Have I mentioned before how much I love Italy? And wine? Put the two together and I’m a very happy bunny. Which is why my first trip to Verona included a wine tour up in the hills of Valpolicella – and why I now want my own vineyard in those very same hills.
Often thought of as the younger cousin to the better-known Tuscany, this small region in northern Italy is a wine superstar in its own right – it’s home to some of the most beautiful, unique wine you can hope to taste, from the fresh and fruity Valpolicella Classico to the robust and highly-prized Amarone. My other half first introduced me to these wines and I couldn’t wait to learn more about them, and I got the chance to do so up in the hills from which they take their name.
The tour starts on a blisteringly hot August day. We’re picked up in a minibus (thankfully air-conditioned) in the centre of Verona, seven of us in total, complete with our very friendly and knowledgeable tour guide from Pagus Wine Tours, who proceeds to gleefully let us in on the secrets of the region’s most famous export.
The tour is packed full of information from the moment we get in the minibus. We’re told all about the history and wine of the Valpolicella region, from the grapes and processes used to the different wine-making rules and levels of superiority, which makes the journey to the vineyards all the more fascinating.
For example, we learn that Valpolicella wine can only be classified as such if it’s a blend of at least two grapes, principally Corvina and Rondinella, perhaps with Molinara, Corvinone or Oselata thrown in. The grapes have to come from the Valpolicella region to bear the name “Classico”, and the wine must be produced in the region if it’s to have official DOC/DOCG status (I think – you may not want to quote me on these!). We also learn that Amarone, now the most famous and expensive wine in the region, was actually developed by accident; the winemakers had intended to make the sweet, syrupy Recioto but left the grapes fermenting for too long, resulting in the full-bodied and slightly bitter Amarone (which, translated, means “big bitter”).
That I can remember such detail is testament to how much I love the wine, because really, it’s hard to tear myself away from the minibus windows. The views are already incredible – the bustle of the city slowly fades away to be replaced by row upon row of grape-heavy vines, the road getting ever-steeper as we wind our way up into the hills, the haze of midsummer giving everything a slightly dream-like quality.
We take a quick pit-stop at a beautiful old church, chosen for the view from its courtyard. And it’s spectacular. The patchwork fields stretch out for miles below us, vineyards peppering the landscape as far as the eye can see, a captivating mix of greens and ambers, dotted with tiny villages and the occasional church steeple piercing the sky.
The Italian sun warms our skin as we drink it all in – it really gives us a sense of the sheer expanse and beauty of the region, and after some photos, we’re huddled back into the minibus with our group of fellow wine-lovers to make our way to the Corte Fornaledo winery.
A small, family-run business, Corte Fornaledo produces all four key varieties of Valpolicella, and at the time had just started production of another more experimental style. We begin with a walk around the winery’s small but beautiful vineyard, the vines packed full of grapes, all healthily ripening in the heat. We learn that this is a rather special vineyard – it’s so high up in the hills that, even if their neighbours further down the hillside are blanketed in winter, the grape pickers at Corte Fornaledo can continue in earnest amid searing sunshine, looking down on the cloud cover below.
After that, it’s time to get tasting, and WOW it’s good wine! We’re introduced to every variety produced at the vineyard, starting with Valpolicella Classico before moving onto Ripasso, Recioto and Amarone, learning all about the production methods of each along the way. We also try their own unique style, Vitae IGT Rosso Verona, and while it isn’t my favourite of the selection, it’s great to try something new. The owner’s passion for the wine is infectious, too, and I soon imagine creating my own variety.
We have platters of cheese, meat and focaccia to accompany the wines, which are also locally produced and just as exceptional. The heady scents fill the room, and we can really see how the flavours of each complement one other. We’re even introduced to the family’s brand of olive oil; if you’ve never tasted fresh, organic olive oil, do. It’s incredible. I think they call it liquid gold over there, and I soon see why.
This isn’t your typical wine tasting, either. We’re carefully taken through each wine and have everything explained as we go along, and the measures are by no means half-hearted. At the end we’re even able to re-try all our favourites; I’m torn between the almost dessert-wine style of Recioto and the powerful Amarone, both on opposite ends of the spectrum, but both so good! New bottles may have been opened.
Unconventional they may be, but the tactics work – we leave several pounds lighter with far more bottles of wine than we’re planning on returning home with (and a bottle of olive oil thrown in for good measure. Thank goodness for luggage allowances). It’s all over far too soon.
Slightly tipsy smiles are plastered on our faces as we head for the minibus, wine bottles clinking as we go. As we drive back to the city, down winding roads with the hills rising up on either side, I lean back in my seat in a pleasant wine-fuelled haze, and admire the view.