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Valpolicella, Italy: Drink it in

July 25, 2010

Originally in The Washington Post

It’s peaceful in the hills of Valpolicella. The grapes are growing on their vines, soaking in the sun, waiting for maturity and the fall harvest that will produce some of Italy’s finest wines. Only the occasional tourists venture to this region tucked away in the north of Italy, coming out on day trips from the nearby city of Verona or from Lake Garda.

Valpolicella is one of Italy’s most idyllic settings, but it’s also among the country’s best-kept secrets, with most tourists seemingly unaware of its scenic routes, its medieval churches and Renaissance villas, and its award-winning wines. But the region, comprising three valleys that run parallel on a north-south axis, each named after its biggest town — Negrar to the east, Marano in the middle, Fumane to the west — makes for a wonderful stop during a trip to northern Italy.

One bright morning last fall, I visit the Villa Monteleone, an estate outside the town of Gargagnago in the Fumane valley. Its owner is Lucia Duran Raimondi, a strong-minded but amiable woman in her early 60s with short, curly hair and a hint of a Spanish accent. She was born in Bogota, Colombia, but spent most of her adult life in Chicago, where she met Anthony Raimondi, a globally renowned physician who was considered the father of pediatric neurosurgery. After marrying, the couple moved to Italy in 1988. They stumbled upon a 17th-century villa in Valpolicella, settled down and began making wine. “Neurosurgery was his profession,” Raimondi says fondly of her late husband, “but wine was his passion.”

She pours each of her six guests a glass of Recioto, a sweet red wine with hints of dried fruit and apricots, from the 2004 vintage. The room we’re in, like much of this charming estate, is unpretentious, with dark wooden floors, a stone fireplace and winemaking awards hanging on the walls. The dining table is dressed with white paper mats, red-wine glasses and plates of cheese and breadsticks.

As the wine flows, Raimondi gushes. “Recioto is a wine waiting to be discovered,” she says enthusiastically. “It’s sweet, but calling it a dessert wine is limiting. It’s such a wonderful wine.”

Villa Monteleone produces Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Recioto and the flagship Amarone. If Recioto is sweet, Classico is fruity and fragrant. Amarone is much more complex, with a strong body, a higher alcohol content and a rich taste full of aromas. The superior version of Valpolicella, the Superiore, falls somewhere between the freshness of Classico and the rich complexity of Amarone.

According to Maurizio Boselli, professor of viticulture at the University of Verona, two factors make the Valpolicella region perfect for winemaking: the Lessini Mountains to the north, which protect it from the Alpine winds, and Lake Garda to the west. “They combine to create a warm, temperate climate similar to that of Tuscany,” Boselli says. Tuscany is world famous for its scenic countryside and its wines; the town of Montalcino, home to Brunello di Montalcino wine, is Italy’s wine tourism capital, with approximately 2 million visitors flocking there every year.

Like the region around Montalcino, Valpolicella is dotted with wine producers, just sans the crowds, so far. But winemaking isn’t new to the region, whose name is said to come from the Latin val polis cellae, or valley of many cellars. As far back as Roman times, this area was known across Italy for its sweet alcoholic nectar, an ancestor to Recioto.

Amarone, Valpolicella’s most acclaimed wine, was born more recently.

“In the 1930s, a local wine producer forgot to interrupt the fermentation of the grapes at the moment that’s needed for Recioto,” explains Raimondi. “When the wine was ready, he realized it wasn’t sweet at all.” And so the name Amarone — from “amaro,” Italian for “sour” — came to be.

For the visitor wanting a raw taste of Valpolicella, small, family-run businesses such as Raimondi’s are the best bet. The owners will guide you through a tour of the vineyards and the cellar to the wine tasting room, talking about their bottles in the same loving way you might talk about your child.

Charm and glamour

“This land is not only my home, it is also my soul.” Enrico Cascella Spinosa is muddy at the end of a long day of grape picking. We’re sitting on the panoramic terrace he has built in the middle of his villa’s Italian-style lawn, overlooking the expanse of vineyards below. Spinosa is the sole heir to a winemaking dynasty that has owned this property since the early 1800s. The three-story mansion sits behind the terrace, at the center of a private courtyard.

Recently, Spinosa opened his property to visitors looking for a place to stop for the night. He rents out a two-story cottage that houses up to six people. Upon request, he can have groceries delivered to the guests. As we left the terrace at sunset, a young couple from Finland occupying the cottage came to take our place. They were carrying plastic plates loaded with prosciutto, salami and local cheeses; two wineglasses; and a bottle of Valpolicella.

Villa Spinosa’s guesthouse, alongside the bed-and-breakfast that Lucia Duran Raimondi opened in 2007 at Villa Monteleone, is one of a growing number of charming midrange lodging options in the region. But you can find serious luxury in Valpolicella, too.

On a sunny Friday morning, an English couple is having breakfast on the front porch of the Villa Giona, overlooking a carefully designed park dotted with statues from the late 1800s. Villa Giona, near the village of Corrubbio, is a two-story, U-shaped 16th-century villa built of tufo, or tuff in English, a volcanic rock.

Corrubbio is at the southern edge of Valpolicella, which is famous for its centuries-old estates. Unfortunately, it was here, starting in the 1950s, that the most indiscriminate industrialization took place, giving birth to rows of nondescript buildings. But properties such as Villa Giona, surrounded by acres of vineyards, make you forget about all that. You can stay in one of the villa’s 18 rooms, which sport high ceilings with exposed wood beams, finely upholstered antique furniture and antique rugs.

Paolo Saletti, a small, well-dressed man, owns and manages the Villa Giona hotel. “In a way, we’ve tried to reenact the traditional concept of a ‘villa veneta,’ ” he explains, referring to the Veneto, the administrative region in which Valpolicella is located. Ever since the local aristocracy began building mansions in the 1500s, he tells me, their estates have served a dual purpose as the family’s vacation home and as the base for the owner’s summer wine business. Now tourists can spend a day or more here, imagining themselves as lords of the manor and the vineyard.

Byblos Art Hotel is home to even more glamorous luxury. The brainchild of Dino Facchini, head of the Italian fashion label Byblos, this project mixes tourism and contemporary art. Facchini purchased the 16th-century estate in 2000 and asked Milanese interior-design superstar Alessandro Mendini to renovate it, emphasizing the property’s classical details. Then Mendini plugged in his own futuristic design furniture, plus Facchini’s private collection of contemporary art, including pieces by such American artists as Jim Dine, Cindy Sherman and Peter Halley.

A Catholic chapel on the grounds can be reserved for weddings. The wine cellar, dating from the 1400s, displays more than 300 labels of Italian and international wines. And since food is a necessary complement to wine, Byblos houses a gourmet restaurant called Atelier, serving traditional Italian cuisine from Valpolicella in an English basement decorated as eclectically as the rest of the hotel.

Food worth looking for

This being Italy, you can of course find delectable food around every corner. Dalla Rosa Alda is a family-run restaurant in San Giorgio Ingannapoltron, a picturesque village that’s a steep climb up a hill at the western edge of Valpolicella. Its name, not surprisingly, means St. George Trick-the-Lazy. The pieve, or church, dates to the year 712 and is considered the region’s architectural pearl. It stands in the village center, offering breathtaking views of Lake Garda in one direction and Valpolicella in the other.

The Dalla Rosas have been preparing food for visitors since 1853. From a short, attractive menu, I pick a brasato di manzo con salsa all’Amarone e polenta: roast beef in Amarone wine sauce served with polenta.

The restaurant serves strictly seasonal — and local — cuisine. It’s a member of Tavole della Valpolicella, an organization of area restaurants that stand for excellent food that draws on local culinary traditions. “We only use spices from the area, since my wife, Severina, has revamped the cultivation of local herbs,” owner Lodovico Testi tells me.

But the quality of restaurants across Valpolicella is good overall, and it’s worth exploring places, even at random, beyond the Tavole della Valpolicella brand. One night I had dinner at Trattoria Sottocastel, a small, unpretentious restaurant in the town of Arbizzano. Alberto Benico, the owner, serves a seasonal cuisine rooted in local traditions, although the menu has a southern Italian twist. The lasagnette al musso, a linguine dish served with donkey meat sauce — a Valpolicella specialty — was delicious. And by Italian standards, at less than $12, quite reasonable.

After leaving Trattoria Sottocastel, I drove by Villa Novare, another elaborate mansion, dating to the 1700s. It was elegantly illuminated for the night, a truly majestic sight, encapsulating all the beauty of Valpolicella.

And that beauty is all around. To the west, where the valley of Fumane turns into a narrow gorge, the Cascate di Molina National Park, famous for its waterfalls, makes for enchanting hikes. The valley of Negrar, to the east, is known for the Ponte di Veja, reportedly the longest natural bridge in Europe. In addition to the pieve in San Giorgio Ingannapoltron, there are many other medieval churches across the area, such as one in the small village of San Floriano that dates to at least the 1200s. The central valley of Marano, where the landscape is pleasant and real estate development is under control, is probably the best bet for a relaxing drive along Valpolicella’s narrow, winding roads.

And when you get tired of it all, there’ll always be a small local winemaker eager to have you taste the fruit of his vine.

Pasquali is a freelance Italian journalist living in Washington.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010 6:42 AM

    some wine glasses break easily so now i always buy wine glasses that are quite thick ~

  2. November 22, 2010 10:46 AM

    those thick and heavy borosilicate wine glasses are the best but they are very expensive ,`- “`-

  3. January 29, 2011 11:56 AM

    Ciao Valentina,

    Great to find your article. My Nonna is from San Giorgio so I’ve visited relatives and stayed at Dalla Rosa Alda.

    I’m doing some family research on area history and would like to contact someone in the town who could help and speaks English. Could you get me in contact with someone?

    Grazie

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