Michele and I recently returned to Lake Garda, one of our favorite places in Northern Italy. We stayed in Bardolino, a picturesque town right on the lake. There are plenty of good hotels, restaurants, and, if you like that sort of thing, theme parks. The area is very lush, with olive trees, palm trees and flowers everywhere. Many wineries are within a short driving distance from the lake and I have visited several in the past. This time, I was determined to visit the Tommasi winery in Valpolicella, which is only a half hour away. This is a very traditional producer of Valpolicella and Amarone and I like their style of wine.
I made an appointment with Annalisa Armani, the PR person and marketing director. She greeted us when we arrived at the winery. Annalisa is very charming, interesting and informative not only about the winery but also about the wines. She began by telling us about the origins of Tommasi.
Tommasi Vintners is a family affair. The estate is run by the 4th generation of the family working together each with his well defined area of responsibility. I mention this because we so often hear of family owned Italian wineries where the family members cannot work together
Barrels from 1902
The cellar houses many different sized barrels. Annalisa led us down a double row of large barrels standing like an honor guard leading to “Magnifica” the world’s largest oak barrel that contains the equivalent of 44,000 bottles of wine. It was installed in 2010 and is in the Guinness Book of Records. Annalisa also showed us three historical barrels from 1902 when the company was founded, that were made by Giacomo Battista Tommasi.
The winery is situated in Pedemonte in the heart of the Valpolicella Classical Zone about a half hour from Lake Garda. There are 195 hectares of vines on the estate.
90 hectares of vines produce Bardolino, Custoza, Soave and Lugana and 105 hectares produce Amarone Classico, Ripasso Valpolicella, Valpolicella Classico Superiore and Recioto della Valpolicella.
Annalisa explained that the historical classical area of Valpolicella is northeast of Verona and looks like an open hand with four fingers pointing upward. These are the four separate valleys of the region where the warm breezes from Lake Garda meet the colder winds from the Lessini mountains, creating a perfect climate for the cultivation of vines, olives and cherries.
Annalisa led us through a tasting of the wines. This is not the order in which we tasted the wines but I listed them this way to explain the process of producing them more easily.
Amarone Classico 2010. The first vintage to be DOCG is made from 50% Corvina Veronese, 15% Corvinone 30% Rondinella and 5% Oseleta. Molinara grapes are no longer allowed for Amarone but can be used for Valpolicella.
The vines are on hillside terraces; the training system is high-density guyot. The Groletta and Conca d’Oro vineyards are located in the area of classic historical Valpolicella. The grapes are hand harvested.
Annalisa showed us the place where the grapes are dried for the Amarone. It is a very large room, called a fruttaio, with large windows on the sides that are left open when the grapes are drying. Annalisa made a point of saying that the drying of the grapes in the fall and winter is as important as the flowering and the maturing of the grapes during the spring and summer. The colder the weather the better it is for drying the grapes because they become more concentrated and raisin-like. Because the temperature is higher now than it was 10 years ago, they have installed fans and a system for removing the humidity. They do not want Botrytis (noble rot) to form on the grapes. There are some producers that now dry their grapes in warehouses that are temperature controlled with air-conditioning.
The grapes are placed in plastic boxes, which hold 5/6 kg and put on wooden racks to dry where cooling breezes in the autumn and winter until January dry them. This drying period is known as the appassimento. Annalisa said that this is an active period where the grapes lose about 50% of their weight and there is a concentration of the natural sugar.
Dried grapes in the old wooden boxes
This process gives the wine the key aromas and fruit flavors and raises the alcohol level. Amarone must be at least 14% alcohol. She also said that it takes grapes from 3 of the open plastic boxes to make one bottle of Amarone.
This wine was aged for 6 months in Magnifica and 2-1/2 years in large Slovenian oak barrels of 35HL, and one year in bottle before release.
Annalisa said that 2010 was a difficult vintage but the grapes were exceptional. A slow appassimento lasted until January 10. The grapes lost 40% of their weight and the final result was excellent. This wine will age.
Many producers make Amarone that has too much residual sugar and tastes more like the traditional dessert wine, but this is an Amarone that goes very well with food. It is a complex wine, full bodied, with aromas and flavors of ripe cherries, raisins, plums and a hint of balsamic.
Up until the 1950’s there was no Amarone being produced. The big wine of the area was Recioto della Valpolicella, which is a red dessert wine of 15% or more alcohol. Legend has that Amarone (meaning bitter) was discovered by accident but that is not the case. The producers needed an important dry wine so they decided to change the process a little and produce an Amarone.
Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC “Rafaèl” 2012. From the Rafaèl vineyard in the town of San Pierto in Cariano. The wine is made from 60% Corvina Veronese, 25% Rondinella, and 15% Molinara. Fermentation at controlled temperature in stainless steel tanks with 8 days maceration. The wine is aged in traditional Slovenian oak casks of 65 HL for 15 months. This is a fruity wine with flavors and aromas of ripe cherries and plums and hint of white roses
Recioto Della Valpolicella Classico”Fiorato” DOCG 2010 from grapes from the town of San Pietro in Cariano in Valpolicella Classico. Made from 65% Corvina, 30% Rondinella, and 5% Molinara. This is the traditional dessert wine produced in this region before the creation of Amarone. It is obtained from the fermentation of dried grapes. The grapes are dried for 5 months and then aged in 5hl barrels. This is a concentrated wine rich and fruity with hints of cherries, figs and plums and, for a dessert wine it is very elegant.
Valpolicella Classico Superiore “Ripasso 2012”made from 70% Corvina Veronese, 25% Rondinella, and 5% Corvinone. The harvest takes place in September. Fermentation is in stainless steel tanks for about 9 days. After the juice for Amarone has been removed from the tanks, the Valpolicella for the Ripasso undergoes a second fermentation on the ‘live” skins of the grapes remaining in the tank for 12 to 13 days with daily pumping over. The wine is then aged for 15 months in Slovenian oak casks of 65 hl and in bottle for 6 months before release. This is a wine with aromas and flavors of cherries, plums and raisins with a touch of spice and black pepper.
Recently a new law was passed that limits the production of Ripasso. For every bottle of Amarone, a producer can only make two bottles of Ripasso. The producers still have the grapes but can no longer make all the Ripasso that they want. They have now come up with a new wine called appassimento, which will be approved later in the year.
Amarone della Valpolicella Ca’ Florian Riserva 2007 made from 75% Corvina, 12% Corvinone and 20% Rondinella. A single vineyard wine from the hills of San Pietro in Cariano at 250 meters with a southwest exposure. The training system is pergola Veronese and the average age of the vines is 30 years. Harvest is in the beginning October.
Only the best grape bunches are hand picked and placed in plastic boxes of 5/6 kg and naturally dried in the fruttaio. The grapes remain there until January when they are pressed. Alcoholic fermentation and maceration lasts for 30 days in wooden vats, using only natural yeasts. The Riserva must age for 4 years. The first year is in tonneau oak barrels of 500 liters and then 3 years in large Slovenian oak barrels and another year in bottle before release
This is a complex, full bodied and elegant wine with black fruit aromas and flavors, hint of plum, and blackberries with a touch of balsamic and spice. This wine will age.