Stretching up from Bardolino on the shore of iridescent Lake Garda, the plains of Veneto give way to a series of ridges and valleys. Like fingers from an open palm, this intensely beautiful region, peppered with small villages and hamlets, is the land of Valpolicella - the ‘valley of many cellars’. Under the high September sun, we track back and forth along winding paths. The hillsides are flush with vineyards and blue-black bunches flourish on every vine, dark gems glittering in rows.
Valpolicella rolls off the tongue, somehow familiar. Its simple manifestation, a ruby red glass of vibrant acidity, cherry and almond aromas, is widely available with varying degrees of quality. Here in the Valpolicella Classico zone, the seat of Cantina Negrar, it is a different fruit entirely.
Cantina Negrar is a historic cooperative, named for the Negrar Valley, one of the three valleys of the Valpolicella (the others being Fumane and San Ambrogio). Since creating the first Amarone in 1936, generations of grape growers have tended their vineyards and handed down the region’s history and culture on behalf of the Cantina. From humble beginnings, the cooperative is now 230-strong, taking care of over 700 hectares on a plethora of diverse sites. Today we meet Natasha, one of the Cantina’s event organisers, who is keen to give us the grand tour.
Veneto has become Italy’s most productive wine region. The fertile volcanic soil and remnants of river bed strata allow the vines to grow ferociously. In the pursuit of lower yields, and higher quality grapes, the growers at Cantina Negrar have worked to temper the uncontrollable growth by careful trellising, including vertical training and aggressive pruning techniques.
“Our lead wine-maker, Daniele Accordini, works with all of our growers to continually assess individual sites,” explains Natasha, “We encourage competition with other vegetation, to produce fruit we are proud of.”
Valpolicella, and its related wines Valpolicella Classico, Amarone and Recioto, all refer to a blend that is majorly the black-grape Corvina, with lesser-known native grapes Rondinella and Molinara in supporting roles.
Corvina is the star of the region, Natasha explains, though it is tricky to master. Its thick skin means it is notoriously late-ripening and requires careful attention and patience through September. Fastidiousness has great payoff though; its full fruit expression as Valpolicella or full varietal Corvina wine, it is scarlet red in color - a mouthful of lush tart cherry with hints of fresh mint and thyme.
Natasha leads us into a lofty space with lines of traditional drying racks of wood and straw. This is where the magic happens, and the reason for the term ‘straw wine’. That thick Corvina skin? Perfect for the appassimento process that produces Amarone, Recioto and Valpolicella Ripasso.
“It is all about the method,” says Natasha, as we inspect the racks, “We select healthy Corvina grapes, and pick them early when they are still high in acid. They dry inside for several months to concentrate before we ferment and vinify them. In the case of the Amarone, we put them into barrels to mature for up to three years.”
The results are spell-binding. Cantina Negrar’s Amarone is a deep red glass, full of ripe cherries, rich chocolate, prunes, a touch of vanilla. It is a bold wine, and alcoholic due to the appassimento process, but perfectly balanced in acidity and minerality. This Amarone feels luxurious, and as we sip we mull over the wonder of its production. The usual suspects, the Romans, dabbled in sweet, appassimento wines (similar to the Recioto), but we owe our thanks to the pioneers of the last century that have made this bottle the rare gem it is today.
Cantina Negrar is an exceptional group of growers and winemakers and their commitment to quality is evident. They share the pride and joy of belonging to a cooperative winery staffed by people who love the vines they tend, and make the wines they love. In the generous valley of Negrar, younger generations are rushing to take up the mantle with exuberance and sincerity. We toast to the future - undeniability bright and full of potential.