Amarone Wine, Valpolicella

A visit to Le Ragose

‘In Italy,’ says Marta Galli, ‘where you have a real richness of local autochthonous varieties, territories, terrains and different climates, it’s a shame to just go ahead and standardise.’ But nobody could accuse the winery for which she is the third generation to work of ‘standardising’. In a world of wine ever more focused on the idea of the international, where style trends in Brooklyn have echoes in Bierzo and Barossa, and where the commercial decision to appeal to as large a number of customers in such diverse locations around the globe can be hard to resist, Le Ragose are true flag-flyers for the local and the particular, for a vision of wine rooted in the irreducibly complex intricacies of an individual place. And it’s a decision that’s paying off, as Le Ragose’s business and reputation continue to rise through layer after atmospheric layer.

And it is a reputation well-earned. Over the decades, Le Ragose has been an abiding presence in the Amarone firmament, something of a benchmark for the traditional way of doing things. So much has changed in Valpolicella over the last few decades, not least among which have been the various debates over approaches, methods and ideals, and yet it’s always seemed like Le Ragose have been operating at a different speed to everyone else. Where others have sprinted, they have strolled; where others have fretted, they have chilled; and where for some, the latest fads and fashions are where the creative oomph is found, for Le Ragose trusting to a vision and refining every thinkable detail is the best way to fulfil something more than simply an idea of what their wine should be, but more of a vocation.

All of which sounds a bit highfalutin – and while wine can indeed be an elevated thing, it’s important to always bear in mind that it always has a humble origin, that winemakers are, first, foremost and above all else, farmers. The work is hard, unforgiving. Results, hard to predict. And in the end it’s a pact between you and things out of your control – weather especially, as we have seen recently – to which all a viticulturist can do is deploy their skill and savoir-faire to negotiate their way through it, to work out a solution, a compromise even, with the conditions and the land. And for Le Ragose, that’s a considerable amount of savoir-faire.

The Interview

That land consists of 40 hectares in the comune of Negrar, one of the true historic villages in the heart of Valpolicella Classica. It’s one of the very highest points of a region more noted for its gentle rolling landscape than dramatic elevation, from 250m-400m above sea level. The slope allows for terracing over the whole area under vine, all of which is south-west facing for maximum sun exposure – although sunshine wasn’t the most obvious item on the agenda when we arrived one cold, overcast March morning. Not the most auspicious for catching a view, though it may have been more advantageous than we thought. ‘If you come between October and February, the months of fog’ Marta told us ‘from here you just see a white carpet, as we’re above the fog – driving up through the grey, you go from winter to find yourself in the sun again. Towards 11 it starts to rise and you can begin to see the plain.’ But of course, this elevation is crucial: ‘once, you were allowed to make these wines only at a certain elevation, because it’s a kind of wine for which the climate mustn’t be too humid. Consider the fact that the grapes are harvested and put aside in the fruttaio for appassimento between September and December, and in a place on the plain that would be difficult. Therefore in the past, when they didn’t have the technology we have now, to try and do appassimento on the grapes in the Padania plain with its classic humidity, with that fog, it was much more probable that the grapes would go bad, develop fungus, suffer basically. Therefore it was reserved only for the hills, where instead the climate is better ventilated.’

All of which isn’t to say that Le Ragose is a massively old venture, although three generations in it’s fair to say it’s been going strong for a while now. It was in 1969 that Le Ragose was founded by Marta’s grandfather, Arnaldo. ‘He was an oenologist who for years had worked for various winemakers,’ she says. ‘And in 1969 he decided to purchase something of his own and said “okay, I want something I can manage how I want and that can give me high quality, where I can make wines in the local tradition, indeed respecting the local traditions and the local varieties.”’

In the 90s her father and uncle were to join the team in the capacity of oenologist and administrator respectively, a great boost to what had been more a husband-and-wife operation. But it was already an extraordinary operation, with Marta Sr. having herself earned the nickname ‘La Signora del Vino’ for her influence over the whole of Valpolicella. What they defended, at a time when more international styles of wine were coming into vogue (what might be called ‘Robert Parker wines’ for the impact of the famous tastemaker-critic, who favoured rich, bold wines), was an idea of something particularly local, particularly Valpolicella – a crusade vigorously continued by today’s head wine-man, Paolo Galli. ‘Here, there’s nothing to invent,’ he says. ‘When you taste all of these very different Amarone, it’s because they’re using different grapes. For many years, we were different because we remained true to using corvina, corvinone and rondinella.’ Even the training system is classic, the elegant and trusted ‘pergola trentina’. ‘It’s a perfect system for growing grapes for Amarone as the form of it protects the grapes from the sun, the rain and even the hail.’

The terraced land above the fog is Eocenic and oceanic, which is to say that 33-50 million years ago it was actually under the sea, to the extent that you can actually see shells in it. ‘We have varied clay, red and brown, as well as some toar, typical to Valpolicella, an extremely local volcanic soil,’ explains Marta. ‘Clay and toar alternate depending on where you are, changing from hill to hill.’

The crucial aspect of this soil is drainage – ‘like a sponge’ says Marta – which forces the plants’ roots to search deep in the soil for moisture. It’s especially important at the beginning of the vines’ lifespan so that it develops this root depth – and irrigation would be the last thing you want. ‘There’s this false myth that you can irrigate only when it’s needed, but it doesn’t work like that: if you start to irrigate immediately, you have to irrigate always, otherwise you can put enormous stress on a plant that doesn’t have deep enough roots to find water elsewhere. So, we only do it where we absolutely have to.’

Irrigation is becoming a sore spot (or perhaps it should be a hot topic) as climate change becomes ever more and more unavoidable for winemakers everywhere. The infamous drought of 2022 was, for many, sufficient to push them to bring out the dreaded hose and sprinkler. For Le Ragose however, doing so, except to save from financial disaster, breaks the contract with nature, with the elements. ‘The lack of irrigation here is more or less to do with the tradition of the place, and also with sustainability. The fact of planting only where nature alone can give you the quality is a part of our tradition. We’d do it only in situations of real emergency, but luckily we’ve planted where nature can provide on its own.’

‘Tradition’ is of course a pretty freighted word, and it doesn’t just apply to terrain. What is more important to the tradition – the methods of making a wine, or the wine those methods are meant to produce? As the climate changes so will the wine if the methods aren’t altered, methods designed in a different age to make a certain wine associated with the land and its climate.

But this, too, is perhaps to misunderstand what is meant here by ‘tradition’. The tradition itself includes evolution, as it has to – after all, there was a time when Amarone as a dry wine didn’t exist. Following its advent, however, the existing fruttaii were adapted, the existing tradition of Recioto providing the framework for the region’s new calling card. And at Le Ragose, it involves the combination of technology old and new.

‘We use plastic drawers because they’re more easy to manage and help keep the grapes healthier. At the end of the harvest we wash them, and there isn’t the risk they develop fungus or mould like unfortunately often happens with drawers made of wood. We used wood for many years, but in several they developed fungus and risked affecting the grapes, and in the end we very often had to replace them.’

We entered a large, dark, cool warehouse where around us loomed great shelves of huge empty plastic drawers like catacombs awaiting their sleepers. ‘Here we’ll do the appassimento of the grapes. If you come between September and November it’s very beautiful, there are all the grapes in repose the we set down for three months in order to make the Amarone. We also make a superiore with our historic ‘Le Sassine’ label, for which we only do three weeks appassimento. You smell the odour? A little remains.’

There is something very particular about a fruttaio, the silent chrysalis where the jewels of Valpolicella undergo their metamorphosis. Only in this region do you really find these fascinating buildings, unassuming guardians of the valley’s wine identity. More familiar was the bright hall with the great steel vats where fermentation and maturation of the fresher wines occurs. ‘Here we make our Valpolicella classico, most of which spends only one month in stainless steel, then is left until April, May.’ But the more complex wines require more complex procedures in here, like the Ripasso: ‘that will then go through the secondary fermentation on the Amarone pomace.’ As for the Amarone itself? Or better to say, themselves: ‘depending one which of our bottles it’s different. The traditional will spend up to 12 months in steel to ferment; the Marta Galli however, for example, which goes into French wood, will spend much less time. After a few months, most of the wine will go directly into wood.’

Which was, in fact, in the cantina, to be found on the other side of a little museum full of extraordinary historical wine machinery (‘there’s a press in here that’s 400 years old!’) as well as a remarkable collection of old wine labels from many old greats (Tignanello, Biondi Santi, Gaja, Sassicaia) as designed by Roger Capron, a student of Picasso. The room is dark, reposeful (excessive light can be harmful – we have to make sure not to spend too much time here). True to tradition once again – the barrels are generally massive, twice the size of the fashionable French-style barriques that are used to impart a significant oakiness to wine. These, by contrast, are huge, 50 hectolitre hulkers made from much less flavour-intrusive Slavonian oak, where a wine can rest and develop gently and subtly for many years. ‘This is the traditional work of Amarone: clean, elegant, da gastronomia. The wood is particular. A product that stays in barrel for eight years, and is in any case made from grapes of high quality…it would be a shame to cover it with, for instance, French oak that covers the real flavour.’

It’s no surprise to find that these too are of artisanal provenance – handmade by Garbellotto of Conegliano, among very best in this part of the world. Conegliano is an important wine town in the Veneto, indeed in all of Italy. It’s the main town of the area that makes prosecco, and in addition that and to barrel-makers it is home to one of the major wine schools in the country – one which both Marta Galli and her grandfather attended. ‘He would travel by bike from Longarone to Conegliano, he’d even sleep there every now and again.’

From this humble acorn Arnaldo built a mighty oak. Even by the end of the 1970s the Le Ragose’s reputation had already exceeded the ‘promising local’ category, gaining national prominence. It also earned Arnaldo and Marta Sr. an art collection of quite enviable taste and variety. It begins in the garden, with a number of sculptures collected over the years, including a version of the famous horse by Nag Arnoldi, and continues inside the house with a room of paintings, including (quite remarkably) work by Giacomo Balla and Giorgio de Chirico. It’s a quite appropriate setting for the enjoyment of the works of art produced in-house – in other words, we had arrived at the tasting room, which is where Paolo joined us.

Glass & Bottles at Le Ragose Winery during a tasting
Bottles aligned on a wooden table of all the wines from Le Ragose, from an Amarone Riserva 2006 to a Valpolicella Classico Doc.

We start with the current vintages of the fresh, non-oaked Valpolicella Classico and the altogether more weighty ‘Le Sassine’ Ripasso Superiore offering (2021 and 2019 respectively). ‘Note the difference in colour’ says Marta, and we do: the Classico is a bright, translucent ruby; the ‘Sassine’, a rather more brooding purple. ‘Freshness and drinkability are the main characteristics of this wine’ says Marta, indicating the Classico. It is indeed remarkably zippy and spry, a wine that bounces around cheerfully. The ‘Sassine’, on the other hand, is a heftier thing, heavier steel in the structure and smoky red fruit with a more profound crunch. I suggest that the Classico is more an everyday wine, and she agrees; the ‘Sassine’, however, is built different, from different stock. ‘It’s our historical vineyard at the lowest altitude, 250m [above sea level]. When my grandfather bought the property the farm was totally abandoned – with the exception of Le Sassine, where they found vines of local varieties. We have records attesting to the presence of vines there going back as far as 400 years, and it became our first label, our first product. (It’s also an archeological site from the Bronze Age!)

This freshness is absolutely apparent in both of these wines. The 2012, while a little darker, shares the 2011’s autumnal colouration, but has a little more sweetness to it. Nevertheless they are both remarkable, complex wines, with everything you could want in a grown-up Amarone: liquorice, star anise, balsamic, forest floor, while the alcohol and acidity are both high and really very well integrated. You can only imagine what they might become in the ensuing decades.

Or, well, maybe we don’t have to imagine too hard, as Marta brings out the pièce de resistance for the day: the Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva 2006. As Marta mentioned, all of their Amarone technically qualifies as ‘riserva’ under the rules, so what could it mean that this one actually sports the designation on the label? Well, it all goes back a long way.

‘The most traditional wine of Valpolicella wasn’t really Amarone but Recioto – in fact, Amarone was born as a mistake when making Recioto [the sugar was accidentally all fermented]. And sometimes a similar mistake will occur when trying to make an Amarone, giving you a wine which is something between a Recioto and an Amarone that we call a mandorlato [‘almondified’], with residual sugar in the middle between the two styles. Who knows why, technical reasons related to temperature that spontaneously pauses the fermentation, and so what you end up is either a sweet Amarone or a dry Recioto. From these increased concentrations is born this bottle, an Amarone much less in the Bertani style and much more towards the Quintarelli end of the spectrum – not just concentrated sugar, but concentrated everything as a result of exceptionally long barrel-ageing, 13 years in very small barrels of Slavonian oak, only 10 hectolitres.

It’s a really unusual combination. The Slavonian oak is still much milder in imparting flavour than its French or American counterparts, but the size – less than half the volume of barriques – is extremely concentrating. It’s this mix of mild flavours being really hammered into the wine that allows for such a long period of refinement. ‘It’s really a bottle without comparison: a bottle from the past connected to the tradition of Recioto, of mandorlato.’

And it is extraordinary, a dense, ferruginous colour and aromas and flavours not so much fruit-forward as the memory of fruit evoked. It also remains genuinely powerful, but is the very definition of the iron first in a velvet glove, incredibly soft with a grip that holds on and acidity that streaks a single straight line all the way through each mouthful. A really impressive product that does feel like a product from a somewhat different age.

But of course, it’s not unusual at this stage of a tasting for things to get a little philosophical. A question about the origins of the tradition leads Paolo to reflect on the history of Le Ragose, the emergence of its distinctive identity. ‘Because you know, we also have to learn by doing. After more than 50 years, you understand where your wines go, what kind of life they have. Every now and again we’ll open an old bottle to try and understand what it’s done, how it’s evolving. It’s always by trying to understand a particular batch, perhaps why a batch is different to others, that you gain experience, and that you can start to experiment with other things.’

But hopefully, they insist, experimenting with the right things; there’s huge value in introducing international varieties and French oak barrels, but judiciously, gently, not throwing away what you had to begin with. ‘We’re heading towards a standardising of the mode of production’ in Marta’s opinion. ‘You expect to make a certain product and so you never discover anything. Especially in Italy, where you have such a richness of local autochthonous varieties, of different territories, terrains and climates, it’s such a shame to standardise. Moreover there’s the question of sustainability: the traditional methods are more sustainable and have more respect for the local territory and culture. If you plant international varieties you’ll make international wine. When you have a terroir like in Italy, however, it’s a shame to drink the same wine as everyone else. You could rediscover the lesser-known grapes of the region, for example. So far in this milennium there’s been such pressure to standardise, but now the fashion is starting to turn, as it has in other areas such as vintage fashion, back towards older ideas of craftsmanship and sustainability.’

The time has come to go, and we shake effusive hands and trudge away into the grey, into the fog of mid-spring. But my time at Ragose has got me thinking about some of the most fundamental questions in wine, indeed in all agriculture: quality, sustainability, the past and the future, tradition and innovation, and the relationships between these things. I could sum it up, but I don’t think I can do better than Marta herself, and her reflections on her own wine journey, on trends in the business, and what it all means. ‘I lived on the farm from 13 years of age. From 18, I began to bother Papà or tastings, to accompany him around the cantina, and at 21 I went to America to work with our exports. In the end, I did a doctorate at the same time as working here on the azienda. I love working in this business, it’s a beautiful business. It’s the thing I love to do the most. I learn marketing, I know that storytelling for a product is important, but I also know that the product often fails to live up to the storytelling. Here, it’s not like that. I know that I’m telling a true story.’

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