In a fascinating visit to the Valpolicella region of Italy, home to Valpolicella and Amarone wines, organized by Bolla Winery, I learned about this history of the area, tasted a range of wines coming from here, and got into deep philosophical discussions about technology, marketing, New World versus Old World approaches, limitations, and freedoms, and much, much more with Elio Novello, technical director of the winery. Valpolicella means ‘valley of many cellars,’ but the history of the region is full of more than just great wine.
(‘Map’ of my discussion with Mr. Novello)
(Pergola trellis system typical of this region)
(Guyot trellis system, largely adopted in Valpolicello around 20 years ago and now believed to produce lower quality grapes than the pergola system)
At Bolla, the emphasis is on the use of technology, but not at the expense of the natural. The winery has a huge production, between 12 and 20 million bottles annually, so technology is applied intelligently as a means of reducing labor needs, and potential risk involved in human labor, to produce wine in the same way that it would be traditionally made. For example, the winery employs a cross flow filtration system, which is a large, high-tech, expensive machine, but in fact uses no filtration material, instead relying on the natural sediments in the wine to, essentially, filter itself. Another example is the use of an innovative method for pumping over, where they have specially designed tanks that use the pressure of the carbon dioxide naturally produced through fermentation to push down the cap of skins inside of the tank, submerging it in the fermenting must in order to extract compounds from the skins exactly as in a traditional pumpover, but without the need for pumps!
(Bottling lines at Bolla fill an entire room and pump out tens of thousands of bottles per day)
(Cross-flow filtration system – left – and electrodialysis machine for tartaric stabilization – right. Both are fully controlled by a computer to reduce potential for human error)
I tasted their Soave Classico, a smooth, simple, highly drinkable white wine made from garganega and trebbiano (distinct from the Tuscan trebbiano) grapes, from the appropriately named town of Soave (though the name comes from Swedish heritage in the town, not the Italian word for smooth/sweet/gentle/soft, which actually is quite fitting for this particular wine). I also tried four red wines all comprised of essentially the same grape varietals – corvina and corvenone with some other local varietals in the mix), but completely distinct as a result of terroir and/or production method. The first was the Bardolino, a very simple, drinkable, low tannin, fresh red wine. Then there was the Valpolicella, very different in style but only because of the different growing zone. This wine had a bit more structure and body, owing to a bit of oak but also differences in terroir, and can hold up to a bit more aging than the Bardolino. Next was the Ripasso, a particular style of wine made by refermenting normal valpolicella wine on the skins of Amarone wine. This approach gives the wine a significant degree of complexity and body, though this particular specimine could use a few more months to integrate in the bottle, as the beautiful nose was not quite matched in the mouth. Finally was the Amarone, a particular wine made after harvesting and drying the grapes in special conditions that allow for the development of botrytis inside (but not outside!!) the berries, dehydrating and changing their composition to the perfect degree, over a period of 1-3 months (but could be up to as many as 6!) before they are put into the tank for fermentation. This yields a particular, complex, rich wine that is very special in this region.
(Bins for drying Amarone in a special warehouse on top of the hill where there is no fog and a consistent breeze, all prepped and waiting for harvest to begin)
(Dehydrated grapes as are used for Amarone production)
This type of winemaking approach, waiting at the whims of nature of the dehydration of grapes, may seem a stark contrast to the technologically advanced Bolla winery, but in fact lies at the heart of their philosophy, it seems. The company is committed both to research and technology, but also, first and foremost, to creating a quality product for the consumer. Something that can stand the test of time, not conforming to one fad or another, but rather a simple, straightforward, people-friendly wine that is, most importantly, enjoyable to consume.
(Wooden cask from 1884, the year after the winery was founded. These casks =, in a nod to tradition, are still used today as the inside can be shaved every few years to expose fresh oak)
(Ancient Roman Monastery – one of the many relics of a rich, varied history in Valpolicella)
** Here’s a NYTimes article published today (Aug 17) about Soave, the white wine from the Valpolicella region