The Valpolicella wine region, located directly north of Verona, is a place of many contrasts. The region doesn't have a signposted wine road like the neighboring Bardolino wine region or other tourist-friendly Italian wine regions like Chianti Classico in Tuscany. Despite the lack of signs, however, Valpolicella has many wineries that are regularly open for tasting and buying wine, and that have some of the friendliest, most welcoming people in all of Italy.
There are also many contrasts among the wines made in Valpolicella. On the one hand, there are light, fruity Valpolicella wines that at their best are well made, enjoyable wines that go great with food, and at their worst are mass produced, watered down and bland. On the other hand, the Valpolicella region produces world-renowned dry Amarone and sweet Recioto wines that are acclaimed for their robust intensity and complexity. All wines made in Valpolicella are made from the same combination of indigenous grapes used in the Bardolino region: Rondinella, Negrara, Molinara and the most prized of all, Corvina. But it is in Valpolicella that these grapes reach their pinnacle through time-honored methods of winemaking that are unique to this region.
One of the most visible contrasts in the Valpolicella region is the juxtaposition of great wine estates located right next to modest farmhouse wineries. While this is true of many wine regions in Italy, nowhere is this contrast more apparent than in the town of Gargagnago di Valpolicella.
It was at a small farmhouse winery in Gargagnago that we had one of our most memorable wine tasting experiences a few years ago. Driving through the main square in town, the Piazza Dante Alighieri, we saw a car enter a gate located right next to the church. Intrigued, we followed the car up a dirt road that led to a small farmhouse, which was surrounded by large wooden wine casks painted yellow and red. We were immediately greeted by the owner of the farm, who introduced himself as Giovanni and beckoned us to come inside his shed.
The shed turned out to be his wine cellar, filled with barrels and unlabeled bottles of
wine, along with pungent salamis hanging from the ceiling.
Giovanni spoke very little English, but luckily for us the other tourists, who were
German, were able to help us communicate. Giovanni poured us tastes of his three wines --
Bianco, a light dry white made from a blend of local Garganega grapes and Sauvignon grapes;
Valpolicella, a deliciously light and fruity red; and Amarone, which was very strong and dry
but full of intense flavor.
We purchased a bottle of Giovanni's Bianco and one of his Amarone, along with a delicious salami that kept us in snacks for a week. We enjoyed the Bianco that week but took the Amarone home with us and laid it down for some aging. Two years later when we opened it, we were amazed at the richness and complexity of this farmhouse wine.
In direct contrast to the informality of the surroundings and tastings at Giovanni's farm, Gargagnago is also the home of one of Italy's oldest and most prestigious private wine estates, the Serego Alighieri estate. Located just a stone's throw from Giovanni's farmhouse, the Serego Alighieri estate traces its history back to the famous poet Dante Alighieri, who was exiled from his native Florence in 1304 and came to live in Verona. The poet spent time and wrote part of his masterpiece The Divine Comedy at a villa in Gargagnago called Casal de' Ronchi. After the poet's death, his son purchased the villa in 1353.
In 1549, when the Alighieri family had no male heirs remaining, the oldest daughter Ginerva married the scion of a wealthy local family, Count Marc'Antonio Serego. In this way the family name of Serego Alighieri was established. Today the Serego Alighieri vineyards are owned by a larger wine company, Masi, but a direct descendant of the poet, Count Pieralvise di Serego Alighieri, continues to own the family villa.
With this impressive history behind it, one might think that tours of the Serego Aleghieri estate would be stuffy and intimidating, but the opposite is true. Our guide, Michael Benson, a British native who has lived in Italy for many years, did a masterful job of showing how the Serego Alighieri estate manages to preserve its noble past while continuing to produce top quality wines. One of the most interesting parts of the tour was seeing the working part of the estate where Amarone and Recioto wines are made using a process that has remained basically unchanged since Roman times. The richest grapes of the fall harvest are carefully laid out on wicker trays known as tavoloni and left to dry for several months, usually until January. Then the semi-dried grapes, which concentrate in flavor, are lightly crushed and put in wood fermentation vats for up to 60 days. Dry Amarone is what results after all the concentrated sugars have fermented out and the wine reaches from 15 to 17 percent alcohol. If the fermentation stops when the wine is 13 to 14 percent alcohol, leaving high levels of residual sugar, the result is the sweet Recioto dessert wine. The skins left at the bottom of the vats used to ferment Recioto are sometimes used in some regular Valpolicella wines to induce a secondary fermentation known as ripasso. This unique process gives these wines real oomph, with extra alcohol and a more intense bouquet and rich flavor.
After the tour, Michael was our host for a tasting of the full range of wines made by the Serego Alighieri estate, as well as several other wines made by Masi.
SEREGO ALIGHIERI WINES
The Serego Alighieri estate also produces a variety of other products, including fine olive oil, balsamic vinegar, jams, honey, grappa, seasonings and Arborio rice used in risotto. These products and the full range of wines are available for purchase in the estate's tasting room, which is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tours of the villa and grounds need to be arranged in advance. For contact information and directions go to the Serego Alighieri website.
An excellent place to break for lunch near Gargagnago is Villa Danese in the nearby town of San Giorgio di Valpolicella. This charming small inn, run by a woman who hails from Denmark, has an outdoor garden with splendid views overlooking the Valpolicella valley. We enjoyed a lunch of fresh pasta accompanied by a light, refreshing white wine, Oltrepo' Pavese Pinot, from the Lombardy region.
VILLA DANESE - GIARDINO RISTORANTE, Via Conca d'Oro, 1, San Giorgio di Valpolicella
Part of the original Casal de' Ronchi villa was restored in 1992 and opened as a residence called La Foresteria, with eight tastefully furnished apartments sleeping from two to four people. Rental prices vary by season, and in the peak months of July and August range from about $150 a night for the smallest two person apartment to $275 for the largest four person apartment. Prices are less for stays of more than four nights, and all rentals include breakfast. There are also meeting rooms and a large reception room that are used for wine tastings, receptions and dinners.