On a February day in Valpolicella Classico, touring family vineyards with Tommaso Bussola and his son Paolo, I find myself uncomfortably in the middle of a father-and-son confrontation.
Terse insults fly in Italian and the local dialect, accompanied by facial acrobatics, hand gestures and huffing and puffing.
The scene is a contrast to the tranquility of the setting—a near-century-old, pergola-trained vineyard, under a cloudless blue sky, with views of both snow-capped Monte Baldo and Lake Garda.
So what are the fireworks over?
As it turns out, manure—as in what form is the best to apply to their vineyards as organic fertilizer. Tommaso, 62, prefers the efficiency of manure pellets. “It’s more practical,” he cries skyward.
Paolo, 34, the winemaker at Tommaso Bussola for the past decade, has more pastoral ideas. He thinks the fresh stuff is much better for the soils and dreams of one day plowing some vineyards with a horse, as farm animals rove in nearby pastures. “I want to do things in the most natural way,” he says.
“My father and I are two hardheads that butt against each other,” Paolo explains later, before lunch with his parents and younger brother, Giuseppe, 32, who sells the family’s wines. “But with respect to the style of wines we are in agreement.”
For Amarone fans, that’s a good thing.
Tommaso Bussola, a former industrial mechanic who launched his eponymous label in 1985 with a few acres of family vineyards, is a big, grizzle-bearded man known for big Amarone and its sweet, high-octane counterpart, Recioto della Valpolicella. Since the 1998 vintage, Tommaso Bussola winery has produced 38 wines scoring 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings.
While Bussola wines have remained true to their rich style, the new generation has brought about an evolution. “My wines are slightly different,” says Paolo, thin with sharp features and a quiet intensity about him. “In the last years, the wines are cleaner and more elegant—more balanced.”
Bussola Amarones, like all Amarones, are made with partially raisined grapes that have been left to dry for months. (Read all about the process.) In Bussola’s case, this appassimento process happens in the traditional setting, an open ventilated loft above the family home and winery.
Winemaking is a long, slow process, starting with maceration on the skins for up to two months and spontaneous fermentation, followed by finishing in a variety of oak barrels. Because no yeasts are added, it often takes years for Bussola Amarones to ferment completely dry.
“It goes little by little,” Paolo explains. “The fermentation will stop. Then slowly it will start up again. It needs time. Amarone can ferment for three or four years.”
Self-taught as a winemaker, Tommaso, the son of a marble worker, happened to be allergic to stone dust and trained instead to be a mechanic. But he left his first full-time job in a local plastic mold factory after only eight months.
“I left because I was an employee,” he says. “As my father used to say, ‘Poor is the man who at the end of the day knows exactly how much money he has.’”
Thus began his wine adventure. He joined his uncle Giuseppe Bussola in farming and later making wine from a 1930s-era, 3.5-acre vineyard that he now uses to make around 250 cases annually of his flagship Amarone, Vigneto Alto. (The 2009 vintage, recently released at $195, scored 94 points.)
Tommaso started making the wines solo in the early 1980s and took over the winery when his uncle retired. He started with one goal: to win the Valpolicella town of Negrar’s Palio del Recioto contest for the best Recioto.
“Recioto was always considered the top wine,” Bussola says. “And I wanted to make a wine better than the others—it was competition.”
Within three years, Bussola won the Palio; he then set off to conquer the world in the 1990s. His Reciotos are models of concentration, requiring 20 pounds of fresh grapes and seven years of aging to make one half-liter bottle.
Over time, through purchasing and planting, he has accumulated a total of 35 acres under vine in a classic Valpolicella mix of varieties: Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Croatina and Molinara, along with small amounts of Bordeaux red varieties that he vinifies in the style of an Amarone.
In the 2010 vintage, after working with his father for years, Paolo took over the winery; it’s now his domain, while Tommaso runs the vineyard crews.
Paolo has brought more precision and rigor to the cellar and timed all winemaking operations to the lunar calendar. “My father does things with a lot of enthusiasm but much faster. In a kind of ’90s relaxed style,” Paolo says. “I am more precise.”
“My brother and I are trying to take his idea,” he adds, “and move forward.”