Exploring Valpolicella: From Unique Styles to Distinctive Terroir

By | 28 February 2024

Finding wines with a sense of place in the land of Amarone.


Sarah Marsh MW

On her latest visit to Valpolicella, Sarah Marsh MW explores the vineyards and tastes both apassimento and fresh-grape styles, seeking out producers that reflect her belief that the northeastern Italian region has some very special terroirs.

It’s a tough job but someone has to do it. A flight of 75 samples opened the 2019 Amarone Prima tastings in Verona. The 2019s are pleasingly energetic and focused, brighter than 2018 which in turn was less rich than the ripe 2017 and full-bodied 2015 vintages. It shares fresher acidity with 2016, but is less muscular and compact. You must go back to 2013 for a light and elegant vintage.

My previous writings on Valpolicella express my fascination with the terroir of the Veronese hills and valleys, seen most distinctly through Valpolicella DOC wines made from fresh grapes, avoiding the appassimento process. Outstanding examples of these vivid, terroir-focused Valpolicellas can be seen in Secondo Marco and Ca’ La Bionda, and Casalvegri from the latter displays exemplary single-vineyard Valpolicella.

This year, I chose to visit Tedeschi’s vineyards. Renzo Tedeschi was among the pioneer producers in the area to create single-vineyard wine as far back as 1964. Focussed solely on Amarone Riserva (around 10,000 bottles annually), the Monte Olmi Vineyard lies in San Pietro in Cariano, near the southern end of the Marano valley. This vineyard, acquired in 1918 and since expanded to 2.5ha (6 acres), boasts a steep, terraced section easily seen from the road. Situated at an elevation of 160m (525ft), the vineyard’s deep red clay and warm southwest orientation yield a striking, extravagant Amarone. 2017’s Capitel Monte Olmi is full-bodied and sumptuous, its appassimento process of 120 days enhancing the ripe vintage. Extended grape withering and barrel ageing add notes of garden herbs and tobacco. Yet, despite its single-vineyard origin, Monte Olmi reflects its technique more than its terroir.

Seeking a sharp expression of terroir led me to La Fabriseria, Tedeschi’s 5ha (12 acres) vineyard on the boundary of the Fumane valley and Sant’Ambrogio. Sant’Ambrogio is the warmest district of the Classico region, benefitting from its closeness to Lake Garda and the moderating influence the lake has on the climate. Together with Sabrina Tedeschi, we arrived just as the sun was setting. From our position, ten kilometres (6 miles) away but in clear view, the sun’s reflection shone brightly on the water. La Fabriseria, located high on a hill above the quaint village of San Giorgio di Valpolicella, offers a stunning view. Its 500m (1,640ft) elevation and limestone soil (which is shallow and drains so well that irrigation is crucial) make the Valpol’ airier and fresher than one would expect due to the lake’s proximity.

La Fabriseria Valpolicella Superiore displays the influence of the lake with its hearty floral aromas and tones of strawberry. Its round shape and supple texture also articulate this geographical connection. Both the aromatic 2017, with a more full-bodied palate, are refined, maintaining their freshness and a mineral finish that displays the elevation and soil. The process it undergoes includes two weeks of drying the grapes, which seems unneeded, as fresh grapes would result in a lighter, plenty concentrated wine that probably presents the terroir more directly. La Fabriseria saw its establishment in 2000 when the guyot was the favored trellising system in Valpolicella to foster ripeness. To maintain freshness and avert high sugar, this vineyard does not trim anymore enabling the leaves to provide shade for the grapes, thus imitating the traditional pergola system.

A distinctive Amarone Riserva originates from the top segment of La Fabriseria, with approximately 2000 bottles produced in 2011, 2015, and 2016. Previously, La Fabriseria Amarone Riserva picked the finest Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella across Tedeschi’s vineyards. Since its launch in 1983, it was produced only seven times with 1995 still holding strong vibrancy and persistence.

The Fabriseria Amarone Riserva (single-vineyard) is rich but retains freshness with a slight bitterness. It is sleek and profound, channeled with distinct edges. The bitter undertone of dried cherry and black chocolate lingers into a salty, sapid ending. This particular tasting comment could apply to any vintage. I sampled both, 2015 (with juicier cherry undertones) and the savory, tart 2016. The impressive aspect here is the robust vineyard identity both vintages share, effectively demonstrating that Amarone can extend beyond technique to terroir.

Lastly, we look at two relatively fresh and lesser-known manufacturers whose Valpolicella Superiore caught my interest. The Righetti family from the Negrar Valley were grape cultivators for three generations, buying their first plot and a farmhouse (now also serving as a winery) in the 1930s much before Gabriele started bottling the family’s wine in 2012. Ettore Righetti, Gabriele’s grandfather, stood as the president of the Negrar cooperative for 50 years, granting him substantial understanding into the terroir. The family holds a 20ha (50 acres) property in four distinct parcels where they blend the fruit. Vigneti di Ettore wines are quite appealing. Valpolicella Superiore 2021 is juicy and sapid with a concentrated blend of crunchy red fruit, while 2019 shines bright with a peppery and floral vibe. “It took me some years to produce a Valpolicella that satisfied me,” says Gabriele. Currently, they are experimenting with a single-vineyard wine from Costa del Buso.

During our journey to Costa del Buso, Giampaolo, a third-generation vine manager, shares his childhood memories. He reminisces about the challenging times when the region found it difficult to sell its wine. “Things have made a complete turnaround now,” he notes. Despite their wine being easily sellable, this father-son team is focused on elevating the quality even further. The Costa del Buso vineyard, significant for the Valpolicella hills at 8.5ha (21 acres), is sprawled across the apex of a 450m (1,475ft) high hill. Acquired in 2005, this young vineyard went through replanting between 2010 to 2015. Given its size, comprehensive exposure, and soil consistency — which Giampaolo characterizes as quite red and loose but very varied — understanding the terroir requires a patient analysis. Some results within the long rows are thrilling, while others quite the contrary. Remarkably, Giampaolo and Gabriele have identified a 1.5ha (3.7 acres) parcel on the slope facing southwest. “It’s sunny, but not overly warm due to the wind, allowing the fruit to mature later,” Giampaolo explains. Planted in 2019, he adds, “the fruit is of the highest quality and has the potential to become a cru.” Gabriele delved into experimenting in 2022 and 2023, making Valpolicella and Amarone to ascertain which best epitomizes the vineyard. Stay tuned.

Moving back to Marano valley, we arrive at Terre di Leone, a compact 7ha (17 acres) estate distributed over several parcels. Here, Chiara Turati and Federico Pellizzari produced their inaugural vintage in 2005. Their journey began with merely one hectare (2.4 acres), a legacy from Federico’s grandfather, planted with 14 traditional and authorized varieties. A delectable blend of all 14 is used in their Dedicatum Rosso Veneto IGT. The 2018 edition showcases a smooth, savory character balanced with a tanginess and a salty finishing note. However, it was their Valpolicella, crafted from fresh grapes, that prompted my visit. The vines surrounding the winery are located at 300m (985ft) on limestone soil, pleasant but ordinary. What captivates my attention is their vineyard situated at 450m on a 26-degree southeast-facing terraced slope, known as Rocchetto. “The valley is amphitheater-like, creating gentle wind circulation due to its unique shape,” observes Chiara. This parcel, comprising 80 percent of their vineyards, grows on volcanic tuff, typically associated with the eastern side of the Valpolicella DOC, but minor volcanic eruptions in the Classico area have left a legacy of volcanic outcrops.

The 2022 Il Re Pazzo Valpolicella Classico is elegantly refined and graceful, while the Terre di Leone Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2017 offers a dark, glossy graphite note, balanced by a light tannic touch, yet remaining silky. Their Amarones are rich, sophisticated and texturally evocative. The 2013 Terre di Leone stands out for me with its fresh, slate-like minerality. The freshness of the wine here is reflective of the altitude, and to some extent, the volcanic soil might play a role in their purity and savory taste, with the texture likely influenced more by the winemaking process. Despite their confined terroir in their modern, high-tech, beautifully built but small winery, there is no scope to experiment with single-vineyard wines. Considerably, instead of showcasing terroir, this couple identifies their wine by style.

I have a keen interest in seeing a more terroir-focused classification in Valpolicella. This 6km (3.7 miles) stretch of volcanic tufa perfectly illustrates how valleys could be subdivided into smaller sections to accurately express the diversity of terroir. Currently, there is a push to authorize labeling the valleys on the labels. While a few trailblazers are already doing this, I fear that another climate change will occur before the dominant narrative in Valpolicella shifts from style to terroir.

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