Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Wine-Tasting in Valpolicella Region

I recently went wine-tasting with a couple of girlfriends from work. (I work! I have girlfriends from work! Whoa.) We made plans to carpool to the Valpolicella wine region, just north of Verona. It takes about an hour to get out there from where we live, but the drive went by very quickly despite horrendous rain. We arrived for our 10:00 am appointment at Antolini in the town of Marano just on time, and were met by a very cheerful Paolo. 

First, we went upstairs into the grape-drying area. When grapes are dried for wines like Amarone and Recioto, it is important to have a cool temperature and just the right humidity. Many wine-growers use lofts of barns or warehouses, and control the temperature and humidity with a mix of old-fashioned ways and modern technology. Unfortunately, we just missed the Amarone pressing by a couple of weeks so we didn't get to see (or smell) the drying grapes or witness the pressing. Allora. Next we went to the cellar, where juice was fermenting in a variety of barrels. Antolini uses a mix of sizes and materials - 225L, 500L, 1500L, etc. I was most surprised to find they use not only oak barrels, but also chestnut, cherry, and mulberry. The wood is sourced from Italy, Slovenia, and America. Next we went back to the tasting room - but only after Paolo pointed out some of the vines next to the driveway. With thick, gnarly trunks, the vines were 40-45 years old and trained with a horizontal spread much like a scarecrow on crossed sticks. I learned that often the oldest vines produce the favored grapes for Amarone and Ripasso.

The tasting line-up at Antolini
Next up: the tasting! We got to taste all of Antolini's wines with the exception of the 2013 Ripasso. So sad; I love Ripasso! Allora. The first wine we tasted was, of course, the Valpolicella Classico. It was very fruity, but a little young for me. Classico is not generally my favorite because they tend to be pretty bright and sometimes too acidic for my test. Next up, a pleasant surprise, the Corvina. This is only the second place I've ever seen Corvina bottled on its own and not part of a blend (Monte Tondo in Soave being the first), and it was really delicious and slightly peppery (one of my favorite things to taste in a red wine). This was the first vintage they tried it at Antolini, from 2013, and I think it was a very successful experiment. It was more medium-bodied and fruity, but not nearly as tart as the Classico, and a hint of the oak and maybe some almond smells came through. Next up was the TheoBroma Rosso Veronese, which is a blend of Cab Sav and Croatina. I'm pretty sure the Croatina grape is one that is only used in Italy. The TheoBroma was the most tannic and oaky of all the Antolini wines, and is not something I think I'd gravitate to but I bet my husband would really enjoy. Finally, the moment I was particularly looking forward to, a side-by-side comparison of their two Amarone wines: Moropio and Ca Coato. Both great! The Moropio is more intensely fruity and has an underlying minerality, whereas the Ca Coato was very soft and velvety. I think the Moropio was a little more dry and spicy and the Ca Coato was more fruity, with a pretty good undertone of vanilla and subtle caramel. I'd drink the Moropio with food and the Ca Coato on its own. MWAH! Delizioso. Last, we tasted the Recioto, a very typical dessert wine from this region. And by typical, I mean they have literally been producing this wine in this region for thousands of years, long before Amarone and Ripasso were produced. My main issue with dessert wines is that often they are syrupy and cloyingly sweet. The Recioto from Antolini? Not at all! It's pretty amazing to me the difference it makes when you stop the fermentation process early to produce a Recioto versus letting it go all the way to make an Amarone. Same grapes, same process to a certain point, but wildly different results. This particular Recioto I think could be dangerous, because you can barely taste the alcohol. It's light and refreshing and I'm pretty sure I could just drink it all day if I was in the mood. 

After tasting all the Antolini wines - and putting a nice dent in my pocketbook when I purchased lots of wine to bring home - we asked Paolo if he had any lunch recommendations for us. He said his favorite restaurant was still closed for the winter, and told us about his second-favorite place. He even called and made a reservation for us, and gave us business cards for both places, for whenever we go back to that part of the country. Talk about excellent customer service! Oh, and Antolini is the only winery we visited that did not charge us a tasting fee.

Since we still had a good bit of time before lunch, we decided to make an impromptu trip to Fratelli Vogadori. We called ahead to make sure they were open and let them know we were coming, but it turns out that was probably unnecessary as they only had a few other people in the giant tasting room. We found it pretty easily, though I did have to make a crazy-tight turn into their driveway (fine, I admit, I Austin Powersed my way in there). They have a nice big gravel lot with a great view of the valley below, and the tasting room maximizes that view with lots of glass windows. We sat down right in a corner and one of the three brothers came over to walk us through the tasting session, and set out a plate of bread and their house olive oil -from the trees we could see right underneath us through the windows! First, the Valpolicella Classico, which - no surprises here - was too tart for me. Next up, their Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso, aka the Ripasso, which was dynamite. One of my top wines of the day. It smelled like raisins to me but had a hint of cinnamon and maybe some other baking-related smell I couldn't quite identify. We also got to taste both of their Amarone wines, so I got a bonus side-by-side tasting. The first was delicious - very strong vanilla and caramel smells. The second was also delicious, and one of the most distinct chocolate-smelling and tasting wines I've ever had. It was also not as tannic as the first one. One neat thing about the second Amarone, the Forlago, was that every few minutes the smell and taste really evolved. Old-timers say that you should open a bottle at least one hour ahead of time for every year of its age. Many people will open a bottle in the morning to enjoy after dinner, or even open it the night before. Amarone can also age very well in the bottle, so of course it will probably taste very different years down the line. We also inquired about a couple of other wines on the list, and Gaetano (I really hope that's the name of the correct brother) kindly opened a bottle of Raffaello for us. The Raffaello is named for their father, and has been in production for about a decade. I think it's basically an Amarone, but they classify it as a Rosso Veronese IGT, so I'm not sure. It's aged in cherry rather than oak, so maybe that's why. Very yummy wine! Were we done yet? No. There's more! I was so sad to pour out so much wine throughout the day, but as the driver I wanted to be very careful and safe. We also tasted their Recioto, which was slightly thicker than the one from Antolini, and a little sweeter. Still, not at all too heavy. But wait, there's more! Oh yes, there is. The dreaded Grappa. Now, those of you who know me know that I am generally not a fan of Grappa. I like the ones that are sweet and taste like a liquid Jolly Rancher, but traditional Grappa is gross, and the herbed ones I find flat-out disgusting. That said, I actually didn't mind their Amarone Grappa aged in barrique. I don't think I would seek it out, but if someone poured me a glass I wouldn't mind sitting and sipping it to be social, and I might actually enjoy it. 
The tasting line-up at Fratelli Vogadori
I read a bunch of reviews on Trip Advisor, and I was surprised by some of the negative critiques. We had a great experience, and a very relaxed chat with one of the owners. He was very knowledgeable and we talked in a fair amount of depth about the history of the region, methods of wine production, and distinct characteristics of each wine. He did have to get up a few times to attend to other things - after all, it's his business! - but that didn't detract from the experience whatsoever. He was clearly passionate about wine-making and proud to share that their winery is so environmentally friendly - no chemical fertilizers, no pesticide, etc. I can see how possibly the place could get very full during tourist season and people's experiences might not be so intimate, but I have zero complaints or reservations. Speaking of reservations, Fratelli Vogadori also has rooms for rent! Each room has its own bathroom and there's a shared kitchen. I'm seeing an overnight trip in my future! 

By this time, we were more than ready for lunch. We trekked on over to Osteria alla Pieve, in the town of San Pietro in Cariano. Paolo knows the owner and chef, and they knew exactly who we were when we walked in, and walked us straight to our little table in a corner - across from the wood-fire merrily crackling in a fireplace. We each ordered a little appetizer, some acqua naturale, and another bottle of wine. (I tasted the wine, a DOC Valpolicella from La Giaretta, but I didn't really drink any. It was pretty good with food.) We each got to taste the Monte Veronese fonduta (local cheese fondue), prosciutto praga (Prague ham) with pickled onions, and polenta with mushrooms and cheese, if my memory is correct. I ordered pasta with black truffles, and my friends ordered Amarone-marinated steak, with potatoes and salads. And we got to watch the steaks cook on the fire! Color me impressed, and color the steaks the perfect shade of pink. Yum yum. The restaurant also has a huge wine selection, including wines made by the owners. I wish we'd had more time to sit and savor (and let's be honest, try dessert), but we had to head across the valley to our last wine-tasting appointment at Le Bignele.
Four typical grape varietals of the Valpolicella Region
And by across the valley, I mean over the river and through the woods and along some twisty, curvy, narrow roads. I think my knuckles are still white from the experience. I've been to Le Bignele before and definitely remembered some narrow and winding roads, but this time we approached from the opposite direction. We turned on a gravel road and headed up a steep incline, and near the top we passed a couple of farmers loading a tractor. About fifteen yards past them, the road did an exceptionally sharp turn to the left and appeared to dead-end in their "driveway." I backed into a flat area (presumably used for loading and unloading tractors) and pointed back down the hill. My friend rolled down her window and proceeded to tell them we were lost and ask if they knew how to get to Le Bignele. They pointed and said we were only three hundred meters away, back up the hill behind us. Apparently the road did TWO s-turns and it was so steep and sharp that we couldn't see the second one. We thanked them and I backed into the same turnaround spot (thank goodness it was there, or I would have been completely screwed) and carried on. I had to do another Austin Powers back-and-forth turn to make the second bend, and then it got REALLY interesting. Imagine a nice dirt walking path. Now imagine that path with some intermittent patches gravel. And now imagine that walking path has stone walls on both sides. And now use your imagination to picture a charcoal gray 2013 Honda Accord squeezing down that path so tightly that the mirrors only had a couple inches of clearance. Then about a hundred yards down the lane, add in two concrete strips where the tires should go. Now picture me driving that Accord, scootched way forward in my seat and sitting high over the steering wheel, slowly creeping along that road and praying there aren't any sharp turns. That was how we approached the winery. I can feel my heart rate speeding up just writing about it! 

When we finally, mercifully, arrived at Le Bignele, Sylvia (the owners' daughter) was ready for us. We got out of the car and she greeted us. Then she said, "And who is the driver?" I raised my hand and she said, "I commend you. You just took the ancient road. It has been there a very, very long time. When you leave, be sure to go the other way." (Spoiler alert: I did. It was still narrow and windy, but not nearly so nerve-wracking.)

Inside the Bignele Cellar, photo from their website
After a brief tour of the steel tanks, cellar filled with barrels, and grape-drying area, we headed downstairs to the tasting area. We all promptly fell in love with a shelf full of "Olivia Pope Wine Glasses," and then sat around the table. (You can purchase the glasses here: Crate and Barrel Camille ) Before Sylvia poured our first glass, we were joined by a local Italian gentleman who came in to buy some Ripasso but stayed to taste the whole selection when he heard Sylvia was doing a session for us. It was a merry group. We tasted five wines at Le Bignele: a Rosso Veronese, a Classico Superiore, Ripasso, Amarone, and a Recioto. I enjoyed the first very much, and again was not a huge fan of the Classico. I can definitely identify a trend! The Ripasso was dry and fruity, and their Amarone remains one of my favorites. It's a little more delicate than some, but still has great cherry and vanilla flavors. Very well-balanced and drinkable. I think perhaps it's less of an occasion wine than some Amarone out there. The Recioto was the heaviest and sweetest of all the ones we tried that day, but not in a bad way. Syliva served it with chocolate chip biscotti and joked that if we wanted to live, we'd only eat store-bought cookies at her place and not anything she cooked. At that point we told her about asking her neighbors for directions, and she instantly knew who they were, and said the lady is a very good cook. We said we should all go to her house next and ask for more biscotti! Le Bignele normally charges a ten euro per person tasting fee, but it is waived when you purchase their wine. After we made our last purchases, we loaded up the car and hit the road. I definitely remembered to go the more traditional route instead of taking the ancient road home, and was much more relaxed for having made that decision.

Overall opinion: If you want to go tasting in Valpolicella country, you can't go wrong at any of these three places. All three experiences were personalized to us. I think Antolini was the easiest to find and Vogadori had the best view, but I felt most comfortable relaxing at Le Bignele, if any of those opinions factor into your decision. All of the wines seemed pretty characteristic - lots of fresh cherry and red fruits, vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, and chocolate. I think there's probably something to suit everyone's tastes.

Bonus: Here's a great, simple run-down of the different tires of Valpolicella wines:

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