The Valpo Prophecy

Does an often-overlooked red have the potential to be Italy’s answer to Burgundy?

The Valpo Prophecy
Though he is renowned for his Amarones, Brigaladara's Stefano Cesari is now championing more affordable Valpolicella Superiore. (Robert Camuto)
Sep 16, 2020

Stefano Cesari is a smart guy who has grown wise with experience.

Over more than 40 vintages in the Valpolicella Classica area between Verona and Lake Garda in northeastern Italy, he has lived the boom of its modern success story, Amarone. But now he is turning his sights to one of the area’s overlooked wines.

“I am convinced that Valpolicella Superiore is the wine of the future,” he says.

I couldn’t agree more.

A quick refresher: Amarone is a rich, high-alcohol (and generally expensive) red wine made from partially raisined grapes. Valpolicella reds and their 12-month-aged versions, labeled Superiore, are made, like most all other wines, from fresh grapes.

Put differently, Amarone is a big, special-occasion wine that has had its own appellation since 1990. Valpolicellas are solid, every-day-of-the-week wines (typically $25 and under) that have been neglected because of the focus on their big brother.

Cesari, whose Brigaldara wine estate produces four Amarones that total nearly a third of its production, is part of a relatively small group of producers working to bring rigor and respect to the Valpolicella wines. At 65, he is one of the elder statesmen, with 16 Amarones released since the 2000 vintage that have been rated 90 points or higher by Wine Spectator.

“Valpolicella has the potential to be a Burgundy produced in Italy,” Cesari says.

Now there’s some ambition for you! But why not? Valpo isn’t there yet, but when well-made, it can have power, elegance and complexity, reflecting its terroir. Why now? Consumer interest in Amarone hasn’t kept pace with production. Wine lovers’ tastes have changed. So, this ancient wine area needs something.

In February, before Italy’s pandemic-related lockdown, Cesari takes me on a tour of his vineyards, where he grows the local varieties Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella for both his Amarone and Valpolicella bottlings. (I spoke to him again recently, and the crisis hasn’t changed his analysis.)

He drives east from Brigaldara, in an area packed with other producers, to his favorite vineyards in the narrow, high-elevation and sparsely populated Valpantena valley.

We arrive at the end of a forest road and look down a valley that sits at more than 1,300 feet, into a collage of gentle vineyard slopes and terraces. Cesari’s 200-acre property, with 25 acres under vine, is known as Case Vecie and used for two single-vineyard wines: Valpolicella Superiore Case Vecie (2016, 88 points, $20) and Amarone della Valpolicella Case Vecie (2012, 92, $106).

“It’s the terroir I love most—for the beauty of the place,” Cesari says.

On the hilltops with poorer soils, he grows grapes for Amarone. The lower and flatter areas he uses for Valpolicella. The difference is not that the top of the hill necessarily produces “better grapes,” he explains, but rather more open bunches, which are ideal for drying through the appassimento process.

“In hot years, Case Vecie is my best terroir,” Cesari says. “In cold years Brigaldara is better,” as it’s at one-third of the altitude and generally warmer.

Cesari, a soft-spoken man, was born into a family that relocated its military uniform–making business from Tuscany to Verona after World War I and branched out. His grandfather bought the ancient 25-acre Brigaldara farm and, for 50 years, the grapes from it were sold to local wine producers.

In 1979, after Cesari completed his business studies, his grandfather asked him to take over the family business selling imported agricultural machinery.

“I told him ‘OK, I’ll do it—if you rent me the land at Brigaldara.'”

Cesari began replanting the neglected vineyards while bottling small quantities of wine. At the time, he remembers, “few producers made Amarone, and Valpolicella produced a lot of bad wine.”

In 1986, he quit his day job to dedicate himself to winemaking. A renaissance was beginning in the area among young producers inspired by pioneering University of Verona enologist Roberto Ferrarini, who served as Brigaldara’s winemaker until his death in 2014. In the years since, Cesari has staffed his cellar with a team of four young former students of Ferrarini.

Cesari doubled the size of Brigaldara by buying out his neighbors, then he turned his attention to less-trodden terroirs by renting (and later buying) his uncle’s abandoned vineyards in Case Vecie from 1996 on.

In the mid-1990s, he also served as president of the Valpolicella producers’ consortium, and he is still inspired by those eye-opening years when he established the first exchanges between Valpolicella and producers in Piedmont’s Langhe region.

“At the time in Valpolicella, producers drank only Valpolicella,” he says with a laugh. “In the Langhe, they were already drinking Burgundy! That gave people some other ideas.”

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