Even the most committed teetotaler would find resistance futile after hearing winemaker Andrea Lonardi, of Italy's iconic Bertani winery, wax poetic about grapes and terroir. Andrea doesn't just make wine, he lives it. From the vineyard to the cellar to the bottle, Andrea obsesses over every detail to ensure that each sip of Bertani is an authentic expression of place and time. I recently had the opportunity to experience a bit of this endearing intensity at the invitation-only Bertani Amarone Academy. With Andrea as our guru, an eclectic & enthusiastic group of writers, sommeliers, and influencers gathered in Verona to explore the nuances of wine and learn some important life lessons.
Lesson 1: Know Your History, Be Open to Change
Brothers and prosperous wine merchants Giovan Battista and Gaetano Bertani founded their namesake winery in 1857, north of Verona in Quinto di Valpantena. From the very beginning, the Bertani brothers believed that quality winemaking was the key to the future and their intuition was prescient. In addition to Valpantena, Bertani also owns vineyards in Soave and Lake Garda. The Bertani portfolio includes a full spectrum of classic wines from the Veneto but they are perhaps most celebrated as the standard bearer of traditional Amarone.
Bertani introduced longer aging techniques to transform the traditionally sweet or sparkling red Recioto della Valpolicella into the opulent and complex dry red wine that we know as Amarone. The first vintage of Bertani Amarone was released in 1958.
Amarone is made using the appassimento method of intensifying the flavors of the grapes by drying them for several months before fermentation. Many other Amarone producers use modern interventions to speed along appassimento but Bertani still naturally and slowly air-drys their Corvina Veronese and Rondinella grapes on bamboo cane mats. Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG is aged for six years in Slavonian oak casks, plus one year in the bottle before it is released.
The meticulous and patient nature of Bertani's winemaking process imbues their Amarone with the structure and integrity needed to age beautifully. The grapes are treated with respect throughout the winemaking journey and we are rewarded with superb wine that stands the test of time. I tasted a 1967 Bertani Amarone that was exquisite and all signs indicate that recent vintages will also evolve gracefully for decades to come.
Bertani is rightfully proud of their legacy but they aren't complacent. "Is your wine good today? Is it recognized today, is what matters. You can't rest on history. We are old but open to new things," said Andrea. Those new things include eliminating pesticides, investing the time and resources into truly understanding their terroir, and adopting more intuitive and effective pruning methods.
Lesson 2: Close Your Eyes to Really See
I never knew that I could feel such emotion towards a grapevine. Yes, intellectually I always understood the importance of the vine -- without it, there's no wine. Yes, I knew pruning techniques impact a vine's ability to produce the best grapes but I must confess that aspect of winemaking never excited me very much. Well, that indifference disappeared on a hilltop in Valpolicella. Each participant in the Bertani Amarone Academy was asked (required) to demonstrate that we had paid attention to Andrea Lonardi's detailed pruning seminar by actually pruning a vine. Me? A native Manhattanite with countless dead houseplants in my past was being allowed to prune a living, breathing vine?
I approached the vine with trepidation and actually introduced myself. With Andrea's voice echoing in my head, I then closed my eyes as he had instructed. Eyes tightly shut, I placed my gloved hands on the trunk of the vine and began to explore, to "see" each part by feeling. Since harvest had already passed, the naked vine had seemed vulnerable when I laid eyes on it but I could feel its strength and energy. There was a moment of revelation when my hands landed on the areas that needed to be clipped by the pruning shears. I opened my eyes and began to cut. Since returning home, I've included that vine in my prayers, hoping that it continues its legacy of producing wonderful grapes. I look forward to tasting the 2017 vintage!
Lesson 3: Judge Wines, Not People
Amarone, like Barolo and Brunello, has become synonymous with luxury. But just because a wine is technically Amarone does not guarantee an authentic expression of the wine. Modern Amarone often has very high levels of alcohol & residual sugar and can taste like a liquified holiday fruit cake. Is this authentic or just some winemakers responding to a globalization in taste? What makes one Amarone more authentic than another? Whenever we decide that we do or don't like a wine, we're passing a judgement but what criteria are we using to reach that decision? "Judge wines, not people," said Andrea. And to judge wines, you have to understand the terroir and evaluate the wine on how it reflects terroir. For Andrea, "Better wines means better wines from the terroir. Judge the terroir!" Bertani grows their grapes in the soil types and vineyard locations that best nurture their finest and most authentic expression. It is truly terroir-driven winemaking.
Lesson 4: If You Know the Truth, You Can't Be Deceived
If you know what to look for, your wine can't lie to you. Close your eyes and take a sip. Is the taste of the wine an authentic reflection of the region, grapes, and terroir? For Bertani, this commitment to authenticity is a link that unites all of their wines. Starting with their Valpolicella and moving in complexity towards Ripasso and Amarone; I discovered that even in a blind tasting the Bertani style is readily identified across all categories.
Bertani Valpolicella DOC 2016 ($14.99)
A lovely shade of deep ruby red, this blend of mostly Corvina Veronese with a touch of Rondinella has a Pinot Noir-ish elegance and suppleness. Silky tannins and fresh flavors of cherry, raspberry, plum, and a hint of spicy clove give this fresh red plenty of personality and nuance. A great introduction to the Bertani style!
Bertani Valpolicella Ripasso 2014 DOC ($25.99)
A blend of mostly Corvina Veronese with touches of Merlot and Rondinella, Ripasso (which means "passing again") experiences a second fermentation with the grape skins of Recioto Amarone. A bridge that connects lighter-bodied Valpolicella with opulent Amarone, Bertani Ripasso is full and round but maintains vibrancy and grace. Flavors of black cherry, blackberry, and black plum are elegantly energized by a touch of licorice.
A terrific trio: winemaker Andrea Lonardi, Bertani president Emilio Pedron, and a bottle of their Amarone della Valpolicella Classico.
Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2008 DOCG ($130)
One of the most revelatory things about Bertani Amarone is its clear connection to their Valpolicella and Ripasso. Bertani Amarone does not exist in a vacuum, devoid of any resemblance to its lighter-bodied brethren. A blend of Corvina Veronese and Rondinella, Bertani Amarone is rich & voluptuous, energetic & lithe, complex & approachable. Although it is an intense wine, the vibrancy of the fruit remains intact and harmonizes beautifully with touches of vanilla, spice, and hazelnuts. A wine for the ages.
Lesson Five: Always Express Gratitude
A most sincere thank you to everyone at Bertani and Palm Bay International (their importer in the United States) for such a beautiful experience and education. Bertani Amarone Academy embodied everything that I love about wine: learning and stepping out of my comfort zone, spending time with people that share my passion, and better understanding a culture through wine. Grazie!
A very heartfelt thank you to SNODAR (Sovrano e Nobilissimo Ordine dell’Amarone e del Recioto) for welcoming me into their ancient order (founded in 1320) as a Cavalieri. I promise to share the beauty and legacy of Amarone and Recioto wherever I go!