The fertile hills of the Valpolicella region just outside the historic city of Verona are the homeland of Amarone, one of Italy’s greatest red wines.
As we’re walking under the ranks of beautiful old horse chestnut trees at Tenuta Santa Maria, a few miles outside of Verona, Giovanni Bertani is telling me about Amarone. Winemaking here has gone on for centuries, but Amarone, the formidable benchmark red wine of the Valpolicella region, has only really existed since the early 20th century. “You first see the term used in the late 1930s,” he says. “But my family created a prototype of the style in the 1928 vintage. We have bottles of it still—when German soldiers were billeted near here in 1944, the wine was moved to a nearby farmstead and hidden. We only rediscovered it in 1984.”
Amarone—high in alcohol; lush with flavors of ripe dark cherries, smoke, figs, and dried herbs; potent and powerful and also expensive—is like Champagne and port, wines partly defined by the unusual way they’re made. Once grapes are harvested, they’re carefully dried for months, the slow extraction of moisture concentrating sugar and flavor. Drive through Valpolicella’s rolling hills, and you’ll see the swaths of vineyards that produce the grapes for this process; visit the wineries’ drying rooms in late fall, and you’ll see the towers of straw mats (or, less traditionally, ventilated plastic crates) in which the newly harvested grapes are slowly drying. It’s a hugely labor-intensive task—as Bertani says, “Yes, it’s a process. But it’s not like Coca-Cola, where you press a button and OK, 5 million more bottles.”
This work also takes place in one of Italy’s most congenial regions for wine-touring, especially in the late fall, when the leaves on the vines are red and gold. The Valpolicella region surrounds Verona on both sides. Stay in the historic center of town (but skip Juliet’s House, a tourist attraction dedicated to Romeo and Juliet; it’s a mob scene), and venture out for day trips to the west and east. The hills are studded with excellent enotecas and trattorias, most wineries are open to the public, and if you find yourself sated on Amarone’s richness, you can always end the day with an Aperol spritz—another beverage that’s brought this region fame.
Where to Taste Amarone
Head to Allegrini’s to taste the supple, smoky 2014 Amarone Classico ($68). Book in advance to tour the extraordinary Italian Renaissance villa itself—the vast fireplaces, representing the yawning mouths of a devil, angel, lion, and sea monster, are extraordinary (the villa works as a B&B, too, so consider it for a stay).
This nestled east of Verona makes top-notch Amarone but is also an agriturismo, offering rooms, fly-fishing in the nearby Fibbio river, and cooking and yoga classes. All of this is overseen by magnetic owner Maddalena Pasqua Di Bisceglie, who also makes the wines, like the blueberry-rich 2011 Musella Amarone ($60).
Sabrina is president of the Historic Families group of Amarone producers (the is a great source for more wineries to visit) as well as of her family’s winery. The Tedeschis have made wine for some 400 years, producing a range from affordable but impressive Valpolicellas to layered single-vineyard Amarone bottlings like the blackberry-rich 2011 Capitel Monte Olmi Amarone Classico Riserva ($65).
TENUTA SANTA MARIA
Built in the 1500s, (plus the vineyard around it) is a national landmark. Today it houses the winemaking operations of the Bertani family, who sold their namesake brand in 2011. Sixth-generation Giovanni Bertani now crafts excellent wines here under the Tenuta Santa Maria name, like the dark cherry–scented 2012 Amarone Classico Riserva ($80). (Tours by appointment)
Extraordinary views over hillside vineyards can be had from this winery founded in 1995 by four brothers near the small town of San Briccio. Its single-vineyard 2013 Campo dei Gigli Amarone ($60), with its aromas of orange peel and roasted plums, has become a benchmark for the region. (Tours and tastings )
Where to Eat and Drink
TRATTORIA AL POMPIERE
A do-not-miss when in Verona, is overrun during the annual Vinitaly expo in April, but reservations can be had at other times if you plan ahead. Expect exquisitely prepared traditional Veronese cuisine—sage risotto with roasted quail, for example—and a brilliantly curated salumi selection, plus a more-than-lengthy-enough wine list.
RISTORANTE ENOTECA BACCO D’ORO
Located in Mezzane di Sotto, east of Verona, is the sort of place you stumble upon, open the wine list, and say, “Whoa—how did I not know about this place?” Check out the wine cellar, an Aladdin’s cave of older vintages, then settle in for deftly done traditional dishes, such as Vicenza-style cod with polenta.
ENOTECA DELLA VALPOLICELLA
Owners Carlotta Marchesini and Ada Riolfi concentrate on ultra-local ingredients in this from the 1400s in Fumane, about 30 minutes northwest of Verona. Standout dishes include risotto with local aromatic herbs and duck breast with a honey-wine sauce. The vast wine list offers over 800 selections.
Where to Stay
The simplest approach to touring the Valpolicella region is to stay in Verona itself since the vineyard areas extend both east and west of the city. The Due Torri Hotel, part of the Leading Hotels of the World group, is an inarguable choice: Located in the heart of the city, it offers easy access to the surrounding countryside. The beautiful 14th-century building, with windows overlooking the Piazza Sant’Anastasia, incorporates elements from different eras of ownership— make sure to check out the gorgeous circus-life frescoes downstairs by artist Pino Casarini, as well as a terrace with panoramic views of Verona’s towers while you relax with a spritz or a glass of local Soave at the end of the day. (Rooms from $230; )