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Veneto Wine Diary 2001

Valpolicella

A neighbor's country villa is seen behind trellised vineyards in this early spring view of Michele Castellani in Valpolicella.

Arriving in Venice after an overnight flight from the States and a change of planes in Paris, I rounded off a long travel day with a quick 90-minute drive across the Autostrada to historic Verona, home of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and a centerpoint of the Veneto wine region.

After a quick nap, I was feeling pretty good, if vaguely stunned, and ready to meet Wine Lovers' Discussion Group participant and pal Luca Mazzoleni for dinner. Luca is an Italian wine writer with an international perspective (and fluent English), a doctoral candidate in literature who is also a sommelier, associated with La Cantina in Bergamo and with the respected I Vini di Veronelli wine guide, and still short of 30, is already gaining notice as a leading Italian wine scribe. It was a pleasure to join him for a quick tour of the Veneto.


Monday, March 19:
Dinner at Bottega del Vino in Verona

Just off the beautiful, marble-paved pedestrian main street in the historic center of Verona, Bottega del Vino is a well-known and historic wine bar, more than a century old, with a warm and old-fashioned atmosphere, quality food, and an impressive (if rather pricey) book-size wine list as well as an intriguing variety of several dozen quality wines by the glass - mostly Italian but by no means limited to the Veneto, and with a few international selections. After a quick taste of Prosecco, a light and crisp aperitif, we got serious with:

Marcarini 1999 Boschi di Berri Dolcetto d'Alba - Inky dark garnet. Rich black plum and berry aromas, ripe and full. A blast of juicy fruit, big but short, earthy, a wisp of tannins, then soft berries linger. Made from pre-phylloxera vines, only 2,000 bottles made annually.

Then, choosing what we hoped would be a top Valpolicella to go with dinner, we hit a disappointment:

Dal Forno Romano 1997 Valpolicella Superiore Vigneto di monte Lodoletta - Dark garnet. Black-cherry and spicy oak, extracted and ripe, showing its wood. The youthful fruit that Luca recalled from an earlier tasting is fading now, with wood taking the fore in a resiny, caramelly quality that gets worse with time in the glass.

We bounce back with something better,

Masi 1997 Osar Rosso del Veronese - Made from the traditional but now rare local Oseleta grape plus 20 percent Corvina, it's dark garnet in color, lush and rich: Elvis painted on black velvet, but done by an artist. Passes the ultimate test, as we enjoy it all the way down while chatting over a good meal.

For dessert, a glass of Recioto:

Le Ragoze 1996 Recioto della Valpolicella - Inky, black. A whiff of funky cheese and light nutty oxidation on the nose, softly sweet and firmly structured.


Castellani and Mazzoleni

Sergio Castellani (left) and Luca Mazzoleni chat in Castellani's "passito" grape-drying loft.

Tuesday, March 20, 2001:
Michele Castellani in Valpolicella

For those who think of Valpolicella as a place of bucolic and possibly none-too-sanitary little farmhouse wineries turning out gooey Amarones and using such grapes as remain to make thin and boring Valpolicella, a visit with Sergio Castellani is a revelation. Running the winery that bears his father's name with a genial smile and an iron fist, his property breaks the stereotype, with vineyards and cantina as clean as a whistle, as neat as a pin.

No modernist, Castellani makes his wines generally in traditional styles, but he's not afraid to experiment, either, whether it's bending the conventional wisdom by filtering his Recioto or breaking it entirely with such unusual but intriguing efforts as blending Corvina with dried passito-style Cabernet Sauvignon or even with Primitivo. Even the winery's production area mingles the old and the new; his extensive grape-drying area uses modern plastic baskets in place of the ancient wicker, and mobilizes high-tech aluminum fans to maintain a cool, dry environment that won't foster rot - a new approach to a traditional technique.

After a long tour and discussion, we settled in at a sturdy table in the cellar's chilly environment, broke out a block of Parmigiano Reggiano (the breakfast of champions!) and tasted some wines.

I Castei 1997 Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso - Ripe, characteristic Valpolicella black-cherry aromas are abundant even at cellar temperature. Floral black fruit and almonds, tart and appropriately bitter in the finish. Delicious.

Sergio 1997 Rosso Veronese - An "alternative Amarone," made with a reduced drying time (two months, only about half the usual period for Amarone) to retain more fresh fruit, this bottling is labeled "Indicazione Geografica Tipica," a category that allows more tradition-bending. Castellani's pride in it is evidenced by his use of his own first name on the wine. Forward, grapey and delicious, with floral and sweet leather aromas over deep black fruit, it's big, fruity, bone-dry and tannic.

I Castei 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon delle Venezie "Capitel" - As noted, this is a Cabernet blend with Corvina, using air-dried grapes to make a wine that may bow in the direction of Bordeaux's noble Cabernet but that remains all-Italian in style. Very dark in color, it breathes tasty currants and spicy cherries. Structured, almost austere on first tasting, it opens up in the mouth to delicious dried-fruit flavors framed by zippy acidity.

I Castei 1997 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Campo Casalin - From a single vineyard on the hillside above Castellani's regular vines, this is a rich, perfumed Amarone, black fruit, almond, caramel and somewhat oxidized nutty aromas make for a big, open wine. Full flavors follow the nose, with a bitter chocolate note and extracted fruit leaving a faint bittersweet note on the finish.

I Castei 1997 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Ca' del Pipa - From another single vineyard higher up the hillside, this is an elegant Amarone, a wine of real class. Deep and profound, structured and tannic, dry and appropriately bitter in the finish.

I Castei 1997 Recioto della Valpolicella Classico Campo Casalin - In contrast with most of his neighbors, Castellani filters his sweet Recioto, a practice that he believes confers greater stability for aging. It's hard to argue with the result, an inky blackish-purple wine showng black fruit and Christmas treats, plums and cherries and spice. Candied fruit flavors are luscious but stop well short of dessert-sweet at about 8 percent residual sugar, with bright acidity and that mysterious Valpolicella bitterness for balance.

Passione 1997 Rosso del Veneto - There is little of tradition in this interesting, utterly unconventional wine, a wild blend of seven varieties - Castellani starts reciting them, then laughingly waves at me to put my pen down, but it's giving away no secret to mention that it includes not just the local Corvina but some Primitivo and maybe even a hint of - did somebody say Syrah? "A cocktail" of grapes, he laughs. Dark ruby in color, it's strange but appealing, complex bursts of mixed jammy fruit and heady spice, dried and candied fruit, faintly sweet and with a light prickly quality on the tongue. It's a natural match with chocolate, the wine maker insists.


Lunch at Trattoria dalla Rosa Alda
in San Giorgio di Valpolicella

Handy for a visit from many Northern Italian regions, Valpolicella is only a short drive into the hills north of Verona toward Lake Garda. After our visit, another short but spectacular drive up a series of switchbacks took us to the pretty little country town of San Giorgio, where Luca remembered this excellent trattoria overlooking the valley. Sparkling and well-kept, it offers traditional regional cuisine (even such exotica as Asino (donkey). We passed on that, though, in favor of lighter but excellent fare - fresh local herbs in a featherweight, buttery risotto, and a remarkable dish of creamy polenta topped with fresh finferli (porcini-type) wild mushrooms and a delicate shrink-wrap of cheese.

With the meal, we enjoyed:

Anselmi 1999 Capitel Foscarino Veneto - Technically a Soave but not labeled as such, Luca says, as the wine maker's protest against new regulations that would allow harmful overcropping. Bright straw color, with fresh white-fruit and melon aromas and a hint of what I call "damp wool" and Luca suggests is acacia flower. Crisp and balanced, with fresh mineral and almond flavors, it's a delight now, but based on the property's history will reward another three to five years' aging with much greater complexity and richness.

And afterward, compliments of the house, a glass of:

Masi 1994 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico - Luscious dried cherries and candied fruit; full and dry, complex flavor, tannins still showing softly but resolving. Although 1994 was not considered a good vintage, this one is doing well.

From this country paradise, a quick run down the hill to the Autostrada found us back in Verona in 20 minutes, where I grabbed my car for a quick run east. I'm in Friuli-Venezia Guilia today (staying in the village of San Giovanni di Natisole) and will visit wineries here before moving on to Slovenia tomorrow. Stay tuned!


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Italy-Slovenia Wine Diary 2001

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