The Hemingway of Valpolicella
If wine matters—if it can be said to matter at all—then what we’re looking for is an antidote to oblivion. A bottle’s imposition on memory, its ability to make us think and reflect, is the function that distinguishes it from daily sustenance, from what we call, prosaically, “a drink.” For the most part, the wines I remember vividly haven’t been the best-made or the most expensive. In his delightfully unstuffy Making Sense of Wine, Matt Kramer defines a serious imbiber as someone “who can distinguish between what he or she likes, and what is good.” Oddly, the difficult part of that equation tends to be the former. With a few keystrokes in Google, hundreds of commentators and even genuine experts will inform you whether a bottle is “good,” probably because it isn’t all that difficult—despite protestations of modesty, most of us can tell an excellent wine from a bland one. More perplexing is figuring out what about it matters to us, and why.
Recently, these thoughts popped into my head after I stuck my nose into a glass of Valpolicella from Giuseppe Quintarelli, a gift from my friend Boris. Quintarelli happens to be a gnarled traditionalist and a classic, embracing both the laudatory and unfashionable connotations of the word. For decades, wine mavens have considered him to be among the top makers of Italian reds, a particularly notable distinction when you consider that Don Beppi works not in Alba or Montalcino, but in the hamlet of Ceré in the lowly appellation of Valpolicella, near Verona. He’s best known for his Amarones, made in top years from partially dried grapes; at 16.5 percent alcohol, the ‘98 (another boon from Boris, an Amarone fanatic) turned out to be nearly black and viscous as espresso, yet poised and already generous, shifting kaleidoscopically from earth to a tarry bitterness to a tawny-port-like richness. Beppi’s “strong bitter one” proved as statuesque as a Bernini fountain, and retailing at around $350 a bottle, I suppose it should have.
In Italy, Valpolicella ranks only behind Chianti in total wine production; aside from Amarone, a viticultural oddity, the region has been known as a source of cheap, occasionally pleasant reds, a fraternal twin to nearby Soave. In the early 80s, Masi began to label their Valpolicella “ripasso,” indicating that the wine had been macerated on skins and seeds from grapes used in the production of Amarone. Local vintners had done this for years, but the term caught on in an attempt to market their wares to drinkers, many in the US, looking for bigger and darker reds. At roughly the same time, Romano Dal Forno emerged as a field marshal of the new-wave producers and a challenger to Quintarelli; working outside the Valpolicella Classico production zone, he pushed alcohol and extraction into fortified-wine territory and priced his Amarones as high as first-growth Bordeaux. Boris and I opened Dal Forno’s ‘98 Valpolicella a few months ago; we mumbled at each other politely, swirling until our wrists ached: even decanted, the stuff in the glass was black as pitch and a facsimile of grape concentrate, the kind of object made by an architect from Dubai. If the Dal Forno had something to tell us, we couldn’t decipher it; like the enormous beached fish at the end of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, it functioned best as a metaphor.
If Quintarelli’s human-scaled Amarone is a counterpoint to Veneto’s maximalists, the ‘95 Valpolicella I happened to taste was a rebuke. It came off delicate, barely medium-bodied, with not much perceptible tannin, and aromatic in a wistful way—drinking it felt like putting on a favorite old shirt. It showed off the fresh bitterness of the Corvina grape and—a trademark of Beppi’s wines—a knit-together depth and complexity of flavor. (The effect is partly due to Quintarelli holding back the wines for about a decade before release—the new Valpolicella on the US market is the ‘01.) It isn’t easy to recommend at around $75 because that sum will buy more obviously pleasing bottles: a good Chambolle, grand-cru Chablis, older Rioja, a cabernet from Ridge. Quintarelli’s Valpolicella isn’t as flamboyant as those wines and that’s part of its appeal—the quality it embodies most is humility, an utter lack of ostentation, which makes it the opposite of something like a Meursault. To borrow a cliché, you could call it a “winemaker’s wine,” and in its subtlety Quintarelli’s red reminds me of Russell Edson’s poems or the nonfiction of Ian Frazier. I will be thinking about it long after memories of finer bottles have have begun to ebb.
It’s tempting to attribute these properties to the land, though I suspect Quintarelli’s wines draw more from the man’s personality. Beppi is well past 80 and famously reclusive; he claims to make wine exactly as his father had done since 1924, and personally I doubt he’s ever lain awake worrying whether his wines are being talked about in Napa or Tokyo. Last year he handed off winemaking to his eldest daughter and grandson, who say they’re striving to “maintain the Quintarelli style.” Can wine be said to have a style? If so, where does it reside? Beppi hasn’t opined on the subject, but here’s what he has said: “The fundamental problem in wine today is that too many producers hurry to make their wines: they hurry the fruit in the vineyard and they hurry the vinification and rush to bottle. They rush to sell their product without allowing it the proper time to age. Patience – this is the most important attribute in winemaking. Patience in growing, patience in selection, and patience in vinification.”
photo by chubbyhubby
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