The Epicurean's Atlas: Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico Riserva 1995
Region: Veneto, Italy | Variety: Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella
“Bottles are immediately recognisable for their labels, hand-written by family members in an elegant script”
G iuseppe Quintarelli is revered as one of the greatest winemakers of 20th-century Italy. Like Jean-Louis Chave in Hermitage in the Rhône, Quintarelli – the “Maestro of the Veneto” as he is sometimes known – made wines that were not so much benchmark as transcendent. These were wines that redefined the potential of his region.
His Amarones, and those that the family estate has continued to make since his death in 2012, have kaleidoscopic complexity, combining immense depth and intensity with a sense of freshness. The style of these legendary wines was forged by the uncompromising mind and exacting patience of a man remembered by his family as having, “Great attention to small but important details… his job was his entire life.” No one could ever have accused Quintarelli of failing to take his wines seriously and he demanded a similar level of respect from his customers. It is said he once sent away empty-handed a driver despatched to pick up some wine for Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands, who was at that time Queen, because the day was hot and the car had no air conditioning – not, in Quintarelli’s view, a suitable environment for the wines he considered to be practically part of his family. Importers were not taken on until they had tasted with him and had been seen to appreciate the wines. He could happily pick and choose who bought his wines because they were, and remain, among the most sought-after in Italy.
The Quintarelli estate, which is now led by Giuseppe’s grandson Francesco Grigoli, lies in the Negrar valley in the hills of the Valpolicella region to the north of Verona. It was established by Giuseppe’s father, Silvio, who had looked after vineyards as part of the mezzadria share-cropping system and bought his own land after the end of the First World War. Giuseppe, who was born in 1927, joined his father at the estate in the early 1950s and worked alongside him until Silvio’s death in 1958 put Giuseppe firmly in control.
Valpolicella in the 1950s and 1960s was not exactly famed for its fine wines. Indeed, by the late 1960s, the area seemed to have abandoned all attempts at producing high-quality wine. Quintarelli, however, had his own idiosyncratic approach. He was consistent, even obstinate, in his fierce striving for quality, both in the vineyard and in the winery, and he made his wines in a more concentrated, intense style than any of his neighbours. In many ways, he was a traditionalist; Quintarelli bottlings are immediately recognisable for their simple yet arresting labels, hand-written by family members in an elegant cursive script. For years, those family members were also drafted in to hand-glue the labels onto the bottles. Yet he was also fearless in his experimentation, planting Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon as part of his restless quest for potential improvements.
To anyone who has only tasted the weedily thin sort of Valpolicella sold to wash down a claggy dish of pasta in a cheap trattoria, a Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore might initially be confusing, so little resemblance does this rich, intellectually demanding wine bear to many of the wines sold under the same designation. But for most wine lovers, it is Amarone that springs to mind when the Quintarelli name is mentioned, just as it is Amarone that, thanks in large part to the pioneering work and reputation of Quintarelli, has revived the fortunes of the Valpolicella region.
Amarone is an unusual and very particular style of wine; a dry (or almost dry) companion to the sweet Recioto. It is made using the same grape varieties as Valpolicella – principally, Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella – but, after picking, the grapes are partially dried in the winery, which concentrates the flavours and the sugars. After 1 December they may be vinified, although most producers wait longer, until January or February. Vinification is slow, lasting through the winter to produce a multi-layered dry red that typically has notes of dried cherries, tobacco, dust, dried herbs and sometimes also an edge of bittersweetness.
There is a lively ongoing debate over the historical origins of Amarone. Some refer to the style as being a relatively recent phenomenon, a Recioto scapata – a Recioto that went wrong or “escaped” by succeeding in fermenting to dryness rather than remaining sweet. Others contend that it has been in existence for centuries and appreciated for much of that time. Either way, it was only in the middle of the last century that Amarone began to be produced on a commercial scale. It rapidly became admired around the world and, over the past three decades in particular, output has rocketed with, inevitably, compromises in quality among some lesser producers.
That is the story of Amarone in general: Quintarelli Amarone remains a reference point and an extraordinary drinking experience. A wine of labyrinthine nuance, it is made only in the best years; vintages that are not considered to come up to scratch are declassified and released as an Appassimento IGP called Rosso del Bepi (Bepi, short for Giuseppe, was the affectionate name by which Quintarelli was known to his friends). Matured in large-format Slavonian oak, Quintarelli Amarone is aged for a long time before release; Quintarelli famously did not believe in rushing anything, preferring to allow his wines whatever time they needed to mellow and accrue complexity.
The 1995 is an excellent Amarone vintage and the Quintarelli wines from that year have great balance with the enlivening acidity that was a distinctive character of the wines made by Giuseppe. The 1995 Quintarelli Amarone Riserva – Riserva being the pinnacle of the range and aged for around 10 years, way longer than the legal requirement – was blended by Giuseppe in consultation with Quintarelli’s long-time Oenologist Roberto Ferrarini. Giuseppe continued to work until around 2008 when Parkinson’s disease gradually prevented him from fulfilling his work duties. This wine, bottled in 2006, was one of the last Amarones to have been overseen entirely by him and is a fitting legacy for one of the great Italian winemakers.