Deep In The Valley: A Wine Documentary In The Valpolicella
Veneto is a region in the northeast of Italy that stretches from the beaches of the Adriatic Sea to the pointed peaks of the Dolomites. It’s named after one of the most fascinating cities in the world: Venice.
The veneti people have been inhabiting this part of Italy for over 2500 years. But people have been thriving here long before that, spanning back to the dawn of humanity. One of the earliest archeological sites of humans can be found in the Fumane Cave 60,000 years ago in the Valpolicella of Veneto.
As people went from hunter gatherers to farmerss At the end of prehistory the Arusnate people of Etruscan-Rhaetian origins inhabited the Valpolicella because of its fertile lands.
Findings from the 7th to the 5th century BC, dating back to the time of the arrival of the Etruscans and their meeting with the Arusnates, attest that in this area the fruit of the vine was already transformed into wine. Historical testimonies also report that in the second century. B.C. to the defeat of the Cimbri by the Roman legions was due to “the attractive products of the Rhaetian grapes contributed in a decisive way”.
Specifically in the territories north of Verona, there were wines appreciated by Virgil, ancient Rome’s greatest poet, and Strabo, a greek Geographer, and it would appear that the Rhaetian wine could be considered an ancestor of the current Valpolicella wines.
Some wine amphorae dating back to Roman times, still intact, were found in San Giorgio in Salici, during the works for the planting of a vineyard. In those ancient times the cultivation of the vine was developed, and in the province of Verona, the Rhaetian grape was produced;
The great roman poet Catullus, originally from Verona; was the author of immortal poems, and drowned the pains of love with a good Rhaetian wine.
Catullus’ father offered this wine to Julius Caesar as his guest at Lake Garda. Even Pliny the Elder, the roman naturalist appreciated it. He wrote some time between 29 and 70 AD about eating at the table, the dried Rheatian grapes from a field in Verona.
Another Latin writer, Suetonius, said that the wine of Verona was greatly appreciated by the emperor Augustus. And Strabo, said that it was among the most praised in Italy.
All of these accounts paints a picture that the area around the Verona province, Lake Garda, and the Valpolicella had fertile soils, good climate, and delicious wines made with dried grapes.
And while the references to Rhaetian wine seem to infer a sweet red wine made from dried grapes, and the romans loved sweet wines, it’s logical to assume Recioto della Valpolicella, a sweet red wine made from dried grapes is a direct descendent. And considered the ancestor of all the Valpolicella wines.
Recioto derives from the Venetian word “recia” referring to the ear. The top part of a Corvina cluster, known as the ear had the sweetest grapes and only those were used for making high quality recioto.
So was Rhaetian wine always sweet wine? Some evidence tells a different story. And the great wine Amarone della Valpolicella may provide some compelling insights.
Today, the Valpolicella has a thriving wine industry and one of Italy’s most important wine regions.
The Valpolicella is not a city. It’s a place located just north of the city of Verona and just east of Lake Garda.
It’s actually a large valley with many little valleys inside of it.
The name Valpolicella derives from the latin words : Vallis Polis Cellae or Valley of Many Cellars.
The Romans conquered the area over 2000 years ago. And it appears they named this special place after something important that it was known for. The name indicates the Valpolicella was a thriving wine production area since before they arrived, reaffirming the evidence of a thriving wine culture before their arrival.
There are few places in the world whose name can be derived directly from wine.
What did the ancient people know about this special place?
A group of scientists recently excavated an area in the Valpolicella where they discovered prehistoric grape vines and grape pollen, several layers below the ground. After an analysis the research concluded these vines and pollen were 6,300 years old.
They also discovered there was a period of 3,000 years that the people inhabiting the area were farming and thriving from these lands. This was all done before the Roman period.
It’s likely there was already a thriving wine culture in the Valpolicella and that the Romans perfected the farming and vinification techniques.
Today, There are two main areas of production for Valpolicella wines.
There is the “Classico” subregion and the Valpoilcella DOC subregion. The classico area is the original historical area of production while the Valpolicella is the extended area that came later.
Why the two areas?
The classico zone is made up of more rugged terrain. High elevations, Steep slopes with rock, marl, and skeleton soils. The area is much harder to farm and demands strong and highly skilled labor to cultivate the land. The Valpolicella extended area rests on flatter land making it feasible for heavy machinery to industrialize the land and machine-harvest the grapes.
Not always, but often times you’ll find the big industrial wineries in the extended Valpolicella doc for this reason.
The extended area really came about due to the success of wines coming from the Classico zone which is very restricted and cannot expand. More demand for Valpolicella wines necessitated this extended area.
That’s why you’ll see some Valpolicella wines containing the word Classico on the labels while others don’t. These are small details but they give you a clue as to where the wines are coming from.
There are 5 communes in the Valpolicella Classica: Marano, Negrar, San Pietro in Cariano, Sant’Ambrogio, and Fumane.
The classico designation can’t be found on the wine label unless the wines come from these 5 communes.
I went on a trip to the Fumane Valley to get a closer look at the Valpolicella family of wines like the Classico, Classico Superiore, Ripasso, and Amarone della Valpolicella, considered today as one of the world’s finest wines.
The name Fumane likely derives from the Italian word “fumo” for smoke. Referring to the clouds that envelope the hills after a storm.
It’s the Fumane Valley where I discovered a hidden gem winery producing a treasure trove of magical wines: the Ugolini Family Estate.
But as you’ll soon see. The Ugolini wines are so much more than just delicious drinks. And once you discover those secrets, you may never taste wines the same way again.
The Ugolini Family, like many families in the area began its journey in wine as a grape grower some 3 generations ago.
As the popularity and demand for Valpolicella wines grew throughout the world, the big wine houses had to industrialize their production methods to keep up with the demand. As production levels grew, the quality of wines began to fall.
At the peak of this industrialization of mass produced wines, Angelo Ugolini, the original owner of the estate passes away, leaving his wife and 4 children to take over the family businesses, it was his son Giambattista that took the reigns to lead the estate into the future.
This crossroads of mass produced wine, and the passing of his father, and Giambattista’s passion for nature, the arts, and traditions, he made a decision in 1996 to convert the estate to organic farming.
Now today organic wine is commonplace but in the mid-nineties it was a revolutionary decision in the Valpolicella. The neighboring wineries thought he was crazy to go back to using more natural and traditional farming methods. But it turned out to be the right decision for the long term.
Giambattista Ugolini just might be one of the first “terroirists” in the region. Not only because of organic sustainable farming but also because he devised a cru system for the Valpolicella wines at the estate. So every wine expresses a snapshot of a specific vineyard breathing life and character into the wine.
And we’ll be taking a deeper dive into those wines including an Amarone single vineyard cru.
Chapter cut: insert Giambattista video.
In 2022, Giambattista was awarded knighthood by the Italian Republic for his contribution to the restoration and preservation of the historic Valpolicella.
With the acquisition of Villa San michele, a 19th century Austrian prison now converted to a tasting space for the Ugolini Wines, the Ugolini Family Estate rises above the Valpolicella hills as a historical treasure.
Today Villa San michele is one of the most fascinating places in the Valpolicella.
Giambattista entrusted the restoration of the Villa to small craftsmen from all over Italy; glassmakers, metal engravers, wood carers, stone sculptors with the artistic talent that distinguishes Italy from the rest of the world.
One of the restorative projects at Villa San Michele are the characteristic stone walls called Marogne.
Found all over around the Valpolicella, the marogne are the original solar panels with multiple functions.
They support the priceless landscapes so the hilly vineyards don’t wash away from the rain. The stones absorb heat from the sunlight, keeping the soils warm, even in the winter months, and give home to insects that keep the soils in balance and fertile for the vineyards.
Giambattista found the most skilled stone carvers in the Valpolicella to restore these walling systems that contribute to not just the art and beauty of nature of the region, but also give rise to monumental wines.
Giambattista is not simply the owner of a family winery but a person with a philanthropic vision that combines the nature, history, and craftsmanship of the Valpolicella into a wine experience with meaning.
His commitment to safeguarding art, nature, and the great works of humankind somehow finds itself in every glass of Ugolini wines.
I arrived at the Ugolini estate in early September, just as the harvest was beginning.
Patches of rain clouds were hovering in the area and so the harvest team were on call to pick the grapes at any moment.
The first single vineyard we visited was Pozzetto. Which is located in front of Villa San Michele. Pozzetto produces the Valpolicella Classico wine, a traditional red blend of the region.
As I walked down the rows of Pozzetto, I felt immediately transported into ancient Italy. A time when the world was too large to comprehend and no technology to distract the mind.
The beautiful architecture of the vines express the natural achievements of humankind. And uniquely representative of ancient Italian scenery.
Pozzetto is the Ugolini family’s first generation vineyard. it’s the legacy left behind by grandfather Angelo Ugolini the founder of the family estate. here the winds of the valley have dragged stones torn from the mountain rocks to formulate the soils and support the Pergola Veronese vine training system which produces 90 quintals per hectare,
The vines grow above the head in orderly fashion. It’s a brilliant ancient system of cultivation that can be traced back thousands of years. The canopies protect the grape cluster from too much sun exposure. Protecting the grape skins maintains the aromatic compounds found in the grapes.
Pergola Veronese also produces a corridor below the grapes allowing winds to blow underneath and keeping them cooler, especially during hot summers.
The canopy system and wind corridor allow the grapes to develop with higher acids, ample polyphenolic material, and proper sugars levels so the resulting wines are par excellence.
The key to the system is managing the vines to ensure the yields are low.
The Ugolini cru system takes this a step further by doing a first pass harvest, targeting only the the healthiest grape clusters, cutting off any subpar grapes and only making wine with the finest.
Only native varieties of the Valpolicella like Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara, and others are grown in the Pozzetto vineyard.
The wine is fresh, fragrant, and crisp so you can enjoy it as an aperitivo or with light fare.
Unlike many industrial wineries, the Pozzetto Valpolicella Classico single vineyard cru ages in steel vats without any alteration or addition of flavor or texture from oak.
The wine ages in the estate cellar for 3 years before making it available to the public.
I met with Angelo Ugolini, the son of Giambattista, and named after his grandfather, whose primary role is the procurement of the vineyards. Leading a small harvest crew, I got to see exactly how they harvest the grapes using the cru system.
And later Lorenzo from the Ugolini team showed me in slow motion the technique for harvesting the grapes.
I got to harvest a cluster and cut off the subpar grapes. It’s more important to cut off more grapes than to leaving any bad ones on the cluster. You want the finest grapes and only those grapes to make the wine.
Pozzetto has a lightweight body with full mouthfeel. Seductive aromatics of veronese cherry, strawberry, with rose petals notes, a touch of pepper and a mineral finish. This is the wine that Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest writers of all time romanticized about in his books.
San Michele (discipline)
The next day we went to the San Michele vineyard, located on the hill behind the Villa. This single vineyard cru is the Valpolicella Superiore wine and named after the church behind the vineyard.
As I approached the vineyard on foot, I began to realize how steep the slope was. Climbing the rocky stairs I lost my balance because I wasn’t prepared how quickly the slope cut upward.
This splendid vineyard lies on the crest of the valley at about 650 feet above sea level. Exposed to the southeast, it’s supported by a deep tufa slab of rock which gives the wines great elegance and aromatic complexity. Here the Veronese espalier vine system is used to maximize the sun exposures at such a steep slope. The vines are tamed by human hands producing a low 70 quintals per hectare, offering high quality grapes for wines with a strong identity.
Another characteristic of the vineyard are the marogne stone walls that protect the landscape from washing away, while attracting sunlight to keep the soils warm and shelter for the proper insects to keep ecological balance.
Like Pozzetto, the grapes are hand harvested and hand selected, keeping only the best clusters for vinification. The blend is primarily Corvina, secondarily Corvinone, then Rondinella, and a tiny percentage of Oseleta. The grapes are pressed the same day of harvest and are aged in French barrique and large oak casks for at least two years depending on the vintage. The wine rests in bottle in the estate cellar for a period of an additional 3 years. A total of at least 5 years of aging before releasing to the public.
The wine has A brilliant ruby red color with an aroma of red fruits such as Verona cherries; a mix of delicately sweet and spicy notes reminiscent of cocoa, nutmeg and vanilla. It’s a super smooth and sophisticated wine that will tantalize your senses for hours of pleasure.
Our next destination was found on the backroads of the Valpolicella. When you leave Villa San michele, and ascend to the peaks of the Fumane Valley, a trove of treasures are waiting.
First we had to pass through the center of the commune of Fumane. And then work our way up in elevation. We were on our way to a mountain peak called Monte Solane or the the Sunny Mountain.
When we arrived I noticed we were alone with the vineyards. There wasn’t a person, or a house or a store anywhere in sight.
The higher we went, the more rugged the terrain got.
We arrived at Monte Solane. This is the single vineyard that gives birth to the Ugolini Ripasso della Valpolicella cru.
On the northern border of the Valpolicella rises Monte Solane, a scenic ridge dazzled by Lake Garda that breathes the breath of the Dolomites. At an altitude of 2,130 feet, majestically watched over by falcons, the vines grow on a deep slab of Prun stone and their roots are forced to dig deep, among veins of fossil clay, to gather life. thus they come to offer a low yield of 60 quintals per hectare for the finest quality.
Prun Stone is also known locally as Lessinia stone referring to the nearby Lessini Mountains. The stone was created in the Jurassic period 145 million years ago. These rock formations were formed by vast numbers of shellfish dying and sinking to the sea floor. Once they hit the sea floor, they fossilized and turned into rock or Prun Stone.
So the foundation of one of the world’s most important wine regions was formed on the bed of prehistoric rock. And the history of the earth is buried under this vineyard. It’s as if the vineyard forms the ceiling of the earth’s museum.
The run stone was used for making tools and building structures in prehistoric times. And the Romans used it to build many structures and pavements in Verona. While it’s technically not marble, that’s exactly what it looks like. Today, it’s a secret ingredient in the fine wines of this region. And it can’t be duplicated anywhere in the world.
Monte Solane is embedded with Prun Stone. At one time, millions of years ago there was a tectonic shift underground that forced the creation of mountains. Today it’s a unique terrain that produces a unique wine. A sea above the sea.
The vine roots work hard to crawl deeper into the earth and breaking these Prun stones extracting a treasure trove of minerality for the wine.
Due to it’s location to Lake Garda, Monte Solane enjoys fresh air in the morning that sparks vegetative growth and life in the vineyard. While the cold winds of the Alps protect the vineyard from parasites at nighttime keeping it healthy and ecologically in balance.
Only the finest Corvina grapes are hand harvested and selected for this Ripasso cru.
The grapes are pressed the same day of harvest to capture their freshness. and fermented in steel vats for about 6 months while they wait for the Amarone pomace.
After the Amarone is made, the Ripasso in the steel vats goes through a secondary fermentation on the Amarone pomace. This increases the intensity and richness of the aromatics and flavors, and adds more structure. This second pass over the Amarone pomace is called the “repass” or ripasso.
The wine then ages in French barrique for 20 months followed by at least 3 more years in the bottle, in the estate cellar until releasing to the public. The total process is at least 5 years.
This is not only a high elevation single vineyard cru of Ripasso della Valpolicella but also a monovarietal wine of Corvina that passes through an Amarone pomace.
The wine has A dark and brilliant ruby red color with an intense aroma reminiscent of ripe red fruits, white pepper, tobacco leaf and cocoa, with a pleasant note of balsamic reduction and just a hint of Mediterranean herbs. A warm and well-balanced palate with a clean and dry finish.
Just 19,000 bottles handcrafted annually depending on the vintage. And aging potential of 15-20 years.
The Origins of Amarone
Amarone della valpolicella is considered one of the world’s greatest wines. Part of its secret recipe is A process called “appassimento” Appassimento is the process of air-drying the grapes before fermentation. It’s full velvety body with a long list of complex flavor notes and aromatics and it’s ability to age for decades has become a coveted wine among collectors and enthusiasts alike.
It’s common speak in the wine world that Amarone is a relatively newer wine that now has a place in the arena of grand wines like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, and Barbaresco.
Some say because the wine was anointed with the DOCG classification, the highest of the Italian wine disciplines in 2010. Others say Amarone was created by accident in 1936 when a cellar manager found a forgotten barrel of Recioto that continued fermenting until it became Amarone.
Considering the long and rich wine history of the Valpolicella, it seemed like a contradiction that Amarone was a relatively new wine compared to the other titans of wine.
And in fact, there are other contradictions surrounding this wine.
For example, what does Amarone mean?
Amarone comes from the Italian root word “Amaro” or “Bitter.”
When you add the 3-letter suffix “one” at the end of a word in the Italian language, it makes the object bigger.
For example, Libro or Book in Italian is converted to Librone with the suffix meaning Big Book.
Or Porta for “door” in Italian is converted to “Portone” or “Big Door” with the suffix.
So logically one would think that Amarone means “The Big Bitter Wine.” But if you’ve ever tasted an Amarone before, the last word anyone would use to describe this wine would be bitter. It’s anything but bitter.
The first mention of Amarone actually dates back again to the Poet Catullus around 55 BC who was from Verona and who wrote about a wine in latin as “calices amariores,” or “bitter wine glasses.”
In 493 AD in a letter from Cassiodorus, minister to the King of Visgoths request wine made from dried grapes from Valpolicella for a wedding.
In the 1700’s Francesco Scipone Maffei, a writer from Verona writes about an “amaro of a particular grace in the Valpolicella.”
The story goes that It was in 1936 when a cellar manager named Adelino Lucchese who finds a long-forgotten barrel of recioto that continued to ferment until it became Amarone. In fact, when he found this wine he apparently said, “this is not amaro. It’s an Amarone!”
He didn’t mean that the wine was literally bitter according to our meaning of the word. He meant that it was a bitter recioto because it was dry and not sweet like a Recioto should be.
So Signor Lucchese gets credit for coining the term “Amarone.”in the early 20th century. What’s misleading is when the wine intelligentsia claim 1936 was the birth year of Amarone due to an accident.
This is another contradiction. It’s hard to believe that 1936 was the first time a winemaking accident happened in the Valpolicella.
Sweet wines were much more appreciated from ancient Rome until really the 20th century when dry wines became more desirable. And I think what they call an accidental discovery is really a moment of stylistic change in the wine world which; moving away from sweet wines to dry wines. Dry wines would have been considered bitter in the ancient world.
And so Amarone means “The Big Dry Wine.”
Stairway to Heaven: Valle Alta
It might seem impossible, but the jeep took me off-the-beaten-path in one of the world’s most famous wine regions.
It was a long and curvy dirt road with no name. A road you can’t find on google maps. A road without a sign. A road that led to one destination.
We were on our way to the vineyard the Ugolini family uses to make their Amarone single vineyard cru.
As the jeep took us up higher along the dirt road with no name, I realized I’d never have gotten this far on foot.
Why on Earth would anyone plant a vineyard so hard to reach?
Great wines come from great works in the vineyard. But the location of a great vineyard is just as important as the human hands that shape it.
I felt like I was on a stairway to heaven. While the bottom of the vineyard impressed the eyes, the top view impressed the heart.
They called the vineyard Valle Alta, or High Valley.
It hangs on the southeastern-facing slope of the valley at 840 feet above sea level.
The high elevation allows the grapes to undergo wide thermal excursions. This is the difference between the high and low temperatures of the day. When the low and high of the day are drastically different, say 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the day and 55 at night, this phenomenon promotes the production of aromatic qualities and polyphenols that produce complex flavors in the grapes.
The soil is comprised of fossil marl that is millions of years old.
the steep slopes allow excess water to drain away from the vineyard forcing the vine’s roots to climb deeper into the soils in search of water. It is this struggle for sustenance that gives birth to complex wine grapes needed for an age worthy wine.
And since the vines rest on such steep slopes the espalier system of vine training is used to expose the grapes to proper sunlight.
In various sections of the vineyard, you’ll find native grape varieties like Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Oseleta.
The Amarone discipline requires 45%-95% Corvina and/or Corvinone and 5-30% Rondinella. The minor aromatic varieties like Oseleta cannot exceed 10%.
In the Valpolicella, there are many minor but native varieties that producers can choose from like Oseleta, Molinara, Croatina, Ancellotta and others.
For Valle Alta Amarone, the Ugolini family makes use of four native varieties: Corvina Gentile or Corvina Veronese which is the main grape of the blend and gives a generous amount of ripe red fruits, with floral notes, and a transparent red color; Corvina Grossa or Corvinone provides a spicy character and an excellent contrast with the fruit forward Corvina Gentile; Rondinella gives another dimension of ripe fruit and herbal notes, more acidity, and a texture that’s different from Corvina, and Oseleta which adds pigment, richness, and structure.
Like all of Ugolini’s vineyards, the grapes are hand harvested and hand selected at the perfect moment of maturity at a very low 60 quintals per hectare which is half of the legal amount allowed to ensure the highest grape quality possible.
There are then placed in crates and transported back to the cellar.
The grapes rest in these crates while undergoing appassimento which is the partial air-drying of grapes. This process will go on about 6 months until the grapes have lost 50% of their original weight. Appassimento is an ancient tradition and known to intensify the flavors, textures, and aromatics in the wine.
At this point, skilled workers and family members go through another hand selection process taking only the finest of the dried clusters and only those are used for making the Amarone.
The grapes are then softly pressed and undergo fermentation. Since the sugar levels are high from the appassimento, the Amarone will arrive at a higher alcohol volume of 16% on average.
While the Amarone discipline allows for up to 9 grams of residual sugar in the wine, the Ugolini Valle Alta Amarone is typically less than 1 gram which makes it a more traditional and classic dry style of Amarone not easily found among today’s international fruit bomb styles.
The wine ages in a combination of French barrique and large oak casks for 36 months and at least 2 years in bottle before releasing to the public. The Ugolini family will age their Amarone and other wines as long as it takes in the estate cellar until the wines reach optimum drinking performance. They released their 2012 and 2011 vintages after the 2013 vintage for example at 9 and 10 years of cellar aging respectively.
Besides the single vineyard cru system with traditional organic farming, I found the Ugolini philosophy of winemaking to differentiate in terms of aging. They will age their Amarone 7-10 years in the estate cellar if need be so that they you don’t have to age their wines in your cellar.
The Valle Alta Amarone is capable of aging 20-30 years depending on the vintage.
The aromatics of this wine are seductive and are just as pleasing as full bodied and velvety textures that follow. Hints of red fruit jam and Verona cherries, and mixed dried fruit stand out, with hints of sweet spices like tobacco, coffee, cocoa, liquorice and nutmeg. On the palate it’s graceful, elegant and soft, with a never ending finish, but at the same time dry. The super ripe fruits on the front palate with the dry finish is what gives this wine it’s eternal name: amarone
The Valpolicella is rich in history, Ingenuity, art, and wine culture. Just like the marogne that protect its priceless landscapes, The Ugolini family has a mission to protect the traditions of the region in a profound way.
Not just by making great wine.
But by Weaving wine with the creative works of humankind. Placing wine at the centerpiece of history so we can see what ancient people saw, taste what they tasted, and feel what they felt. In this way, we can share the timeless ritual we call the celebration of life.