If the great nebbiolo wines of Piemonte are Italy’s Burgundy – ethereal wines made from the collaboration of a fussy grape, grudging soil and a climate teetering between damp and too damp – then Valpolicella might just its Bordeaux. Its variety and variability, the abundance of microclimates and the moderating influence of being between two water sources (in the case of Bordeaux the Atlantic and the Gironde estuary; in Valpolicella, the Adriatic and Lake Garda) – and above all, the extreme range of wines produced, from honest, everyday reds to the brooding seriousness of top-of-the-range, internationally renowned wines of considerable ageability and, let’s be honest, expense!
But while every inch of Bordeaux is familiar to wine-lovers all over the world, the valleys and villages of Valpolicella remain to many merely names on bottles – a shame, as there is just as much to know to guide the discerning customer about the wine. This article cannot cover all of it, but hopefully it can serve as an introduction to the region and its terroir.
Alright then, tell me about them
There is much speculation and little certainty as to the origins of the name ‘Valpolicella’. The first known appearance of the name is in a 12th Century document as ‘Val Polesela’; some believe it means ‘valley of many cellars’ from a combination of Greek (poli) and Latin (cella), others that it’s a reference to the fertility of the soil. It is possible, however, that this refers to precisely the soils of the region least suited to making great wine – the ultra-fertile soils of the flats and plains, which are beautiful for orchard trees but far too productive for the growth of wine grapes, which typically need relatively sterile soils in which to struggle, and thus produce better fruit.
The first known appearance of the name is in a 12th Century document as ‘Val Polesela’; some believe it means ‘valley of many cellars’..
That soil is the kind found higher on the hills, alluvial soils rich in in limestone and sandstone (the extent to which minerals impact flavour is debated – what’s not, however, is the importance of heat retention and good drainage, which these soils guarantee). These hills are the other part of that famous name – ‘val’, describing the key geographical feature of the region. All in all there are eleven designated valleys which mark the territory, three of which – Fumane, Marano and Negrar – are in the major historic region known now as ‘Valpolicella Classica’ in the western part of the area, closest to Lake Garda and in the hills of the Monti Lessini. At the southern convergence of these valleys can be found the villages of Sant’Ambrogio and San Pietro in Cariano, which all together make up the five distinct regions of Valpolicella Classico suitable for quality wine production.
The Classico region is however, despite being the most historic and prestigious, only accounts for around a third of the actual area of Valpolicella (though nearly half the total production). In 1968, to try and match the exploding demand, the zone of vineyards allowed to use the name was expanded eastward to create the area known now as Valpolicella Allargata (or sometimes Valpolicella Estesa), the north-west portion of which is designated the Valpolicella Valpantena DOC, named for the valley around which it is based. Many producers insist that the Valpantena makes wine every bit as good as those of the Classico.
The rest of the region comprises the valleys of Illasi, Marcellise, Mezzane and Mizzole. Though this region is not generally afforded the same prestige as the Classico or even Valpantena it is still capable of greatness, especially in the volcanic soils and cooler altitudes of the hills to the east – for instance the legendary Amarone maker Romano dal Forno, located in the Val d’Illasi.
Is there any word in the wine lexicon more contested than ‘terroir’? It is a contested honour, as anything from ‘estate’ to ‘minerality’ can send wine writers into paroxysms of confusion and alarm as they scramble for something even approaching a stable definition. Nothing else, however, quite gets to them like terroir, at once very vague and very particular, and virtually impossible to really translate from its French origins. Nonetheless it is a vital piece of wine terminology, indeed in the terminology of much farming of quality produce, and in Valpolicella as much as anywhere.
So, what is it? At its most basic, terroir describes the influence of the local environment on the flavour of the final wine. This influence comprises essentially weather, soil, and topography (that is to say aspect, altitude and so on). But this remains somewhat controversial, as it is difficult to delimit exactly what counts as an ‘environmental’ factor as opposed to a man-made one. For example, does irrigating (as some believe) essentially nullify the native ‘terroir’? And after the years, sometimes centuries, of farming and vine-training, is the effect of the soil in which the vines grow really part of a ‘natural’ terroir effect anymore?
These are enormous questions, which oenographers spend decades studying. However, there are some demonstrable effects of, what for want of a better word we can still call, environmental factors. When and how hard the wind blows, what kind of weather it brings with it, weather that matches well with the type of soil in your area, and whether it is on the sunny side of the slope, and perhaps most importantly of all, what grapes you have and what circumstances they like to grow in – terroir remains a studiable, explicable, and yet incredibly fiddly concept, as hard to pin down as a river. The word itself is a description of a machine with innumerable moving parts, changeable, intricate, governed by chance, guesswork and experience.
In Valpolicella, it is as important as it is anywhere. From the lake to the rivers, the mountains to the flatlands, winds of all speeds from all directions, carrying all kinds of stuff in their wake, not to mention land as rich and varied as any in Europe. This guide, then, cannot be conclusive – this would require books to cover! – but it can serve as a general guide to the region, its various geographical aspects, and how they end up in the wine.
Valpolicella, strictly speaking, is the name given to an area of land in the northern part of the province of Verona, itself the most southeastern province in the region of the Veneto. It (Valpolicella) is contained by the Lessini mountains on its northern border, the province of Vicenza to its east, the beginnings of the actual city of Verona to its south, and to the west, the mighty Lake Garda and its neighbouring river, the Adige. Within these delimitations, the region is further subdivided roughly into three areas: to the west, Valpolicella Classica, the historic heartland of the region; in the centre-north, the Valpantena, a special region built around the eponymous river valley; and for the rest, mainly to the south and extending east, the large region of Valpolicella Estesa, also known as Valpolicella Allargata or Valpolicella Orientale. Though it is home to a profusion of grape varieties, its star is clearly the corvina grape, which tends to ripen late (a good thing, as slower development leads to more balanced, even flavours) though often in high yields (a bad thing, as too many grapes from a vine will tend to ‘dilute’ the flavour somewhat – winemakers counteract this with training systems, pruning, and other methods).
(NB: one oft-repeated and rather counter-intuitive rule about winemaking is that a ‘poor’ soil is, in fact, desirable: vines produce fruit only when they struggle, when they, for want of a better word, think that their lives are in danger and reproducing is the only way to keep their genes going – hence, the production of fruit containing seeds. Kept happy, a vine will simply grow and grow, contentedly climbing walls and trees for decades.)
The subdivisions of Valpolicella are largely determined by history, which is itself deeply influenced by geography, by the subtle interactions between soil, topography and weather, which form the heart of the idea of terroir. For example, the Classica area, so revered by traditionalists in particular, is characterised by two key geographical aspects: its closeness to Lake Garda and its preponderance of elevation (i.e. valleys, slopes and hills); the combination of moderate breezes from the lake, of elevation above the fog that is typical of the region, and of the even sun exposure that being on a slope allows for, contrast strongly with the flatlands in Valpolicella Estesa, with their variability between winter and spring, their exposure to wet weather, and their susceptibility to the fog and humidity which amplify both heat and cold.
It is for this reason that the Classica area has been, historically, so highly prized; however, it would be wrong to simply dismiss the rest of the region as merely secondary. With wine as with all things, nothing is certain – the best location is still only as good as the winemaker. Valpantena, for instance, might only be gaining increasing recognition in recent decades, but this is clearly not a slight on its suitability for growing wine grapes. With its north-to-south valley, narrowing between the village of Grezzana and the Lessini mountains to the north (not to mention excellent elevation and gradients), it offers remarkably controlled temperatures, as well as the great variation between night and day renowned for helping wines ripen while retaining acidity.
The Valpolicella Estesa – not so much a region as a catch-all term for anything outside of the Classica or Valpantena regions – is too large to generalise about. Essentially created in 1968, in a controversial move to expand the reach of what could be termed officially ‘Valpolicella’, the Estesa (or Allargata) region encompasses an awful lot of quite flat pianura-vineyards, which generally produce uninspiring Vino da Tavola. However, many fabulous winemakers are now exploiting the various unique opportunities that the best parts of the land can offer particularly around the three valleys to the east of Grezzana: Mezzane, which extends north to San Mauro di Saline; Illasi, which has dramatic climbs and high altitudes, as it navigates the eastern hills of the region; and Cazzano di Tramigna, the shortest and easternmost of the three, which begins near the village of Campiano and extends further south than the village of Soave, centre of the eponymous white wine appellation. As ever, altitudes are the key – the plains are open to the elements, especially to the aforementioned fogs, and to the effects of winds like the Scirocco, which can bring inconvenient late-harvest rain, or the Föhn, a wind which can be a welcome moderating influence in the winter but which can also reach extraordinary speeds over the flatlands.
All of these areas can be roughly defined as ‘microclimates’ – regions within regions where the particular exposure to sun and wind, the altitudes, the vicinity to and relationship with other microclimates and, yes, the unique soils and soil combinations all team up to create an unrepeatable set of circumstances for growing grapes. No two places are the same, but wine regions with a great amount of variation in relatively small spaces are particularly highly prized – which, inevitably, brings us back to Valpolicella Classica.
The Classica and the importance of the small differences – but first, a word on soils
The part of the discussion of terroir which springs to mind most immediately (at least in the minds of the public), the influence of particular soil types is also one of the most controversial ideas in winemaking, and one on which even the most seasoned winemakers and wine-writing professionals tended in the past to take extreme, often ideologically opposed, positions. A broader consenus is emerging now, and very few hold to the sort of Old World mysticism vs. New World pragmatism arguments anymore, but it does nonetheless still have the capacity to divide any tasting room in the wine world.
What we can agree on is basically thus: as with any form of agriculture, growing vine crops requires suitable terrain, which in this case largely revolves around the retention of heat and the drainage of water, and the ways these interact with the surrounding climate. For instance, the clay and terra rossa soils in Barossa and Coonawarra, South Australia, are perfect for the very hot and dry conditions in that part of the world, as clay stays cool in hot weather and will retain the scant moisture really well – not to mention being very suitable for hardy, survivor grapes like shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. By contrast, soils based on sandy deposits retain warmth and have exceptional drainage, meaning that they are very valuable in regions prone to cooler, wetter weather such as Barolo, with its fiddly nebbiolo grape demanding of the utmost care and suitability of conditions. Perhaps the star earth ingredient, however, revered across the world, is limestone, which has the happy knack of both retaining moisture when dry and draining it when wet, making it perhaps the most prized soil component in the wine world (one to which we will return).
Much more controversial, however, remain claims that certain minerals in the soil can be imparted directly into the wine. There is, for instance, a common idea that the slate-based soils of the Mosel region of Germany are responsible for the characteristic stony, pebbly, petrichor feature of much of their best rieslings. While this seems intuitive, and that such an idea will still find its champions, it is important to note that there is as of yet no evidence to support this idea. Moreover, many of the claims to ‘minerality’ in wines remain stubbornly difficult to pin down, with no concrete agreement on what such a term might indicate and very little understanding of where in the wine these sensations may come from (as opposed to, for example, locating fruitiness in ester compounds). The word ‘minerality’ itself isn’t even recognised by most dictionaries. However, it is somehow difficult to get rid of it, as something in the term seems to demand its usage in response to certain flavour profiles, especially as regards dry, elegant, perhaps somewhat austere wines which nevertheless delight with their somewhat earth-like or stone-like something, even if it is difficult to pin down.
But to return to what we do know – what are the soils of Valpolicella composed of, and how do they interact with their surroundings? Here it is worth looking in-depth at the various municipalities of the Valpolicella Classica as, like Burgundy or the Rhone valley, the microclimatic variation here is exceptional. As historic wine regions go it is relatively wet (though largely less so than the rest of Valpolicella), with variegated soils composed of alluvial deposits from the Lessini mountain streams, ancient volcanic soils, chalk, clay, loam and streaks of limestone here and there, the most prized of which are known as ‘biancone’ and ‘scaglia rossa’, respectively white and reddish composites of limestone mixed with certain kinds of marl. Furthermore, the location, caught as it were between the lake and the mountains, amplifies the effects of everything from sun to soil, and leads to a high degree of variation in the wines. So let us look in turn, then, at the various areas, valleys and villages of Valpolicella Classica, running roughly from west to east, at their climatic aspects and the composition of their soils, and how this might be reflected in their wines:
(NB: when we say ‘Valpolicella Classica, we are referring to the region, as Italian grammar demands adjectival agreement with the name of the region ‘Valpolicella’, which is feminine; on the other hand, when we say ‘Valpolicella Classico, we are referring to the wine produced from the region, as the ‘o’ is in agreement with the implied word for wine, ‘vino’, which is masculine.)
Sant’Ambrogio: the westernmost area and closest to the River Adige and Lake Garda, the valley based near the village of Sant’Ambrogio is the most subject to the strongly moderating influence of the cool lacustrine breezes. This has the effect of preventing the temperatures from varying excessively between to hot and too cold, leading to relatively reliable grape-growing seasons with minimal danger of winter frost or summer heat-damage. The soils here, largely composed of sedimentary chalk-based deposits, are renowned for their coolness, a further moderating influence. You can expect wines from here to have a restrained sort of heft to them, full of hard-to-specify minerality.
San Pietro in Cariano: southeast of Sant’Ambrogio, indeed the southernmost of the traditional villages of Valpolicella Classica, San Pietro in Cariano is the flattest area of the region, though it does also boast some one-off hills of impressive altitudes. Its relative easternness does open it up to the moderating influences of the lake, a counter to the exposure it may suffer to warmer, wetter weather from the south and southeast. The soils here are, however, excellent, with a great quantity of much-desired limestone and a desirable stoniness, leading to excellent drainage to alleviate some of that excess moisture.
Fumane: named for a village slightly east but really rather north of San Pietro in Cariano, the valley of Fumane has one of the most dramatic gradients in the whole region – a good thing not only for elevation above the fog, but also for allowing even water distribution down the slopes. The defining feature of the soil is its preponderance of much-desired limestone, allowing for grapes of full and even ripeness and resistance to sudden variations in temperature. Given that within the valley itself there are many further mini-microclimates, generalising about the wine from Fumane can be difficult, other than to say that its altitude, gradient, closeness to Lake Garda and enviable soils are among the most dependable in all Valpolicella.
Marano: a very long valley stretching all the way from near San Pietro in Cariano in the south to near Marano itself in the north, finishing at a mountain called Monte Castalon at the base of the Lessini. The valley itself has a mostly southern ‘aspect’, which is to say its slopes face south more often than not, ensuring long spells of sunshine for the vines. Though further from the cooling lake breezes, this sunshine is nonetheless tempered by mountain air moving south, ensuring an ideal combination of long sun exposure without necessarily being prone to heat stress. The soils vary, but are marked in many places by the presence of dark basalt compounds known to the locals as ‘taori’, volcanic rocks which can diminish a vine’s capacity to absorb key minerals and result in wines of particularly pronounced acidity – which in Amarone terms is gold-dust, providing freshness to the famously bold, alcoholic wine.
Negrar: the widest and longest valley, stretching from the planes to the mountains, named for the village where the concept of Amarone was invented. Like Marano, Negrar cannot depend on cooling air from Garda to balance out the summer heat, relying instead on the mountain air to descend into the valley and refresh the vines. One interesting aspect of Negrar is how dramatically it narrows, leading to an especially wide array of microclimates where the effect of the wind can be chilling indeed, and a challenge for winemakers in the winter. Nevertheless this colder climate has its benefits, resulting as it does in longer growing seasons and grapes with more balanced sugar and acidity. Furthermore, though it is difficult to generalise about such a large valley, its hills are notable for the presence of biancone, scaglia rossa and other lime-rich soils, providing a touch of dependability in this temporally changeable region, not to mention wines capable of extraordinary finesse, power and longevity.
Of terroir in general and in the Valpolicella in particular, this article has barely scratched the surface. Every vineyard, every plot of land, every hillside is different, will require different cares and attentions, different agricultural techniques and solutions to different problems, and winemakers will be constantly experimenting with these, with grape varieties, even with plants to live alongside the vines, to even marginally improve their exploitation of their crops’ potential. Many sites will always have obvious advantages – some hillsides in places like Chateuneuf-du-Pont can be worth double or triple the price of others on the same hill! – but they too would emphasise not the beneficence of nature but the importance of working in tandem with it to produce wines not just of quality, but of place, wine which is good precisely because it could not come from anywhere else. We hope this guide is useful for sifting through terminology, regions and so on, but it is only just the beginning; never forget to read what a winemaker says about their spot of land, their challenges and their solutions, because they might just be more dramatically different to what you knew about the wider region that surrounds them than you think – and moreover, it will help you taste that land in whatever bottle you have. And perhaps in the end that is the definition of terroir – it is, after all, the story of winemakers, and of the land in which it was made.
The Short Version
Name: Valpolicella DOC
Sub-names: Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Valpantena and, erm, well, Valpolicella (OK, Allargata)
More specific names: OK then, some valleys? Alright: Avesa, Fumane, Illasi, Marano, Marcellise, Mezzane, Negrar, Quinzano, Squaranto, Tramigna, Valpantena (and some bonus villages: Sant’Ambrogio, San Pietro in Cariano).
Water: Lots, on both sides, thus cool air.
Soils: Alluvial (read: shifty); limestone (read: good drainage (read: good good)); volcanic (read: rare, good for elegance)
Oh, and the origin of the name: Who knows.