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All Things Amarone: 3 Days at the Bertani Academy

All Things Amarone: 3 Days at the Bertani Academy

A Crash Course at the Bertani Academy

“Close your eyes. Now touch the vine. Follow the branches, choose the spurs, then choose the cane, and remove the rest of the wood.”

Agronomist Andrea Lonardi repeats the mantra to the 18 sommeliers and journalists assembled in a frescoed chapel turned classroom. We’re about to turn theory into practice by pruning a vineyard—a prized cru on the Tenuta Novare estate of Bertani, one of the oldest and most respected wineries in Valpolicella.

Gulp.

I’m at the Bertani Academy getting a three-day crash course in all things Amarone. Lonardi has just spent the past hour reciting the hazards of traditional pruning techniques: how a bad cut opens a pathway for water to enter the trunk, how water means fungus and fungus can develop into full-blown Esca disease, a new scourge in the vineyards—potentially on the level of phylloxera a century ago. Correct pruning prevents that.

During our coffee break, there’s nervous chatter:

“Can’t they give us a vine cadaver?”

“Or child scissors. And a felt vine.”

“Do you remember that game Mr. Surgeon? Where you get a shock if you do something wrong?”

“Better if we do shots when we do something wrong!”

Then it’s time. Grabbing gloves and pruning shears, we divide into teams. One by one, we approach our vine while muttering the mantra, a distillation of techniques taught by Simonit & Sirch, a cutting-edge pruning company that consults with Italy’s top wineries, including Bertani. The goal is not only to avoid Esca; it’s to prolong the life of a vine, hopefully by decades. For as everyone knows, old vines make the best wine.

On my squad, there’s just one mishap: a wrong cane snipped on a weirdly misshapen vine (probably maimed by last year’s class). The rest pass muster. Lonardi flashes a thumbs up, and we’re all thrilled. The agronomist, with his lean profile, bomber jacket, and tousled hair, has been dubbed #sexyinvalpolicella by our group, and no one wants to disappoint. Besides, he’s also the COO of Bertani Domains.

Our classroom on the Tenuta Novare

Our classroom on the Tenuta Novare

Bertani’s backstory

Founded in 1857, Bertani is one of Valpolicella’s oldest wineries. While it’s never safe to assume that age equals quality, in this case it does. In addition to high scores from critics, I’ve noticed that, in conversation, Bertani always gets nods of approval from other respected Amarone producers—a better barometer, in my book.

The founding brothers Giovan Battista and Gaetano Bertani were nobles from Verona. Gaetano had spent time in Burgundy, not only soaking up the viticultural innovations of his friend Jules Guyot (inventor of the guyot trellising system), but also developing a taste for dry wine at a time when sweet ruled the day—think Port, Marsala, or Valpolicella’s own recioto, made from dried grapes. Their first wine, 1860’s Secco Bertani, was dry (secco), oak-aged, and revolutionary, an early template for today’s Veneto reds. An even bigger milestone came in 1959, when Bertani’s Amarone Classico debuted. While Bertani may not have ‘invented’ Amarone, it was definitely the first to commercialize it.

(Fun fact: Because the Veronesi were slow to lose their sweet tooth, most of Bertani’s Amarone sat unsold in the cellar until the 1980s. What’s their loss is our gain. Today Bertani has the world’s largest library of old-vintage Amarone, and our group had the good fortune to taste back to 1967.)

In 1957, the Bertani family acquired Tenuta Novare, a gorgeous property with expansive vineyards and stately 18th century villa. (“They won it in a card game,” Lonardi confides.) But by 2011, the family enterprise was in trouble; too many cooks in the kitchen, and too much debt. They sold most of the property to the Angelini family, whose paterfamilias owns Italy’s biggest pharmaceutical company along with several other wineries. With that cash infusion and a solid management team in place led by Lonardi, Bertani turned the corner.

Agronomist and Bertani COO Andrea Lonardi

Agronomist and Bertani COO Andrea Lonardi

Drilling down

The wine knowledge among these professional sommeliers and wine writers is pretty deep, so everyone has a handle on the region’s pyramid of styles (more on that later). But the lectures drill down really deep, like magma level. We delve into climate and soil strata, VSP versus OSP canopy management, the impact of daytime growing temperatures on aromas in the glass. We hear about location, location, and location, especially the influence of Lake Garda to the west and the Alps to the north. It pays to know where a wine’s vineyards lie. Is it in a valley that’s open at the top, like Fumane, sucking in chilly air from the Alps? That gives a pepper profile to the fruit. Is it closer to the moderating influence of Lake Garda? That wine is going to be more voluptuous, with a fuller body and grippier tannins.

The goal of the academy is to give us the tools to understand and explain what makes one Amarone different from the next. Also to contextualize Bertani within the panorama of styles, which is growing ever wider as categories blur in the courtship of the modern palate (which also has a bit of a sweet tooth; consumer preference for higher levels of residual sugar [RS] in dry wine is trending upwards). Bertani bucks that trend, proudly proclaiming itself a traditionalist in winemaking technique and style. We experience what exactly that means during the academy’s grand finale.

The Valpolicella pyramid

We’ve been building up to this moment: a blind tasting of styles. Three flights, three styles, four wines each. Producers are not identified. The objective is to get a sensory handle on each step in the Valpolicella pyramid. Lonardi lays out the defining characteristics:

Valpolicella Classico: This is region’s fundamental building block. It’s made like most wines of the world—that is, with freshly harvested grapes. On the nose, there’s cherry, violet, and pepper. The style is light and easy, with minimal tannins and low alcohol (11-12%), making it the perfect summer quaffer. Here the grape blend is the most important variable. (Corvina, corvinone, rondinella, and molinara are the local varieties used in all three categories.)

Valpolicella Ripasso: Ripassare means to pass over again. So Ripasso results when Valpolicella wine is pumped over the leftover skins of Amarone, where it undergoes a second fermentation and takes on some of Amarone’s richness, dried-fruit flavors, and higher alcohol (13-14%). There’s typically plum, sour cherry, and vanilla on the nose, while in the mouth classic Ripasso offers fresh cherry and pepper, silky tannins, and a dry finish, whereas modern versions (aiming for that sweet tooth) are fruit-forward, with ripe, jammy versions of plum and red berry and a sweeter finish. (Being considerably cheaper than Amarone, Ripasso sales have been going through the roof—a blessing and a curse for the region, which has seen a drop in the availability of basic Valpolicella as a result and an upswing in the production of Amarone, just to get those skins.)

Amarone della Valpolicella: Here, the drying the grapes (appassimento) is key. After harvest, grapes are transferred to airy fruit lofts where they dry for three to four months, losing about half their weight. That concentrates the natural sugars and initiates biochemical changes that affect aromas. After fermentation, the wine is matured for a minimum of two years in wood. The end result is a heady bouquet of cherry liqueur, black fig, carob, and plum, with flavors going dark and deep: black cherry, brown sugar, a hint of chocolate. Due to the grapes’ concentrated sugars, Amarone is higher in alcohol: 15% for traditional styles, and up to 17% for modernists. This is a special wine for special occasions, best suited for braised meats or roasts having something sweet in their prep (beef stew with carrots, pork loin stuffed with dried fruit, duck breast with cherry sauce).

We taste in silence, scribbling notes. Then the comments fly: “Raspberry yogurt.” “Black fig jam.” “Vanilla sundae.” “Raspberry syrup. It would be great with snow!” “A statement wine.” “This is incredibly fresh and vibrant.” “The alcohol is too much; we’re eating and drinking at the same time.”

Today we’re not only learning styles, we’re getting a taste of two unfortunate trends: style characteristics blurring as ‘lesser’ categories try to imitate the next step up, and ever-stronger wines. One best-selling Ripasso, for instance, weighed in at 14.3% ABV and had 10 grams of RS—a behemoth, with stats befitting an Amarone. And two Amarones tipped the scale at 16.4% and 16.5%—heavyweights that would be a chore to finish at dinner. (Artificial drying methods are often responsible for higher sugar and alcohol levels.)

Bertani’s Amarone came in at a restrained 15.4%, with only 4g sugar. In other words, it was balanced, elegant, and eminently drinkable. And, as the sommeliers all noted, the most food-friendly. That kind of restraint made Bertani’s wine their favorite in every flight, as we discovered when identities were revealed. If Bertani represents the traditional style in Valpolicella, then that’s one tradition worth preserving.

Verona at dusk

Verona at dusk

Call me Cavaliere

The final night we’re ushered into a chapel where, to our surprise, a dozen grey-haired men in red robes await. They’re representatives of the Sovereign and Noble Order of Amarone and Recioto, a confraternity exalting two-thousand years of Valpolicella wine history. And they’re here to invest us with a symbol of solidarity: a tastevin (the traditional sommelier taster’s cup) engraved with the symbols of their shield. One by one, we step forward. As a drum rolls and an invocation is read, we swig a glass of sweet recioto wine. (“Do it without stopping,” urges one in a loud whisper.) Then we kneel while a notary presents a certificate endowing us with the honorific “Cavaliere.” “It’s an honor for you, but also a commitment: to bring the value of Valpolicella all around the world,” explains academy manager Stefano Mangiarotti. I’m not a joiner, but hey, this is Amarone. That’s one club I’m happy to be part of.

Published in the September/October issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.

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