We spent a wonderful July day wine tasting in Italy’s Valpolicella region, just north of the city of Verona. Heading out of the B&B (scroll down for photos) after breakfast, we drove through the picturesque countryside, explored a couple small towns, and learned more about the full-bodied Amarone wine that has made the area famous. Valpolicella is Latin for “valley of many vineyards”, and although this wine region isn’t nearly as well-known to foreign tourists as, say, Chianti, there are indeed many (many!) vineyards to visit. We could have easily fit in five stops with back-to-back tours but decided to take a slower approach (and some of us didn’t want to dive in to wine tasting straight after breakfast).
Wines of the Valpolicella
It was hard to narrow down the options, but we wanted to meet some smaller producers and see the wine making process from A to Z, so we booked tours at the Vogadori brothers and Le Bignele. In addition to the famous full-bodied Amarone, the area’s vineyards also produce the medium-bodied Ripasso, a dessert wine called Recioto, and the relatively light rosso di Valpolicella, which was our go-to table wine during the years we lived in Milan.
The tours started where the process starts: on the land. Alberto, one of the three Vogadori brothers and our host for the first tour, explained that Vogadori grows all their own grapes. No outside grapes or outside wine is brought in to mix with theirs (actually quite a common practice). Earlier this year they installed solar panels, allowing them to generate all their own electricity.
How to make Amarone wine
After the grapes are harvested in October, they rest in crates in order to dry out and to allow the grapes’ natural sugars to become concentrated. This resting period is crucial for a full-bodied wine like Amarone or a sweet dessert wine like Recioto because the wine needs to start its fermentation process with the grapes’ sugars at their peak. Our guides explained that the resting area must be as dry as possible so that mold doesn’t spread through the harvest, and the drying rooms at both vineyards we visited had been specially designed with big open windows so that a natural breeze flowed constantly. Here are the grapes drying in their crates at Le Bignele:
The Amarone and Recioto grapes need to remain in the drying crates for about four months for maximum concentration of sugars, but the grapes used for the lighter rosso di Valpolicella wine only need to dry out for a month before being crushed and transferred into steel tanks for fermentation. Here’s Silvia, who helps run Le Bignele, showing us the drying room (though as it was July, the crates are stacked and empty).
The rosso di Valpolicella then ferments in the steel tanks for just two weeks before being transferred to a barrel, while the Amarone ferments in the steel vats for almost two months. As you can see from the sign on the barrel, this batch of Amarone has been aging for more than 2 years. In the end, 100 kg / 220 lbs of grapes produce just 20 litres of Amarone wine, or about 26 bottles.
The wine making process ends with bottling, which is done on site with a completely automated machine in an amazingly small area. A robotic assembly line process makes sure bottles are sterilized, filled, corked, labeled, and boxed.
The best part of the tour is at the end. Finally, let’s taste some wine! Usually a tasting costs about 10 euros a head, tasting fees are waived if you buy wine. The tasting rooms are gorgeous, with views over the lush Valpolicella countryside (see top photo of the Le Bignele tasting room). We tasted all four types of wine at each wine maker and bought some of everything, including a bottle of olive oil made by Vogadori which is sold only on the premises due to limited supply. Usually there is some sort of small snack to accompany the wine: at Vogadori we had bread sticks and at Le Bignele, Silvia put out a plate of locally made aged goat cheese with the red wines and the traditional cantucci cookies with the dessert wine.
Back at the B&B…
What a fabulous way to relax after six hours of being out and about in 100 degree heat!
We ended the day with a lovely dinner at a local restaurant, Osteria Paverno:
Here’s the Osteria’s wine list (photo below). If you’ve ever bought Amarone outside of Italy, you know how expensive it is, and you’ll recognize how unbelievably inexpensive these are! We tried to appreciate as many as possible during our few days in wine tasting in the Valpolicella, and we brought a few home, but there were still many that we didn’t have time to try.
Getting to and around the Valpolicella wine region
This wine region covers a relatively small area just north of the city of Verona so it’s an easy day trip, or even half-day trip, for anyone visiting Verona. Getting to Verona by train is not hard, but exploring the Valpolicella requires a car. The towns of the Valpolicella are not serviced by trains, and I probably wouldn’t try to get to the vineyards using buses, so either rent a car or book a wine tour or a private driver. As you can see from the tourist map below, the area is full of wine producers, towns, and activities.
Book wine tastings in advance, or at the very least check opening times and days of the places you want to visit. If you don’t get around to doing any of that, or just prefer to be spontaneous, follow the brown signs that indicate the Valpolicella wine road, which is the brown sign on the bottom in the photo below.
Valpolicella driving tip: many of the wineries are signposted, but be aware that even though the sign for a winery may be in the centre of town, the winery itself may be a 10 mile drive into the countryside. If you keep following the signs, you’ll get there, and you’re not being led on a wild goose chase – just know that because there’s a sign doesn’t mean the winery is just around the corner. And as I’ve said before, make sure you have a GPS but cross-check against a paper map. Here I am following my cousin along a “road” he was taking through the vineyard that according to his GPS was the most direct way to get back to our B&B. We cross-checked our paper map and realized it went nowhere, then had to reverse very carefully to get back to the main road.
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