Some folks may object heatedly to me saying this, but Romeo and Juliet is not a love story. If two crazy kids in Verona, Italy, had simply become smitten centuries ago and gushed in sonnets and iambic pentameter, who would really care?
What made Shakespeare’s tale tragic was the blind closed-mindedness of feuding families (in the bard’s words, “the fatal loins”) who denied the lovebirds their happily ever after. Romeo and Juliet is about fear and loathing in northern Italy’s Veneto.
Having lived in Verona for seven years, I’ve noted clannish attitudes and feuding that remain alive and well. That’s particularly true in the local Valpolicella wine industry, which has gone from rags to riches in the last 40 years with the boom of its flagship Amarone, a wine made powerfully concentrated by drying the grapes for months before fermentation. (You may recall the lawsuit between warring Amarone groups over use of the name a few years ago.)
In Italian wine, Valpolicella has taken the cake for a certain kind of every-house-for-itself independence of Shakespearean proportions.
That’s unfortunate because, as I’ve said before, the appellation has great growth potential in its leaner Valpolicella reds, typically made from fresh grapes, along with its counterpart Valpolicella Superiore, aged 12 months.
What’s the best way to realize that potential? For producers and growers to get their act together and focus on a common mission—studying everything from vinestock to terroirs to cultivation techniques.
Might that happen? My heart was warmed recently when I learned that the Valpolicella wine consortium, representing about 300 producers and 2,000 growers, had spawned an informal group of about 50 young people (most under 35 years old) who are either producers or growers in their own right or members of wine industry families.
“The consortium wanted to create a network so the next generation could start to work together for the future,” says Davide Manara, 32, president of what’s simply known as Gruppo Giovani Valpolicella (Valpolicella Youth Group) and enologist at his family’s 70-plus-year-old Manara winery in the Valpolicella Classico hills northwest of Verona.
I met Manara and seven key members of the group as they tasted each other’s latest Valpolicella Superiore bottlings at San Mattia, the agriturismo operation of Giovanni Éderle, 35. Éderle’s small, 15-year-old eponymous wine estate is the sole producer in Verona’s verdant Torricelle hills, perched above the old city.
Over the years, I’ve watched Éderle, the scion of a local noble family, grow from a bootstrapping local producer operating in makeshift settings—drying grapes for Amarone in his own living room—to a well-equipped winemaker exporting to the world.
“I am not concerned that someone else’s Valpolicella is better than mine or that mine is better than someone else’s,” says Éderle. “But the older generation is terrified of this.”
“The fact is we are all this place,” he adds, “and we have to cooperate.”
The group members come from wildly different backgrounds and different fields of study. Most are part of small family operations. But they all share a common vision of producing more elegant wines—above all, Valpolicella Superiore—typical of their terroirs.
“The idea we all share is drinkability,” says Piergiovanni Ferrarese, 31, who runs sales at his family’s Villa Spinosa winery in Negrar. “The future is the past—the way Valpolicella wines were traditionally, with drinkability and simplicity, before the 1980s and 1990s.”
In those boom years of “big wine,” before anyone in the group was near drinking age, many Valpolicella producers boosted their wines with the use of French oak barriques and techniques that added touches of sweetness. Though Valpolicella wines are traditionally made from local varieties Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella, some wineries added allowable fractions of French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
All that is mercifully on the decline. One after another, the wines I tasted that afternoon were good to excellent and expressed their origins. From Fumane, on the western edge of the Valpolicella appellation, the wines had a mineral feel, while the bottlings from Negrar were more structured and those from the newer parts of the enlarged appellation, lying to the northeast of Verona, were more fruit driven.
In addition to organizing tastings this year at national and international wine events, this new generational group is diving into some existential wine questions. A big one: Can Valpolicella Superiore achieve greatness if producers continue to select the best grapes to use in Amarone?
Personally, I think not. To that point, some have stopped this practice by designating vineyards solely for their Valpolicella Superiore bottlings.
Among them is Paolo Creazzi, 33, of Cà dei Maghi, who in 2009 began making and bottling wines from his family’s 19th-century farm, which had previously sold bulk wine, in Fumane.
“Every wine has its own vineyard plots,” says Creazzi of his estate’s partitioning.
Another thorny topic is appassimento (the drying of grapes) in wines other than Amarone, its sweet recioto counterpart and the controversial category of ripasso, in which Valpolicella goes through a second fermentation with the addition of pressed skins from grapes used to make Amarone.
“That is the biggest question in this group,” says Nicola Perusi, winemaker at his family’s Mizzon estate. “Appassimento yes? Or Appassimento no?)”
“For me, [the answer is] ‘no,’” he adds. “Valpolicella and Valpolicella Superiore wines should be an expression of purity.”
Sitting across from him is a winemaker who takes an opposite approach: Noemi Pizzighella, 28, who this year will mark her 10th vintage at Le Guaite di Noemi, in the hills of the eastern part of the Valpolicella appellation.
Her family winery was founded by her father on the model of the big and rich wines made at nearby Romano dal Forno.
“We have a particular style. My winery is known for concentration,” says Pizzighella as we sip her current vintage of Valpolicella Superiore, 2012, which was made by her parents but which she released only after a decade.
Though she still ages her wines for years before release, she has dialed back on their heft. “Over time,” she says, “we have searched for more elegance and taken away the residual sugar. We still use appassimento, but I have reduced the drying time from a month to two weeks.”
Sofia Arduini, 24, recounts the tale of how her father’s Luciano Arduini winery stopped making its fresh Valpolicella Classico Superiore Costelonghe bottling from 2008 to 2018, when her older brother focused on appassimento. In the last five years, the bottling has returned as consumers demand lighter wines.
Valpolicella is a big and complex wine area that deserves to be understood from the vineyards up—not just through the lens of its dominant wine brands. Getting beyond the spiteful legacy of Romeo and Juliet is a big first step.
“We are often very closed [off] in our work,” explains Ferrarese. “This network allows us to share our experiences in an open way, as friends.”
Sounds obvious, right? In the land of Montagues and Capulets, it’s a minor earthquake.