It was March when I visited the Veneto and distinctly chilly, the snow-draped mountains a picturesque reminder that high vineyards in northern Italy were not about to pander to my longing for spring. There isn’t much as stubbornly disinclined to respond to human manipulation as the weather, although that doesn’t stop us interfering. The battle is speeding us to ruin, with storms, rising seas and rising temperatures, like a latter-day vision of hell. So I gritted my chattering teeth and consoled myself with fresh-made pasta and lovely local reds.
The lightest of these, Valpolicella, fell from grace in the 1980s, due to excessive yields and sloppy winemaking, but there are now some excellent versions of this pretty, sour-cherry wine. For those who prefer more substance, there is also Valpolicella Ripasso, where the wine is passed over the skins of grapes that have been pressed to make Amarone – of which more in a minute.
The cherry flavours are no accident: there are tousled trees in these hills that burst heavenly pink when spring does actually arrive. Cherry trees cannot be hothoused, nor do the beautiful fruits travel well. So human beings must eat cherries only as Nature decrees – and comfort themselves with Valpolicella.
Wine can be aged in cherry-wood barrels but not many winemakers use them – not only do they “drink the wine”, absorbing far more than oak, but leave it too long and the strong-flavoured wood will make the wine bitter. So says Massimilla Serego Alighieri, a direct descendant of Dante Alighieri, the great 14th-century Italian poet and author of the Divine Comedy. Dante’s son bought a vineyard in 1353 and his family is still here, 20 generations later, although Masi, a bigger winemaker, now owns the winery.
Massimilla takes us through the family’s beautiful property, past a Molinara vine that has also defied time: it was planted in 1875. Up ancient stairs, the grapes are spread on shallow shelves, drying as they always have, with patience and the aeration that comes from the sophisticated air-conditioning method of opening windows. Cool breezes from nearby Lake Garda funnel through three valleys to stroke these grapes, plucking moisture from them so gently that they can lose almost half their weight before the process of crushing and fermenting begins.
Those permitted to retain some sugar become Recioto, an unfortified, sweet red wine whose arrival pre-dates the Alighieris by a millennium. The rest make Amarone, a wine of extraordinary spice and power that is dry but retains the illusion of sweetness.
Not all Amarone is good – don’t get Sandro Boscaini of Masi or Franco Allegrini of Allegrini started on how not-good some are – but those aged for the right length of time in the right conditions are glorious: low temperatures and high humidity may not suit cosseted Londoners but for the local Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella grapes, they are ideal.
Human interference is essential here: without it, there is no wine, any more than there is pasta to accompany it. When to interfere is the question. Dante’s family is here because the poet was exiled from Florence, for political meddling. Sometimes forbearance gets better results, in winemaking as in life. Try too hard to dominate the world and you can pick your own Inferno: hellfire, global warming or just bad wine.
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague