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Magic Mountain

Scaling the heights with Speri in Valpolicella Classico
Photo by: Robert Camuto
In Speri’s Sant’Urbano vineyards, Giampaolo Speri (right) and brother Giampietro are part of the family’s sixth winemaking generation.

Posted: Nov 10, 2015 12:00pm ET

It was only a matter of time before I climbed Monte Sant'Urbano.

The ascent started at the dinner table in the heart of old Verona, where my wife and I supped with a velvety, complex Valpolicella Classico Superiore Sant'Urbano 2012 from Fratelli Speri, one of the oldest families making wine in this zone.

Two mornings after draining the bottle, we are on the small Monte Sant'Urbano, covered with 10-foot drywall terraces that climb to 1,100 feet. Tall pergola-trained vines dangle the dark grapes used in blending Valpolicella—Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella—above our heads. The views over the Fumane Valley stretch to Lake Garda on the southeastern horizon.

The Speris' history here in Valpolicella Classico dates to the mid-19th century, and the winery is now run by the sixth generation. Since the early 1980s, the Speris have produced a Sant'Urbano cru—their most prized vineyard—using grapes that are partially dried, but less so than those for Amarone.

"Drying grapes is not only about evaporation of the water and concentration," explains Giampaolo Speri, 50, one of five cousins who now run Speri. "It's an evolution that adds aromas and complexity."

Sant'Urbano comprises 50 of Speri's 120 acres of vineyards in production and makes what the family considers its two most important wines: its Amarone and the Sant'Urbano Valpolicella Classico Superiore, which retails in the United States for around $30.

On Sant'Urbano, the harvest is done in several passes, beginning in mid-September. The first, for Amarone, selects loosely packed bunches of nearly ripe grapes ideal for drying. "At the top of the hill, the skins get really hard and can support the drying process," explains Giampaolo.

These bunches spend about 100 days on bamboo mats in the family's centuries-old drying barn on Sant'Urbano. "When you pick, it's important not to have 100 percent maturity," he adds, explaining that fully ripe fruit too readily attracts molds. "We look for 90 to 95 percent ripeness—the other 5 to 10 percent maturation comes during drying."

The seasonal harvesters who do this work are seasoned retirees who recognize such nuances. "The problem with this system—the pergola Veronese—will be finding people in the future," Giampaolo says. "It's not something you can learn in one or two years."

The second harvest, in early October, is for the Vapolicella Superiore. Grapes nearing full ripeness spend most of the month drying before they are trucked to the Speri winery, where they are pressed and the juice is left to ferment with the skins in steel tanks. The wine finishes fermentation in 500-liter French tonneaus where it's aged two years before bottling.

This shorter appassimento makes for a wine that's more lush than their other Valpolicellas but not as rich or powerful as their Amarone. "Our idea is always to take the wine toward elegance," says Giampaolo.

Speri, using only estate grapes from Sant'Urbano and other vineyards, also makes a basic quaffing Valpolicella Classico, another Valpolicella Classico Superiore that is aged one year in wood, a Valpolicella Ripasso (refermented with the pomace from Amarone) and Recioto, the sweet, ancient wine that inspired Amarone in the 20th century.

The Speris run a tight ship, from their vineyards, which are meticulously and organically cultivated by Giampaolo's brother Giampietro, 49, to their spic-n-span winery in the town of Pedemonte, run by cousin Alberto Speri, 60, and his 27-year-old enologist son, Giuseppe, the first of the seventh generation.

It's astonishing how well the Speri clan seems to get along. The three brothers of generation five still live in a row of houses attached to the winery. On this morning, the youngest of those three, Carlo Speri, 75, the estate's former general manager, wanders into the winery.

"I surveil … everything!" laughs Carlo, who a quarter-century ago led the Valpolicella growers and producers through the critical period in which Amarone was defined as a distinct wine. 

Since their first vintage that was sold in bottles in 1958, the family has flourished with a balance of tradition and modernity. In recent decades, the Speris have selected and identified lower-yielding but more aromatic clones, and this year they completed a conversion to organic farming.

"We didn't select the idea of becoming biologico for a trendy moment," says Giampaolo. "The objective was to protect our soil. Not only for us. But for our children and our children's children."

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