sprang to mind as a comparison: surely it is the ultimate achievement in its field and, even though it cost several times more to produce than the price it was sold for, the end entirely justified the means. So much of dal Forno’s logic has now been adopted to varying degrees by other producers that a less humble man would sit back and rest on his laurels, but the desire that Romano and his sons have to coax the very finest wines possible from their vineyards means that this is very unlikely to happen.
I’d like to thank Marco and Michele dal Forno for their hospitality towards two strangers with a love of Amarone, they went out of their way to spend time with us and share their passion and pride in their work. Their kindness was the perfect end to a fascinating and illuminating trip.
As Dean Martin almost sang: “When the world seems to shine, like you’ve had too much wine, that’s Amarone”.