A Bittersweet Tale Of Amarone
In fair Verona, where the Capulets and Montagues once fought, the vineyards have provided fertile grounds for another kind of internal warfare. We lay our scene at Villa Mosconi in Veneto where the Bertani family had long crossed swords over the details and direction of the family winery.
For five generations the Bertani family have been making wine, though it was not without its tensions, as fifth generation winemaker Guglielmo Bertani attests. His father, Gaetano, was one of four, and while he and his brother worked in the winery, his two sisters were unsure of their place. The only thing that could be agreed, was that everyone wanted a say. There were arguments over how the winery should be run, how the vineyards should be managed and how the flagship Amarone should be made. “Everything was starting to be polluted by hard feelings,” says Guglielmo.
Eventually, one side of the family cracked, went behind Gaetano’s back and sold out, avoiding the right to first refusal that should have been offered to Gaetano, and handing their shares over to a big pharmaceutical group in Rome. Gaetano and his sons found themselves at philosophical odds with these new and unexpected partners, and, finding it unbearable to be in business with a giant of commerce who lacked true love for their wine and their traditions, set about splitting the business.
For Guglielmo, his brother and his father, wine was in their blood. Growing up amidst the vineyards, Guglielmo reminisces, “the thing I remember most is the smell of wine, the smell of vinification. It’s a smell you only find in wineries, the smell of corks, of must, of grape juice at the time of harvest, the smell of wood. Those are my first memories.”
Guglielmo’s father had a true passion for wine and had put this to practice elsewhere, away from the feuding, by purchasing his own vineyard, Tenuta Santa Maria di Gaetano Bertani. It is under this name that the family are now making all their wine, losing the Bertani name in the splitting of the company, but ensuring, instead, that they took with them what they believed was a key element of their winemaking heritage and tradition, Villa Mosconi.
“Our side of the family decided to stay in the business to renew the history. It’s bitter sweet, because we had to give up the family name we used for so many years, but it was becoming very difficult to do anything worthwhile with all this in-fighting and now, finally, we are masters of our destiny. We have a different name, but we are free to do what we think is right,” says Guglielmo.
The Bertani family can now continue to make Amarone in Villa Mosconi, where there has been a winery since the 1500s and where the villa itself has been situated in its current form since the 1700s, when it was used as a summer residence by the Mosconi family and was the stomping ground of Europe’s literati. Playwright and intellectual Ippolito Pindemonte lived at the villa for ten years and of his time there wrote, in 1800, “I saw the shadows of your garden, which seemed to be the most beautiful. But I look with even more yearning to these great noble barrels, whose oak senses and readily awaits the harvest.”
Villa Mosconi is a place of significance for Italy’s wine industry more widely, as it was here that Amarone was founded in the 1930s. Amarone is perhaps the most famous wine denomination from the Verona region though its creation came about somewhat by chance. Grapes, predominantly local varietal corvina, were dried in a process called appassimento to make Recioto, sweet red wine, yet there were times when the fermentation couldn’t be stopped and all the sugar would develop into alcohol, resulting in a dry-styled wine referred to by Villa Mosconi’s winemaker at the time as Amarone, meaning ‘the great bitter’. The name was first used in a register in 1938 and, a decade later, the first official bottling came about. When the Bertani family began making wine at Villa Mosconi in the 1950s they were one of just two families making and exporting quality Amarone.
“Villa Mosconi has always been where the Bertani family made Amarone, with the particular terroir, the climate, the soil, the vineyards, all of which are very important to the end result and the character. The facilities also lend nicely to the drying, with drying rooms, which have been used by the family for more than 50 years, ideal for appassimento,” says Guglielmo. Amarone is made by drying grapes for three to four months, resulting in a strong, potent wine with bold body, high alcohol, some residual sugar and slight bitterness. The wine is at its best when paired with food.
Under Tenuta Santa Maria, the Bertani family has decided to up the ante with its Amarone, by making a rarer Riserva which requires a minimum of four years of ageing compared to the Classico style which requires only three, yet it will retain the traditional, clean style.
“With the Amarone, we don’t want to make something revolutionary, or different, or new. We know what’s been made, what worked and we want to recreate that,” says Guglielmo. “It’s very much connected to the style which the family always made. It was a niche product at the beginning, produced and sold in very small quantities and it was always a special wine.” Today it remains that way – revered and expensive.
The popularity and renown of Amarone has grown in recent years, helped by it being granted DOCG status in 2009. “It’s a very authentic, unique style that you can only make in Verona and that, done in the right way, is an amazingly complex wine.”
Amarone is often identified with a marmalade style of wine – powerful, overly sweet, lacking balance and difficult to pair with food, something Guglielmo believes is an aberration to classical, traditional Amarone. “Our family’s main objective was always to have something well balanced, elegant, with long ageing potential, something that could stand the test of time and could sit on a wine list and be compared with the greatest wines of Italy and of the world and be an expression of Verona terroir.” This is what the Bertani family continues to strive for and is what Amarone drinkers should be enjoying.
There are, and will be, other wines under Tenuta Santa Maria as the family celebrates its new-found freedom, the best part of which is the peace that has accompanied it. “Funnily enough, now that we are the only ones making wine, we are happy,” says Guglielmo. “My father started talking again with his sisters and I think they have never been happier.”
While this was a story of some woe, Guglielmo and his brother appear aligned in their wine philosophy and future plans and hope is for a peaceful future for the Bertani wine family and Tenuta Santa Maria.