Valpolicella Uncorked: A Visit To Corte Fornaledo

By Cuvée Corner Contributor Sophia Longhi

Within an hour of driving west from Venice, the landscape starts to change. Flashes of luminous green begin to appear on top of craggy grey rocks and the twists and turns in the road become more frequent as we enter the mountains. At the next turn, a vineyard comes into view, which continues to stretch before our eyes as we round the corner until the vast scene in front of us is wholly made up of row after row of leafy vines, as neat and as structured as Balinese rice terraces.

This is Valpolicella, located in the Veneto in north-east Italy. Many famous wines, including Prosecco, Soave, and Bardolino, come from the vast and diverse Veneto region, but it is Valpolicella that is the jewel in its crown, being Italy’s most valued appellation. This could have something to do with its prized Amarone, a mystery in a bottle, which captivated its founder in its very beginnings, and is now renowned the world over.

Yet, it isn’t only Amarone that draws in the crowds; this is, after all, ‘the valley of many cellars,’ which is thought to be the translation of ‘Valpolicella.’ Valpolicella produces three more styles: Recioto; Valpolicella Ripasso and Valpolicella Classico. The exciting thing about all four wines is that they are all produced throughout the entire region and, although vastly different to one another, they are all made from the same group of indigenous grapes: Corvina; Rondinella; Corvinone and Molinara.

Valpolicella DOC wines have to be made using 45-95% Corvina, but it should be noted that up to 50% of that quote can be substituted with Corvinone, which helps to round the flavours and adds cherry notes. 5-30% of the blend must be Rondinella, which has pleasant floral attributes, while Molinara contributes lean acidity to the overall wine, although less and less of this is being used these days due to changing consumer tastes.

All four wines can be found at every small café and big restaurant in and around Valpolicella, which was a real treat, particularly in the case of Amarone, which is only usually found on outstanding wine lists at home. But wine voyagers should be aware that its quality varies widely, and some cheaper versions don’t quite get to those rich, velvety depths and instead taste jammy and simple.

For a true impression of what Valpolicella can achieve, a visit to a recommended winery is a must, enabling one to meet the people behind the bottles and hear their stories of the hard work and passion that goes into their wines. I was pointed in the direction of Corte Fornaledo in Marano di Valpolicella, a small town located in the heart of the Valpolicella Classico region, 450 metres above sea level. The land has been owned by the same family since 1800, and they’ve been growing grapes and producing wine there for generations.

As we drive up to the winery, we’re greeted by a pack of bounding dogs, who appear to spend happy lives roaming freely around the land. Giacomo, the vineyard owner, seems just as cheery as he welcomes us and asks us if we’d like to walk down to see the vineyard.

The vines are planted using the classic pergola method (known as tendone in Italy), in which they are trained to grow above head height and the grapes hang down under the shade of the canopy that it creates, protecting them from both sun and humidity. It is a traditional approach that some of the best Italian producers in the region are returning to because they believe that the sugar and flavour ripeness are better balanced this way. Giacomo explains that they are a small family vineyard and they are choosing quality over quantity, which sets them apart from larger growers. They only vinify a fine selection of grapes (100% of them are the local, native grape varieties, Corvina Veronese, Corvinone, Rondinella, and Molinara – some producers import grapes with similar qualities to make up a portion of the quota) to produce high-quality wines and they don’t use chemical pesticides, meaning they are and always have been organic. Although they are unenthused about going through the long and expensive process of being certified as such.

We take a tour inside the winery where we see Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2017 aging in American oak barrels, as well as larger barrels that contain Amarone Riserva della Valpolicella 2010. I set my eye on the latter and ask Giacomo if the wine inside is a particularly special one, and he answers no – they age their wines longer than is required by regulations, so although the minimum ageing for Amarone is four years, they age Amarone for eight, allowing it to develop further and become more complex.

There are five bottles waiting for us in the tasting room: Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC, Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore DOC, Vitae IGT Rosso Verona, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG and Recioto della Valpolicella Classico DOCG.

Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC

We pass by Valpolicella Classico, which they don’t make here – the Classico is a pleasant but straightforward wine found everywhere, as you can imagine – and we go straight into Superiore, a premium Valpolicella that spends some time in wood and has a more intense colour and flavour profile. The colour is clear ruby, and it has a present bouquet of red fruits – the red cherry is slightly more baked and rounded, compared to the bright, zesty cherry of a simpler Classico. Dry with long, persistent tannins, it’s very decent for an ‘everyday’ wine as Giacomo describes it, and extremely pleasurable to drink on its own or with a nibble or two of Parmesan and speck, as we do.

Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore DOC

Could Valpolicella Ripasso be my new favourite wine? If an Amarone is too powerful for casual drinking and a Valpolicella Classico doesn’t provide enough ‘oomph’, Ripasso is somewhere in the delicious middle. A Goldilocks wine. Meaning to ‘re-pass’, Ripasso is double-processed and its rich, raisined notes come from fermenting standard Valpolicella with a pomace of grape skins left over from Recioto and Amarone. Ruby red with garnet hues, the nose is much more pronounced, with notes of cooked red fruits, tobacco and spice. On the palate, it is silky smooth, full-bodied, with big, robust tannins. It’s a noticeable step up from the first wine; much more complex and layered. I think I might stay here for now…

Vitae IGT Rosso Verona

This wine is thrown in here to the mix, and it is a wine you can’t get anywhere else. It’s the result of a personal project headed by Giacomo and his brother, Francesco. The name is a merging of ‘vite’ meaning ‘vine’ and ‘vita’ meaning ‘life’ – vine life – and that’s certainly the experience of these brothers every day. I love that this wine is unique and has been made with love – and by no means in vain. It deserves its place after the Ripasso, as we see the colour lean from ruby towards the purple and we taste extra floral, herbaceous layers, such as violets and mint. The spice is prominent, both on the nose and the palate, and the result is a well-structured, fresh and persistent wine. Put me down for a bottle of this one.

Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG

Amarone – wine royalty in Italy. It’s amusing to think it was discovered accidentally in a forgotten barrel of Recioto (sweet wine), and having gone through a secondary fermentation, it tasted bitter (amaro) to the winemaker. But not bitter-bad, bitter-very, very good – and now it is one of the world’s most acclaimed wines. The winemaking process involves picking ripe grapes from vines and letting them dry on mats or hang from rafters throughout the month of January, then vinifying the shriveled grapes and allowing them to ferment fully.

Deep ruby red verging on garnet, this Amarone has been aged in barrel for eight years, and you can immediately smell the baked black cherries on the nose, along with cocoa, cloves, and cinnamon spice. It’s rich and robust with lingering tannins, and flavours of dried fruits fill the mouth. Very present acidity makes it a balanced wine, which has been mellowed beautifully by the oak ageing. As smooth as a tranquil lake made of velvet, this wine is just heavenly.

Recioto della Valpolicella Classico DOCG

If Amarone is in line to the throne, then Recioto is most definitely a first generation Royal. It is the oldest style of wine produced in this region and was the favoured wine of the wealthy aristocrats in Italian history. Using the same process as Amarone (because it was Recioto’s process in the first place), the fermentation is stopped before all sugars convert to alcohol, and the result is a sweet dessert wine with a bright acidity that goes alongside its richness. Corte Fornaledo’s Recioto is ruby to garnet in colour and possesses notes of ripe red fruits and honey on the nose. On the palate, it is sweet, smooth and structured – there is the slight bitterness of dark chocolate, which makes it even more alluring. An excellent example of a Recioto.

A true journey of a tasting, I am one step closer to understanding the complexities of the wines of Valpolicella. To produce such a range of wine from the same grapes that are indigenous to the land makes it a fascinating region, and with its varying terrain and microclimates, it’s one that I’m sure holds many other mysteries for me to uncover. The wines from the north of the region at the foot of the Alps are said to be richer in alcohol and offer more balance than the wines from the sloping valleys in the south, but with millennia of viticultural history under this region’s belt, I know that I have barely scratched the surface. Did someone say ‘Valpolicella Wine Route’? Sign me up.


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