More than 15 years ago, Matilde Poggi's wines were unanimously rejected by American importers.
Remembering a conversation with California-based importer Oliver McCrum, Poggi says, "He told me, 'The wine is good, but the consumer is not ready for it.'"
The problem? The wine was Bardolino—Valpolicella's lighter, fruitier cousin, which had a poor reputation in Italy and was largely unknown abroad.
Today, the fortunes of Poggi and her Le Fraghe wines have changed. Not only have her wines gathered acclaim in Italy, they have been imported for 10 years by McCrum, now one of Le Fraghe's eight U.S. importers. What's different? Says Poggi, "In the United States, they started selling wines that were easier-drinking."
For a little more than 30 years, Poggi, 53, has been one of a small group of producers striving to make high-quality Bardolino in the hills west of the Valpolicella appellation and east of Lake Garda.
Changing Bardolino's image hasn't been easy. The wines that come from the appellation's stony, glacial soils lack the tannins and power of their neighbors in northeastern Italy's Veneto region. Bardolino has long been made slightly sweet and sold cheap in Italian supermarkets and to summer tourists on the lake.
"When I started in Bardolino, it was very difficult to find good wine," Poggi says one rainy winter afternoon in her family's centuries-old farmhouse in the town of Cavaion Veronose (pop. 5,700).
As a university student in the 1980s, Poggi studied economics and learned about wine as a hobby. After graduation, she had an urge to do something with the fruit from her father's nearly 70 acres of vineyards, which he sold to large wine producers or shared with other family members. "I thought it was a pity just selling grapes or giving them to my uncle," says Poggi.
For her first vintage, 1984, when she was 22, Poggi made a little more than 400 cases single-handedly. She travelled through northern Italy, learning from small winemakers who were interested in improving wine quality for the competitive export market.
One of the first things she learned was the gentle handling needed for Corvina—a fragile-skinned grape variety that is the backbone of Valpolicella and is typically used in smaller percentages in Bardolino. (Poggi uses the Bardolino DOC's maximum 80 percent, along with 20 percent Rondinella.)
In the 1990s, she switched vine-training and pruning practices to reduce yields.
Her vision was always to find elegance in Bardolino, a wine meant to be drunk young and slightly chilled. "A good Bardolino should have complexity, persistence, spiciness and no sugar at all," she says. "Bardolino can be like a Beaujolais-Villages." A good one, she adds, can age up to five years, and with time becomes spicier.
Today Poggi exports four wines to the United States, all priced at $20 or less. In addition to her regular Bardolino, Poggi makes a single-vineyard Bardolino Classico, called Brol Grande, which is fermented and aged up to a year in large conical wood vats, and a Bardolino Chiaretto, a pale rosé made from free-run juice. She also makes a white Garganega and a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, which is not exported.
Today, with more than 30 vintages behind her, Poggi focuses her efforts in the cellar, employs a consulting enologist and works on behalf of 600 Italian grower-producers as president of the eight-year-old Italian Federation of Independent Winemakers.
None of her three daughters has yet expressed an interest in winemaking, but Poggi says she still has more than 20 vintages left to work.
When Poggi describes her winemaking career, she shrugs easily and says, "It's like cooking. You crush the grapes, then you see what happens. And if there are problems—you learn."