Allegrini 2024

Valpolicella and its Amarone look to change: in style, climate and consumption

At WineNews, the “vision” of Cristian Marchesini, president of the Consorzio Vini Valpolicella, and Master of Wine Andrea Lonardi

Among the wine territories of unspoiled beauty with its vine-covered hills drawn by the marogne, where the presence of the vine is very ancient, as the name “Vallis-polis-cellae”, or “valley of the many cellars” reminds us, and thanks to that “know-how” in agriculture and commerce typical of the “Veneto triangle” that unites it with Venice and Verona, and which the ancient technique of appassimento (now a Unesco nominee) and the Venetian villas summarize to perfection, and in which even the Supreme Poet Dante found solace in exile, Valpolicella embraces 19 municipalities, covering an area of 30,000 hectares, rising 750 meters above sea level and descending 50 meters above sea level, of which 8,586 hectares are planted with vines, and of which 3,500 are “sustainable” (and, therefore, either organic or biodynamic, or otherwise in the National Quality System of Integrated Production). It is here - from San Pietro in Cariano to Fumane, from Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella to Negrar, from Verona to Grezzana, from Mezzane to Illasi, just to name a few - that 2. 400 winegrowers, winemakers and bottlers produce, according to 2023 figures, 67 million bottles in the Valpolicella appellation, of which 14.2 million are Amarone, 61% destined for foreign countries, Canada, the U.S. and Northern Europe in the lead, for 600 million euros of business, more than half of which is thanks to Amarone whose average, ex-cellar price is 35 euros. Amarone thanks to which Valpolicella is also among the most “valuable” wine territories in Italy: the value per hectare ranges from 500,000 to 600,000 euros, and there is to consider that those who have these lands to vine, keep and manage them and put them to income, and there are few realities that invest in them coming from other countries and other Italian wine territories, with well over 90% of “native”, a sign of sensitivity and attachment to this Venetian land. But what does the present tell and what is in the future of the style of Valpolicella wines, both for Amarone and Valpolicella, and with climate change increasingly influencing the drinking of enthusiasts, collectors and new wave of drinking? What will be the tags (keywords) for the future of Valpolicella wines, in short? At “Amarone OperaPrima”, the event launching the new vintages, but also reflecting on the future of the territory, signed by the Valpolicella Wines Consortium (in Verona, from today to February 4), we asked Andrea Lonardi, one of the top managers at Bertani, a historic winery in Valpolicella, part of the Angelini Wines & Estates group, and Master of Wine, a title also achieved through a thesis dedicated precisely to Valpolicella, as well as vice president of the Consortium. “Amarone has in the past been a wine that satisfied a market demand. Valpolicella producers were among the best, especially in some markets (markets in Northern Europe and North America), to understand that there was a need for a soft, warm and pleasant wine, suitable for drinking away from meals. This allowed for great volumetric success. To do so, however, they overdid it with withering and with the need to chase a style that this segment of the market demanded. Today that segment is no longer growing”, explains Lonardi, “and it gives many more shadows than certainties for the future. It is a segment that has been populated by other wines that compete only in terms of price. To suffer such an attack means being aware that that wine was an easily imitable model: in fact, the method was superior to the territory. Added to this are three major changes that are affecting the wine scene, not only in Valpolicella: changing consumption, changing climate, and changing style. We must therefore change and evolve by redirecting our wines toward an evolution both in terms of market geographies and consumer profiling. To do this requires, also but not only, a stylistic change. The most commercially solid wines are in fact fine wines, those that have a deep connection with the territory of origin, wines that have values and a specific communicative wording such as to make them identifiable. These are wines that are able to continuously create value on the supply chain. They create value because in the first and second decade after being put on the market they improve qualitatively in the bottle to the point of self-sustaining the concept of “scarcity” (not imposed but suffered). To access this segment”, Lonardi still adds, “it is necessary to think of an Amarone that puts its production factors back in balance: the method (the set-aside), the territory (soil, vines, climate), the people (producers, businesses) and communication. The challenge is clearly complex, from volume to value, and requires changes: cultural, production, legislative and communication” Then there is, as mentioned, the issue of climate change, which “certainly concerns all of us, not only in Valpolicella. Valpolicella to date has been favored by climate change; the fabulous wines from fresh grapes that can be obtained today are proof of that. But the area has many strengths that can be leveraged. First of all, a local form of farming, the pergola, which lends itself to protecting the grapes and shows interesting advantages from both a management and a production point of view. The survey of my research work for the Masters of Wine showed how 65% of producers will return to the traditional form in the next decade, and how those tied to wall forms will drop significantly (-21%). The survey also showed how producers prefer the pergola in the case of Amarone production and instead how wall forms are to be preferred for Valpolicella (80 percent of winemakers prefer the pergola for Amarone grape production). This”, Lonardi goes on to explain, “opens the way for changes that will therefore also have to affect the production regulations. The survey also showed how many producers would like to have vineyards exclusively dedicated to the production of Amarone and others to the production of only Valpolicella, which is not possible to date. Other changes at the technical level, however, will also be needed in terms of grape set-aside. Sustainably, it will be necessary to figure out how to wilt these grapes less. Research shows that at 20% loss in weight we achieve the best aromatic concentration, beyond that we instead have degradation processes (today the specification calls for a 40% loss). We will then have to rethink the places where we rest the grapes and what the conditions inside them should be. These places could also have specific geographical locations. The same thing applies to grape winemaking techniques. I’m thinking of grape washing and selection with optical devices. Added to this is aging, on which we should reconsider timing, types of wood and containers”. Profound and in their own way epochal changes, those foreshadowed by Lonardi, that portend great potential for producing a wine that is fresh, more savory, more respectful of the grape varieties and more appreciative of the elements of the terroir. As long as there is a clear vision about the future and target markets, positioning and which consumers to talk to. Because “communication will also change. Both in terms of content and the hierarchy of values that will be used. We will move from a wine with a leadership model of command, a muscular, structured, richly concentrated wine that strongly imposes its style on the consumer, to a wine with a leadership model of prestige, a more intellectual wine”, explains Lonardi, “that does not impose itself forcefully, but with a much more prestigious and qualified narrative, where identity and distinctive characters emerge. The concept of changing the leadership style of a wine will be a very important theme not only to understand the product itself but also its communication strategy and process. New generations flee from command and imposition: they seek so-called “accountability”. mental and cultural involvement. This we must imagine also communicated to journalists, opinon leaders and consumers”. But we also need a change of mentality “within the territory”, Lonardi further adds. “My experience of the last decade in this appellation, as vice-president of the consortium, and as Coo of an iconic brand (Bertani, of the Angelini Wines & Estates group, ed.) that has been on a path of change for the last 10 years, and as Master of Wine through my thesis suggests that I emphasize how Valpolicella is a most interesting territory. Not only is it the third largest limestone deposit in the world after Champagne and Burgundy, but it is also a rich and strong social and entrepreneurial fabric. The Valpolicella of the past 20 years has given us some of the strongest storytellers in the world. Entrepreneurs strongly oriented to volumetric growth. A territory among the first to adopt the number control process. The first territory to adopt annual reporting (the first project I developed for this denomination in 2018). But the numbers to date of interest to the entrepreneurial fabric of the territory”, says Lonardi, “have always been quantitative. Today’s market requires us to make a cultural change at the level of data management and interpretation. Numbers must take a much more qualitative view. From total number of bottles we need to move to value of sales and then average price of sales. From total export volume we need to move to break down by individual geographic area and then by country. Deep dives by channel (On/Off trade) are then needed to understand and profile the time of consumption and reasons for consumption. One needs to address one’s competitive set and targets. Finally: map out one’s vision”. A vision, Leonardi explains, that is the most difficult thing to build, because it is the “deepest and most intimate one that a territory, a brand and a producer must have. The style of the wine will only be a pure consequence of this”. And while decisive will be the producers’ sense of responsibility and dil involvement that must also touch the press and opinion leaders, it is crucial that all players involved become “critical friends for the next generation. It is clear that we are experiencing a change that requires cultural growth. This mission is driven by the desire to make an impact and generate the one true outcome a winemaker in this area must aspire to: legacy. A legacy that must touch, the territory, the quality of the product (wine) and the perception of the brand. This is our trajectory, and we will work as hard as ever, asking for your support to build stronger trust”. But if this, then, is the vision of the medium- and long-term future of the Valpolicella territory, according to Lonardi, also taking a snapshot of today and the near future is Christian Marchesini, president of the Consorzio di tutela dei Vini della Valpolicella. Who, to WineNews, traces the state of health of one of the most important Italian wine territories, with its top wines, starting with Amarone, a symbol of Made in Italy, after a difficult 2023, after years of growth, amid high prices and international tensions, with exports stable and domestic consumption down, at least in large-scale distribution. “In fact, 2023, if on the one hand it was an excellent year in the vineyard, because September let us put a lot of grapes to rest, a record for the appellation, on the market there was a slowdown for all the wines of the appellation. Due to an economic issue, related to the economic picture and general uncertainty, but it is a fact that we also have to rethink a little bit the style of Valpolicella wines. There are, however, some positive data: if Valpolicella as a whole has dropped, the incidence of Valpolicella Superiore, on the other hand, is growing, from 22 to 29%. Ripasso all in all is stable, while another difficult figure to deal with is the decline in Amarone, which is around 17% of the denomination. However, we have reached economic values as high as ever, with the price of Amarone going from 11 to 13 euros per liter, and stocks are very low. The export of the Valpolicella system”, Marchesini goes on to explain, “is at 65% of the total, and is very concentrated between North America and Northern Europe, although something, but still in its infancy, is moving in Asia. So the situation is complex, and we are on the alert, but the territory is healthy and there is not too much concern. And looking to the immediate future, in 2024 we will work on two important projects: one is the creation of the “valleys”, our sub-areas, a long but important path for Valpolicella producers. And then we continue to work hard on the sustainability discourse. In 2023 there was a 16% increase in certified organic or sustainable vineyards, by now we are around 40% of the total of the denomination, which, I like to remind you, amounts to 8,600 hectares”. From which come Italian wines of great success in the world.

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