Recently we visited the Allegrini estate in the commune of Fumane, located in the heart of Valpolicella. The Valpolicella Classico region is in northeastern Italy, east of Lake Garda and northwest of Verona with the Lessini Mountains to the north. Being a closet Valpolicella fan, to say that I was in my element would be a huge understatement. One could easily debate the merits of old world wine versus new world wines but one central idea that cannot be debated at least not seriously: the type of wines they make in the special and unique hills of Valpolicella Classico can't be made anywhere else in the world.
Our guide for our visit was Sales Manager Massimo Bernardi. A graduate student of economics and a reformed entrepreneur, Massimo's warmth and his ardor for his vocation were energizing. He affirmed our measurement by stating, " I'm a very lucky man because I've chosen my job. Working in the wine world without passion and enthusiasm for me is impossible". He escorted us as we toured the cellars, the drying facility and Villa Della Torre.
The Allegrini operation is sizable. One gets the feeling as you tour the three different sites where their operations are carried out, that they are bursting at the seams. Look carefully though and you can see that this family owned business has very thoughtful and deliberate caretakers at the helm. The Allegrini's own all 247 acres of the vineyards they farm so that they can control the quality of the grapes. All of their vineyards are up in the hills. These hillside locations, at between a 800 to 1,600 foot elevation provide good drainage, proper sunlight and wind for good healthy grapes. Allegrini produces about 83,333 cases of wine.
They produce a Recioto della Valpolicella Classico D.O.C.G. wine that is named in honor of the founder Giovanni Allegrini and three D.O.C. wines, Soave, Valpolicella Classico and Amarone della Valpolicella Classico. Departing from traditional blends in order to make another tier of complex and refined wines they make three single vineyard I.G.T. Veronese wines, Palazzo Della Torre, La Grola and La Poja. The three latter wines may not have the pedigree that is inferred by the D.O.C. designation on their labels, but the wines are excellent examples of the type of quality and purity that can be coaxed out of grapes grown in the Veronese hills. Allegrini is a benchmark producer of Amarone, a wine made from dried grapes that are fermented until there is no residual sugar left. Amarone is a big wine, often over 15 % abv but when well made it can show incredible elegance and charm.
Our tour began in the original cellar and it's here where we learned that the Allegrini familly has played an important role in Veronese wine culture since the sixteenth century. The cellar has some of the original wood vessels that are still being used for blending the wines. We noticed lots of new french barriques also, a sign of a departure from traditional cask ageing in large wooden vessels ( botte ).
Contemporary winemaking and viticulture was spearheaded by Giovanni Allegrini. He challenged conventional farming and chose to purchase and cultivate single vineyard "cru wines" (a vineyard that produces a high quality wine) from unfarmed plots on hillsides and pioneered increased vine density in the vineyard and guyot training to replace the pergola veronese training which is still very prominent in the Valpolicella zone. When Giovanni passed away in 1983 his three children Walter, Marilisa and Franco took over the company. Giovanni's eldest son Walter passed on in 2003 and now the company is run by Franco who heads the winemaking operations and Marilisa who is responsible for sales and marketing. Recently Allegrini switched importers and now the brand is handled in the U.S. market exclusively by E. & J. Gallo Winery.
Upon completing our tour of the cellar and bottling room we took a short drive to Centro Terre di Fumane, their drying facility. Terre di Fumane is an association of eight wineries of which Franco Allegrini is the president. The facility was the first of its kind and was built in 1990. Fifteen hundred years of drying history have lead to this innovative operation. Specially selected grape bunches of Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Oseleta are dried at this facility and used in the production of Allegrini's Amarone, Recioto and Palazzo della Torre wines. One would think the appassimento process (drying of the grapes) would be the easiest part of winemaking, however it's actually one of the most delicate phases of the operation. During appassimento, 100 to 120 days, the grapes lose 40 to 50 percent of their weight. Many of Amarones' most noteworthy producers place their grapes for drying on wooden trays or bamboo racks in open air lofts. While this may be more romantic it's not very practical if your goal is to have a botrytis-free grape at the end of the drying process. Some winemakers consider a little botrytis fungus beneficial to the finished wine but at Allegrini humidity and botrytis are the enemy. At Terre di Fumane the grapes are laid out in plastic bins which are easy to wash and sanitize. The building is equipped with an elaborate ventilation system that helps to prevent botrytis development during the critical first few days of the drying regimen. At its core this cutting-edge mentality is a hallmark of the Allegrini business model. They respect the past, what those that have come before them have done and they are constantly striving to preserve historically important parts of the wine culture in Veneto, yet they're unafraid to break new ground and use science and technology to increase their odds of making better wines.
Twenty-five years ago Valpolicella producers were hard pressed to sell the 1.5 million bottles of Amarone that were made annually. That's no longer the case. Consumer thirst for big flavored, fruit forward wines has spurned a turnaround in the zone. When I asked Massimo why does it seem like there is so much more ripasso styled wine in the marketplace these days? He replied, " Because we have increased the production of Amarone. We need the skins of Amarone to make it. Think about this number. Amarone production eight years ago was four million bottles and today it is sixteen million bottles. This is very dangerous". I didn't ask Massimo a follow up question but my hunch is that he's concerned that this rapid expansion in Valpolicella could have some unintended consequences. One needn't feel uneasy about the prospect of overproduction because an association consisting of twelve historical Amarone Families was recently formed to protect the tradition, production standards, quality, and pricing of Amarone. Marilisa Allegrini serves as the current president of Amarone Families. The Amarone families distinctive hologram on a bottle of Amarone is the mark of an authentic, high quality wine.
We left the drying facility and drove over to Villa della Torre. Della Torre is a surname and the villas first owner was Giulio della Torre. Construction was finished around 1560. The Allegrini's are the 27th owners of the residence which they purchased in 2008. The Palazzo Della Torre vineyard, planted in 1968 surrounds the villa. The villa structure is centered around a courtyard with a fountain as its focal point. From here if you head in the direction of the village you'll discover fish ponds and a beautiful lawn area that is used for concerts in the summer. The villa has a bell tower, a mystery cave, chapel, state of the art kitchen and some incredible gargoyle adorned fireplaces. To learn more about Villa Della Torre's history or to book a visit click this link. http://www.villadellatorre.it/en/index.php
We concluded our visit with a tasting of some of the estates current releases.
2013 Valpolicella Classico - 65% Covina Veronese, 30% Rondinella and 5% Molinara - This wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks and spends two months in bottle before it's released. Crafted in the traditional style delightful aromas of red cherries and violets jump out of the glass. In the mouth you receive more red cherries and a very pleasing juiciness, complimented by some firm acidity and freshness. Medium bodied with a hint of pepper spice on the finish this Valpolicella is charming and would pair well with salumi and cheeses, soups, tomato sauced pastas and grilled chicken. 12.9% abv $13 - $15
2011 Palazzo della Torre Veronese I.G.T. - 70% Corvina Veronese, 25% Rondinella and 5% Sangiovese - Allegrini's Pallazzo della Torre is a tribute to what wine insiders refer to as a 'Baby Amarone' or a ripasso styled wine. The vineyards for this wine surround the villa. In crafting the wine they use the whole bunch of the dried grapes (30% of the blend), not just the pomace or skins as you would for a typical ripasso wine. It's a subtle but important distinction in the winemaking process, as I believe this one step is what gives the wine its extraordinary richness, complexity and depth of flavors. The remaining 70% of wine is made from fresh grapes. The wine spends about 18 months in first and second use barriques and seven months in bottle before release. A deep ruby color with aromas of black cherries and black plum, baking spice and that characteristic dried raisin character ( from the appassimento process) are followed with more of the same on the palate. Medium bodied the wine is held together with soft round tannins and just the right amount of oak. This wine pairs well with charcuterie, lasagna and a variety of richer flavored pasta dishes. Try it with grilled or roasted meats. We tasted the 2011 which is not on the market yet, but the 2010 which has the same flavor profile is currently available. A textbook example of ripasso styled wine I always have a vintage or two of Palazzo della Torre in my wine stash. You should too. Even though ready to drink upon offer, a testament to how well it's made is that it ages extremely well. At such a reasonable price point one could easily justify buying a case and drinking it over a number of years to see what pleasure it brings with bottle age. 13.8% abv 20,833 cases produced $16 - $18
2011 La Grola Veronese I.G. T. - 80% Corvina Veronese, 10% Oseleta and 10% Syrah - The La Grola vineyard was first planted in 1979 and the Syrah planting was the first of its kind in the region. The vines are guyot vertical-trellis trained as well, revolutionary thinking for that time period. Perched on a picturesque hilltop site with southeastern exposure in the town of Sant'Ambrogio, at about 984 ft elevation, La Grola's 74 acre plot is densely planted to approximately 1700 vines per acre. Long considered a top cru Massimo offered, " La Grola I think because I live here, is the most beautiful vineyard in all of Valpolicella". The wine is made entirely from fresh grapes and is probably one of the best examples of the character of Corvina. In the glass showing aromas of lavender, roses, red cherry and raspberry the wine turns more angular in its focus, on the palate. Definitely in its infancy there's good concentration, but it's a more brooding style, full bodied with rich cherry notes, hints of cocoa and anise, very good acids and a medium length elegant finish. It's fresh and clean and I'm convinced it would have shown even better with more time in the glass. The wine spends 16 months in barrique and 10 months in bottle. At the table La Grola calls for grilled meats. Try it with grilled sausages and portabella mushrooms or a beef stew. 13.7% abv 20,833 cases produced $30 - $34
2009 Amarone Classico - 80% Corvina Veronese, 15% Rondinella and 5% Oseleta - Hand harvested grape bunches are collected from various hillside sites throughout Valpolicella Classico for their Amarone. The grape bunches are dried for three to four months and then pressed and fermented in January. The wine spends about 18 months in a combination of new and second passage oak. The most striking feature of this wine is its impeccable balance. Quite amazing when you consider its 15.8% alcohol content. Refined for over four years before release the nose displays black cherry, clove, chocolate,fig and spice. Not at all a hammer the wine is seamlessly structured, showing great depth of fruit with ideal acidity and well integrated tannins and wood flavors. Staying in character with the other wines in the portfolio it still exhibits freshness on its long velvety finish. Allegrini's Amarone is a perennial top award winner in many well established wine publications and with good reason. It's providing so much drinking pleasure already I can't help but wonder how many bottles will be put aside for aging by consumers. If you have never tried an Amarone this would be an excellent introduction to the power, richness and complex flavors that it can offer. Drinkable enough to have on its own; it's that good, you should try it with a plate of dried nuts and Gorgonzola. Charcoal grilled steaks and richly seasoned beef stews would be good pairings too. You can find Amarone style wines in discount stores priced around $15. Avoid them like the plague. They are what their price suggests, cheap nockoffs. The higher labor cost in the production of Amarone makes it a more costly wine. Prices for good Amarone start around $30 and can escalate to over $300 a bottle for certain noted producers, but here's where Allegrini excels. Their Amarone has a broad market presence and at $65 to $75 the pedigree and price to quality ratio of their wine is unquestionable. 10,416 cases produced
2010 Giovanni Allegrini Recioto Valpolicella Classico - 80% Corvina Veronese, 15% Rondinella and 5% Oseleta - The grape bunches are dried until they have lost about half of their original weight. Then the grapes are destemmed, crushed and fermented in stainless steel tanks for 25 days with a daily pump over regimen. The fermentation stops naturally leaving a residual sugar of 118 g/l. The wine spends 14 months in french oak barriques. This dessert wine is available in a 500ml format bottle. It's dark purple in color with an intense black cherry jam and baking spice nose. It's sweet but not cloying exhibiting good zip and acidity on the palate, ending with a long satisfying finish. A great way to end a meal this wine can be easily enjoyed on its own, but if you must, try it with your favorite chocolate torte or biscotti. $54 - $62 500ml
Heartfelt thanks to Lael Hazan on twitter @educatedpalate and Flavia Antonini with Allegrini Hospitality who helped coordinate our visit. And to Massimo Bernardi, hai ragione il mio amico, "with wine you are always a friend".
If you're ever near Verona, we highly recommend you set aside some time to visit Villa Della Torre. It's a first-class experience.