We had so many rich and wonderful experiences on our vacation in Europe this last September. The hospitality we were treated to in Switzerland and the beauty of the countryside around Lake Geneva were unsurpassed. The raucous time we had dodging scooters in Paris and the awe we felt touring that city and its museums was the stuff of deathbed recollections. The lazy comfort we enjoyed at the bed-and-breakfast in the hills of Valpolicella together with the dining adventures and comical exchanges with the locals in Verona created a lasting bond with this beautiful area in northern Italy. But, for me, the single-most highpoint of the trip was the five hours we spent with Bertani’s winemaker, Cristian Ridolfi, touring and learning about the rich history and ambitious current initiatives of this fabulous winery.
It is remarkable the extent to which Bertani continues to manifest the impulse of its founders, brothers Giovan Battista and Gaetano Bertani. Prior to starting a winery in 1857, Gaetano learned the new techniques in France under Professor Guyot, who is still considered by many today to have been one of the greatest wine-making experts of all time. The brothers planted a cultural rootstock for the company based on innovation, professionalism and respect for the territory and local agricultural traditions.
From the very beginning Bertani understood the value of bottled wine and made major investments in the vineyards and the cellars in order to bottle and export their wines, which by the end of the 19th century were already crossing the Atlantic to be enjoyed in many cities of the United States. Cristian took us through these ancient facilities where the original equipment, laden with dust, told the story of a time when bottling quality wine for export was an incredible accomplishment.
So here we must go back to where Bertani began… to Soave, where Bertani produced wine from the Gargànega grape so many years ago. In recent history, the vast majority of Soave’s grape and wine production has been controlled by the co-ops. The committees that determined the standards and methods to be practiced by co-op members historically favored volume over quality and character, making Soave’s reputation a bit problematic. Bertani’s grapes are grown at approximately 1,500 feet of elevation in the southern part of the Soave Classico area, where the more premium Soave’s are found. The land is hilly, the soil volcanic, vines are strung on pergolas. Suffice it to say the Bertani’s vineyard yields are a fraction of what the high-volume producers experience and it shows.
The Sereole vineyard is partly trained to pergola Veronese with a density of 3000 plants per hectare, and partly on wires with 5000. It is in the Soave Classico area, on the Monte Tondo hill between the villages of Soave and Monteforte d’Alpone. The open clay soils have good levels of organic matter and are sited on hillsides. The grapes are harvested late, around the middle of October, to capture the benefits of extended hangtime. After destemming and gentle crushing, the wine is macerated with partial skin contact. Fermentation is carried out in 75hl French oak vats at a temperature of around 16C. The wine is kept in the same vats after fermentation for six months of maturation on the fine lees. The wine is kept in the winery for three months of further aging after bottling.
Soave was made by Bertani at its inception and by 1937 the wine was so well-regarded that Sereole was on the menu that year at the Coronation of King George VI of England. Yet, for all the history, the Sereole made today is the product of myriad recent innovations. Bertani never stops innovating.
In this same area Bertani also produces Due Uve – made 50/50 from Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc grapes – and Le Lave, made from Gargànega and Chardonnay grapes, taking its name from the volcanic “lavic” soil, which is rich in mineral salts. We absolutely loved Le Lave when we tasted it with Cristian but we have not been able to acquire it locally. The Due Uve is available by the glass at the restaurant.
First there was Recioto, a dessert wine made from the methodology that gave birth to Amarone. And then came Ripasso. With Bertani’s Ripasso, called Secco-Bertani, wine made in October is drawn from the vat in March and refermented on the pomace of the Amarone and Recioto. These skins and lees have remaining sugar and active yeasts that cause a slow, secondary fermentation and impart soft tannins and a long, full finish to the wine. Secco-Bertani is a timeless classic with a rich history. It is the first wine ever produced by the company, originating around 1870 on the hills of the Valpantena. The wine achieves a balance between fresh fruity quality, the spicy notes typical of the Valpantena and the concentration and structure resulting from this unique process. Secco-Bertani is poured by the glass daily at the restaurant.
Nobody knows who “invented” the method by which Amarone is made, but we do know that Bertani was there. Around 60 years ago Bertani purchased the magnificent Villa Novare, a 275 year-old Venetian estate, in Valpolicella, together with its 220-hectare (540 acre) estate. Aso dubbed Villa Mosconni, it was the only Veronese estate built since the beginning of the eighteenth century that was specifically constructed for the purpose of wine production. It is a property of huge historic significance, and it is pure Bertani. With this purchase, the winery brought to fruition a 50-year research project aimed at producing a wine born to live forever. It is here where Amarone began, here in this westernmost valley of Valpolicella where the cool night breezes coming off of Lake Garda moderate the temperature, enhancing acidity while drawing out the ripening process. Bertani’s first vintage of Amarone was 1958.
Amarone is my favorite wine. Made predominantly from the Corvina grape, clusters are dried for approximately 120 days, shedding 35% of their moisture before being pressed and commencing an extremely slow fermentation.
Amarone Classico is Bertani’s flagship wine.This wine is aged for six years in barrels and another year in the bottle before it is released. We currently have both the 2001 and 2003 Classico on our list. (Due to substandard conditions, Amarone was not produced in 2002)
Villa Arvedi Amarone comes the hillsides of the Valpantena, the only cru denomination in the whole Valpolicella area. This modern and well balanced Amarone is aged in Slavonian oak and barriques for about 30 months, followed 6 months in the bottle. For January and February we are splurging and offering a taste of this fine wine as the finale to our Bertani wine flight and have reduced the price of a bottle to $69. This is a rare and excellent opportunity to sample a very special wine.
After a few hours of touring with Cristian he took us out to lunch at a beautiful hilltop restaurant overlooking Verona. The conversation was engaging and informative. Cristian made me a customer for life. As well, the three-course lunch was pared with some of the wines I have illustrated here, including a marvelous 1981 Amarone Classico. The cellar at Bertani’s headquarters is stocked with bottles of Amarone going back to its earliest vintages. What’s more, there are years and years of life (50? 60? Who knows?) left in these heritage wines. If you find yourself in the area, be sure to stop in and select a 50 year-old bottle for your cellar. They are readily available in the retail at the winery.
There has been a tremendous amount of work to perfect the methods by which Amarone is produced and nobody is doing a better job than Bertani. Still, after spending several hours with Cristian, I came to appreciate what a dance it must be to stand in a place so rich with history while simultaneously striving to create a brilliant future. In order to create this bright future, Cristian draws on Bertani’s culture of innovation. The cellar was stocked with wine aging in barrels made from cherry, chestnut and acacia, as well as oak. Whether we are talking about bottling techniques, terroir or cultivars, Bertani is constantly seeking the new best idea.
Experimenting with made-to-order cherry, chestnut and acacia barrels is just one of the ways Bertani innovates.