Amarone Wine, Valpolicella

Romano dal Forno

It’s a paradoxical thing, is Amarone. Combining power and gentleness, alcoholic heft and easy drinkability, richness and freshness, the ultra-treated grapes that remain ultra-expressive of terroir, the resulting wine that is unique yet universal – what other wine region manages such logic-defying balancing acts, such unfeasible incongruities somehow harmonised like a song?

Perhaps no aspect of the region, however, is more of a paradox than the fact that Amarone is both a very ancient and a very modern wine. The method of vinification using semi-dried grapes has an extraordinarily long attestation in the Veneto region at least as far back as the Germanic kingdoms, and in the wider Mediterranean even to hundreds of years BC. And yet, as with any winemaking method that relies on such precision and skillful deployment of technique, it was a sometimes hairy process, gradually becoming more and more reliable over the centuries as technological advances came to be incorporated (glass bottles, cork-sealing, toasting barrels, bamboo racks and so on). Of course, the incorporation of these techniques helped develop the identity of the wine, and what was at first innovation came to be tradition. Nevertheless, Amarone remains both ancient and modern for perhaps one major reason – the relative recency of dry wines gaining predominance over sweet. For possibly even millennia, the name of the game with passito wines was to produce wines of considerable residual sugar, known as Recioto in the Valpolicella region. Palates changed over the 19th Century especially, with the arrival of styles such as brut Champagne and the final ascent to primacy of red table wines like those from Burgundy and Bordeaux. It was in the context of this world that Amarone della Valpolicella was invented in the mid-20th Century (click here for more on the history!).

All of which is to say – it is a relatively new type of wine with nevertheless ancient traditions to guard, and whose great names tend not to stretch back further than a century and many of whose progenitors are still alive – but for whom the inherent style of the region is as precious an heirloom as in any other region of the world. And there is no producer who embodies all this, this mix of ancient and modern, more than Romano dal Forno and the Dal Forno winery.

The Interview Dal Forno – a name forged in history

One point we try and emphasise here at Vineria all’Amarone is that, while yes, Amarone della Valpolicella is on the expensive side for various reasons, in the context of the upper echelons of the wine world it remains an actually rather sound investment, certainly more reasonable than much of Bordeaux and Burgundy (nevermind any first growths or grands crus). Nevertheless, as you find yourself closer to the top of the scale, there is no doubt that these cult names are starting to gain a similar level of value, certainly a similar level of reputation, to the more famously-expensive great wine regions. The reasons for this are many – the wine market, especially in western Europe, is always diversifying, always trying to uncover the next gem, the next star grape, the next challengers to the status quo, and that applies to the top of the market too as other regions move into the territory traditionally held by certain prestige appellations. Many factors go into achieving this high status (refinement of flavour profile, ageability, scarcity and so on), but there are perhaps two, apparently contradictory criteria that matter the most: tradition and innovation.

Tradition means different things everywhere, indeed often antithetical things – but it is in fact this that gives wine its regional diversity and therefore gives each region its own identity to protect. Think of the bubbles in Champagne, for instance, the bedrock of that region’s wine profile, not just by being present but also by being produced according to a certain method, different to that of prosecco; or, while oak-ageing would obliterate the character of a Muscadet or a Txakoli it is a non-negotiable building block of what makes Meursault what it is.

Innovation, however, along with its trashier cousin Fashion, is also a deeply important part of the wine market. People always want to see what’s new, what ideas or inventions are shaking up the scene, whether a fun new fad or a profound and lasting change. This is, of course, more associated with wines from the ‘New World’ – often, what consumers want from much of Old World wine is to connect to a place’s history, to feel that almost spiritual connection with that place’s past, whatever that past is for that place. However, as we have seen, all traditions begin as innovations, including everything down to storing it in a glass bottle. Moreover, recent trends in wine have involved a lot of reinvention of many ideas previously considered on the traditional side, from the ‘minimum intervention’ approach of much of the natural wine movement, to the revived interest in local, autochthonous grapes that had been pushed out by the previous fashion for international varieties. The Old World, with its long history, is well suited to such innovations.

So, how to square this circle? How to keep faith with tradition while refusing to stand still? How to retain your inimitable character while staying alert to the things out there which might help you put your personal stamp on your wine? Well, step forward Romano Dal Forno.

Dal Forno, born in Capovilla near Illasi in 1957, started his wine career not as a maker but a grower. He joined in with the family business of cultivating grapes in order to sell them off to co-operative winemakers, which remains a very common way for grape farmers to make a living. Dal Forno, however, did not feel rewarded by the low prices in the early 1980s, and decided on a new path: he would make and sell his own wine from his own vines. Still in his twenties at this point, the young man met with resistance from the rest of his family but was not to be discouraged, and he sought out a mentor who could school him in the ways of Amarone as he perceived it should be, someone deeply imbued with both savoir-faire and the traditions of the area – and duly found the man who embodies all of these qualities: Giuseppe Quintarelli.

The credentials of Quintarelli do, of course, speak for themselves, and very much merit their own article. Suffice to say here that nobody in the region is more famous for cultivating the idea of Valpolicella’s distinctive identity, or for being more committed to maintaining it. Having first met him at the age of 22, Romano Dal Forno went under the wing of Quintarelli, and it was this twin connection that was to establish the pair of winemakers as standard bearers for a certain way of doing things in Valpolicella for decades to come.

Which doesn’t mean all was smooth sailing. Famously, Quintarelli was initially unimpressed with the Dal Forno holdings in Illasi – ‘fit only for corm’, he’s supposed to have said – but young Romano accepted this as merely a gauntlet thrown down. The reputation of the winery began to outstrip its actual capacity, leading to the daring decision to completely renovate the cantina in 1990, a move which helped firmly establish something that the wine world was starting to recognise: that there was another grand name on the Amarone scene.

But what was it that made these wines stand out so much? Naturally, they were delicious – but what lay behind the flavour profile? The answer is a near-ideology of style, and an extremely decided way of how to achieve it.

Style

It’s at this point that we really start to see the influence of Quintarelli. The first change Dal Forno implemented was to drastically, dramatically reduce grape yields through aggressive pruning. This somewhat horrified the rest of the family – not only was Romano taking the huge leap of going into the vinification trade, but by taking such a position, going so radically for quality over quantity, was a colossal business risk for a winery in its first year. But reducing yields is absolutely vital for high-level wine. If you imagine that each vine has a maximum amount of flavour in it, then each new grape will take a smaller percentage of the overall flavour available, diluting the concentration of everything that ends up in the resulting wine (of course, you have to run a viable business, so reducing each vine to six viable supergrapes wouldn’t exactly be advisable either). It was therefore vital for Dal Forno starting out to keep that dilution to a minimum, to make every grape count in the way that the best wines always do.

Of course, grapes are sorted by hand, selected virtually individually to ensure the highest quality. But what was once perhaps more unusual was that they are in fact sorted twice: once before the appassimento drying-process and once after, making meticulously certain that all the grapes have achieved the weight and concentration required. Naturally, the drying process involves a mix of traditional racks and a series of electric fans to ensure evenness of air flow – a system of Dal Forno’s own design.

So far so good. This is all largely recognisable practice, albeit with idiosyncratic twists here and there. This is, however, where the controversy begins. Bepi Quintarelli had been at the forefront of an idea which, at the time, was considered the height of contention in Italian wine: barriques. Traditionally, much of Italian wine (especially in the north) had used very large traditional barrels, almost always made from Slavonian oak, to mature their wine. These botti could range in size from 1,500 to as much as 10,000 litres in volume, ensuring a very slow maturation for the wine and minimally aggressive oak influences in the aroma and flavour profiles (the bigger the barrel, the lesser the surface of the wine that comes into contact with the oak, hence less dramatic oakiness). By contrast, a barrique in Bordeaux format holds just 225 litres in volume, massively speeding up the ageing process and leaving a much starker oaky imprint on the resulting wine (a Burgundian format holds 228 litres).

Why was this so controversial? Well, a lot of this comes down to the Italian mindset regarding food in general. As a whole, gastronomy in the peninsula prizes the pure expression of ingredients above all else – when you get a plate of food, you want to taste what you can see on that plate – and wine has often been seen similarly. The role of the botte is, according to the traditionalists, not to intrude overly much on the wine, to gradually allow for maturation rather than to push the wine towards maturation. The problem, however, was that this very gentle method of oak storage was putting Italian wine regions at a commercial disadvantage, as well as in many people’s minds often being used as an excuse to produce difficult, unfriendly wine – Barolo, in particular, was infamous for its long stretches of undrinkability after vinification, requiring extra time in bottle as well as botte – and the extraordinary success of the ‘Super Tuscans’ like Sassicaia, almost all of which used barriques, started to pique the interest of winemakers elsewhere in Italy.

The arguments were immediate and bitter, especially in Piedmont where Elio Altare’s adoption of barriques led to the so-called ‘Barolo Wars’ between traditionalists and innovators. In Valpolicella, Quintarelli himself was always famously resistant, keeping faith with the traditional botti (with, indeed, startling results); but while there has been some controversy, there was perhaps not as much as in other regions when Dal Forno broke with his mentor to commit himself to the new format. This is probably because Amarone’s massive body and alcoholic volume lends itself better than most to the smaller barrel format, as the influence of the oak was less obviously detected than in lighter wines (think how you will always know if a white wine has been oaked, but how one rarely thinks the same about reds despite almost all of them spending time in barrel – with the obvious exception of crianzas, riserve and so on). This isn’t to suggest that Amarone isn’t a delicate wine; more that the power of the base liquid affords the winemaker a canvas that perhaps other wines wouldn’t.

To Dal Forno, barrique was a win-win, an opportunity to create a unique, distinctive, modern Amarone without – if judiciously deployed – dulling the characteristics for which the wine is known (above all its trademark freshness). For instance, his ‘Monte Lodetto’ 2008 spent considerable time in barrel, 24 months, but much more time in bottle in order to even out the effects of this time in barrique. Other wines spend longer in barrel of course, but we can see here the core of the Dal Forno philosophy: innovation, yes, but careful, in order to achieve something, not merely as a gimmick or for the sake of it.

The influence of Quintarelli is even visible on the bottles, a distinctive handwritten label style intended as a tribute to the mentor. But Dal Forno in turn was to exert an enormous influence over the generation of Amarone to come, as many warmed to this cutting edge, technologically restless vision of Amarone.

Influence

The profoundest effect that Romano Dal Forno has had on Amarone has been to legitimise – and indeed elevate – their ultra-modern vision of what the wine could be. As the above-referred to ‘Barolo Wars’ showed, there was significant resistance in much of Italy to the introduction of certain French-style ways of treating wine that had driven many of the most avant-garde developments in the oenological universe – especially the concentrated use of barrique that gives famous wines like Opus One or Sassicaia that trademark heft and density. But as we’ve said, this full-on intensity was never Dal Forno’s intention to begin with – instead, he recognised the potential of Amarone to adapt well to these new techniques without being overwhelmed by them due to the characteristics of the juice to begin with. The wine was never meant to finish up as a radical contrast with tradition, but as a distinct vision within that tradition, a vision he believed was better suited to Amarone than other wine regions. And in this, many were to agree with him.

There is perhaps no winemaker more influenced by Dal Forno than Ilatium Morini. Starting four decades ago, it was in 1992 that the purchase of vineyards in Val di Mezzane helped put them on the map. In 2004, however, they famously changed their approach to draw them closer to the Dal Forno model, and have never looked back, deploying barriques and advanced technological approaches to this day.

Another producer whose style bears the clear imprint of Dal Forno is the Cantina Ferragù, not just in their use of barriques but in their commitment to modernisation in the winery more generally. Few in Valpolicella have been more open to experimenting with new technology – not merely as a gimmick, but as a method for bringing more out of the traditional wine of the region for which they are aiming.

Then there are the winemakers who perhaps deploy barrique ageing a little more conservatively, but who perhaps also show the range of choice available to producers these days, now that Dal Forno have burst the doors open. Roccolo Grassi, for instance, favour a very precise method of ageing in smaller barrels, mixing up some new with mostly used so as to balance the oakiness; Ca’ dei Frati have similar aims in mind, but achieve this largely through limited barriques exposure followed by a spell in more traditional formats; and even those venerable stalwarts over at Tommasi have hopped on board this particular train, using the smaller, more concentrating barrels to create their smaller-release, more concentrated classics such as the ‘Ca’ Florian’ riserve.

Finally, even though they may not take direct inspiration from (and in some cases may even outright reject) the approach of Dal Forno, it’s probably fair to say that the experiments and risk-taking of such wineries as Domini Veneti or Zyme was greatly helped by Dal Forno’s proving the viability of taking a different approach in Valpolicella, that it was a region, in the end, open to the new as well as the old – indeed, that the great innovation that was the creation of Amarone itself wasn’t the end, but only the beginning.

The Revolution

Romano Dal Forno and his eponymous winery have changed the art of the possible in Valpolicella. Their extraordinary success has challenged preconceived notions of what Amarone could mean, or what its market cap might be. No other winery, with the exception of Quintarelli, can be said to have had such an individual influence on this most prestigious of wine regions – indeed, to have had such an influence in making it as prestigious as it is.

The revolution carries on. What was in the early days of Dal Forno dangerous and unexpected has become for many in the 2020s the establishment against which to rebel. None of which defers Dal Forno – they will continue to pursue their vision of their wine, restless for improvement and hungry for innovation, and are unlikely to ever stop.

[Ph Credits to Winetaste]

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