Over some years living in Verona, I have become intrigued by Bertani, one of those great Italian wineries that began exporting wine across the Atlantic more than a century ago and today is working to restore some of its historic luster.
Bertani—which was taken over by a new team after the Bertani family sold it in 2012—is important for several reasons, not the least of which is its history as one of the first producers of Amarone, in the 1950s, before the style was recognized as part of the nascent Valpolicella appellation in 1968.
With Bertani, you can drink history. One of its distinguishing features among scores of modern Amarone producers is its huge stock of old vintages of its flagship Amarone Classico. Like all Amarone, it is dominated by the Corvina variety and made via a process called appassimento, wherein the grapes are left to dry for months after harvest, traditionally on mats in drying attics. (Learn more about how Amarone is made.)
Bertani’s Amarone della Valpolicella Classico is aged a decade in cask before release, but the winery’s antique cellars also include about 200,000 bottles, mostly 45 vintages of Amarone Classico back to 1958.
“It’s one of the largest wine libraries in the world,” enthuses Andrea Lonardi, 45, the COO and winemaker at Bertani Domains.
On more than one occasion, I’ve been at lunch with wine-loving friends in Northern Italy when a mature bottle of Bertani Amarone appears. And damn if that’s not an opportunity to taste the complexity Amarone shows with age.
There are now 35 vintages of the wine on the market, from the “new” 2012 vintage and the recent 2010 (92 points, $137) to 1960s vintages that can cost up to $1,500.
I was lucky enough to be at Bertani on a day in early March when Lonardi and his team were tasting through 25 vintages of Amarone Classico. The wines, in keeping with the Bertani style, tend to be dry, medium-bodied and fresh—defying Amarone’s popular image as uber-robust and slightly sweet.
The earliest vintages smelled of maple syrup and licorice. The 1977 was almost citrusy fresh, with notes of orange and spice. The 1981 was like a fine Sherry, with a bit oxidative character, and many of the ’80s vintages showed balsamic and wood notes that Lonardi attributed to the use of barriques in aging—something he replaced with large casks promptly after taking the reins.
“There is a huge variation in the vintages,” says Lonardi. Some of that has to do with the winemaking style at the time. But when you talk about vintage, Amarone is not just influenced by the growing season, but also by the drying period that follows the harvest.
Without temperature controls or fans, Bertani’s traditional drying attic, on its prized Tenuta Novare estate, is particularly susceptible to late-fall and early winter weather. Higher temperatures generally mean a faster, shorter drying period that brings elegance and balance. Freezing temperatures give the wines more concentration and complexity.
Bertani’s colorful history began in 1857, after the enterprising Gaetano Bertani traveled to Burgundy and learned winemaking from Jules Guyot, the legendary French physician and agronomist who developed the Guyot system of pruning vine canes.
Bertani, who with his brother acted as both a négociant and vineyard owner, brought French techniques and a penchant for dryness to Valpolicella area wines, which were typically sweet—as in Amarone’s cousin Recioto.
Breaking from convention, Bertani began making a dry wine called Secco-Bertani, without drying grapes and blending Corvina with Tuscany's Sangiovese and small amounts of imported varieties. Today, those are Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, used in the Verona Secco-Bertani Original Vintage Edition (2015, 89 points, $26.)
Bertani’s modern age began in 1957 when it acquired the historic, 500-plus-acre Tenuta Novare, crisscrossed by a series of small Roman-era canals that channel spring water from its hillsides.
For decades thereafter, Bertani used the Novare vineyards for its new Amarone (at the time called Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone Classico Superiore), but didn’t bottle it because there was no market for a dry version with "Recioto" in the name. As a result, many of the vintages were aged 20 to 30 years in cask until the 1990s, when Amarone earned its own appellation and a boom followed.
In 2012, Italian conglomerate Angelini Group bought Bertani and made it the flagship of its wine division, which also includes Tuscan estates Val Di Suga in Montalcino, TreRose in Montepulciano and San Leonino in Chianti Classico, as well as Fazi Battaglia in Le Marche and Puiatti in Friuli.
Enter Lonardi, from a family of longtime Valpolicella growers. After studying agronomy in France, he worked, among other positions, for pan-Italy wine giant Gruppo Italiano Vini as viticultural director.
“Bertani was a great brand,” says Lonardi, walking up the hillside of Novare. “But there was a lot of dust on it.”
The last 10 years have seen a lot of renovation, from the old, once-abandoned cement fermenting tanks in Bertani’s cellars to the vineyards of Novare. There, Lonardi has focused on a pair of single-vineyard bottlings of Valpolicella, a leaner, everyday wine made primarily with Corvina and without drying the grapes.
“We wanted to start with Valpolicella because it is the best reader of the terroir and the most undervalued wine here,” he says.
To understand the terroirs of Valpolicella, he adds, just tour Verona’s historic churches, made from a mix of red and white marbles that come from, respectively, iron-rich clay-limestone soils and calcium-rich sandy limestone.
Since the 1990s, Bertani has produced saline, taut single-vineyard Ognisanti Valpolicella Classico Superiore from about 8 acres of vineyards set on a series of white sandy limestone. With the 2018 vintage, Lonardi added La Miniera Valpolicella Classico, which as its name implies, is sourced from another 8 acres of vines on red clay limestone soils atop an abandoned iron mine.
“This area become famous in the 2000s based on brands, and we forget we had terroirs,” says Lonardi.
Bertani is one of a small group of producers focusing efforts on straight-up Valpolicella without appassimento. It makes sense to me. With generally warmer growing seasons providing more ripeness and a shift in taste to drier, lower-alcohol wines, deliberately desiccating grapes might one day go the way of making calls on pay phones.
“Valpolicella wines have the greatest potential for the future,” says Lonardi.
For now, in this part of Italy, and at Bertani, it’s great to be able to taste the future and the past.
Read more Robert Camuto Meets … columns about Amarone and Valpolicella producers:
The Valpo Prophecy
Does an often-overlooked red have the potential to be Italy’s answer to Burgundy?
The Poet of Valpolicella
With an extreme eco-ethic and intriguing wines, the man behind Monte dei Ragni is an Amarone cult figure. But is his work art?
A Hard-Headed Amarone Family
Former mechanic Tommaso Bussola and his son are at the top of their game
Tommasi makes a luxury statement with a new release—10 years after its vintage date
Peace, Love and Amarone?
After a bitter lawsuit, feuding families in Valpolicella try to come together
Amarone Family Soap Opera
Who controls this elite Italian wine name?
Scaling the heights with Speri in Valpolicella Classico