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January 20, 2016

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In Italy, vineyards worth traveling across half the world

THE snow-capped peaks of the Apennine Mountains zip past us as we speed through the cities of northern Italy by train. Warm sunlight imbues the mountainsides and the small valleys, and between the hills’ changing green shades, one vineyard is followed by the next. The flow of the landscape’s green shades here is uninterrupted. It’s the result of a warm and stable climate, unique to this little part of the world. The beautiful vines and the colorful village mansions, the romantic aroma of wine, all reflect a culture that goes back thousands of years, and a love for wine that is now deeply anchored in local tradition. The green valleys and vineyards are among the most charming sceneries in Italy, and have rightfully become a place that tourists love to return to.

During our trip to Italy, we avoided the bustling urban destinations that draw hundreds of thousands of tourists and opted to stay in Valpolicella, a wine-growing area in the province of Verona. The hilly agricultural and marble-quarrying region is only 20 minutes from the city of Verona, the scene of most of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The popular Lake Garda, surrounded by mountains, is also nearby.

Wine is an intricate part of Italian culture and history. Nowadays, the country still produces about 15 percent of the world’s wine. Many of Italy’s top wineries are in the northern part of the country. Here, the soil nurtures many grape varieties, some of which have been grown here for hundreds of years. Similarly, the knowledge and techniques of wine making have been passed on from generation to generation.

Since the Roman Empire, the sweet grapes typical of Valpolicella have been renowned across the country. The area is situated in Veneto, one of the three biggest wine-growing regions in Italy, which is also Italy’s most productive. Veneto has 14 DOCG — controlled and guaranteed designation of origin — and three DOC — controlled designation of origin — wine regions. The three DOC regions are Valpolicella, Soave and Bardolino, all located in the western part, around Verona, making the city the center of Veneto’s wine industry.

Olga Bussinello is the managing director of the Consortium of Valpolicella wine region, which, founded in 1924, includes the growers, producers and bottlers of the Valpolicella region and oversees and regulates almost every aspect of cultivation and wine making, up to the promotion of the finished product.

Originality, identity and indigenousness of these wines are what distinguishes them from other, more famous wine regions, Bussinello, said.

“Originality because each valley in Valpolicella has a ‘terroir’ and microclimate that is different from the others. Identity, because the smells, scents and roundness of Amarone Valpolicella, Valpolicella Ripasso, Recioto della Valpolicella and Valpolicella may absolutely be distinguished from other red Italian wines. Indigenousness because only in Valpolicella may the Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara grapes yield such a unique product, pleasing the most disparate of tastes,” she explained.

Memorable agri-tourism at winery

There’s a large number of holiday farmhouses in Valpolicella, many of which are linked to wineries or agricultural enterprises that grow grapes. Staying at these facilities often means living in the midst of farmland, enjoying the simplicity and familial catering to one’s needs and the human relationship that is key to area’s overall atmosphere.

The place that became our short-term home is called Agriturismo Fioravante. It is a family-run business, neither big nor luxurious, but warm and cozy. My room was large, clean and comfortable. When I opened the window, I could see the distant hills and the clear blue sky, the endless wineries, and parts of the farmhouse — a scene that can simply be described as peaceful.

Both mother and son, who run the family business, spoke no language fluently other than Italian, but their warm hospitality broke down barriers. The first morning was wonderful as I woke up to the smell of homemade pancakes, prepared by the mother, while the son served us coffee. As we walked outside, we were greeted by three black cats and two playful big dogs in the garden.

During the day, it’s best to just explore the area. I went for a morning run and, just about 10 minutes from our accommodation, I encountered an old, charming chapel; a walk around the vineyards will also give you a glimpse into the history and culture of this wine region.

At night, we were served homemade wines, espresso, cheese and ham, all authentically Italian.

If you want a more luxury experience, head to Villa Cordevigo at Cavaion Veronese that belongs to Vigneti Villabella. The company’s vineyards span 220 hectares and produce all the major classic wines of the Verona area, such as Valpolicella, Ripasso and Amarone.

Villa Cordevigo, an eighteenth-century manor house complete with a consecrated chapel, is now a five-star hotel with a fine dining restaurant that holds a Michelin star and features a large swimming pool. Guests can visit the cellar, join a wine tasting and learn about the beverage’s rich history. Or you can rent a bicycle and tour the valley’s villages. In any case, the natural scenery is definitely rewarding.

Food and wine

Don’t be worried if you don’t know too much about wine, or if you aren’t familiar with all the terms, the grape varieties or the regional names and quality standards. Just feel the passion and persistence that every winery owner shows when you are in Valpolicella.

You may visit a lot of wineries here, and they may differ in size or production quantity, but the spirit of each owner is similar: They are very proud of their work, careful about the way their wines are produced and passionately express their love of wine. This impressed me a lot. No matter if the winery is equipped with state-of-the-art technology, like the Tinazzi winery, or if it produces only a few hundred bottles a year, using ancient wine-making methods, their dedication to their work is the same.

When you are in the wine region, wine tasting events must be on your agenda. I can recommend SalvaTerra, a company that was founded in the 1990s. The company has rapidly grown through the acquisitions of several vineyards in Valpolicella Classic area. Villa Salva Terra, their headquarters, offers wine tastings and guided tours. Guests can choose from three types of tasting, which can be customized on request. Cheeses and cold cuts from the region are also included.

Another winery worth a visit is Santa Sofia. The winery was founded in 1811 and is centered around a noble villa designed by Andrea Palladio in the sixteenth century. Since 1996, Villa Santa Sofia is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage along with other villas built by the same architect. The winery produces an average of 550,000 bottles per year.

Locally produced wines are based on the red Corvina variety. Other important contributors are Corvinone and Rondinella, while a small percentage of other native varieties are also allowed.

When you are in the countryside of Italy, you will become familiar with not only wines, but also cheese and hams. One day, we came across a very authentic deli that displayed the best food of Valpolicella, Benedetti Food Boutique. Cheese refined in Verona’s red wine, mild salami, salamino sausage made with red wine, and preserves like jam are highly recommended. If you are interested, you can also visit their cheese and meat storage, and learn how they are made. The boutique shop is also popular among locals and is run by a family.

Extended Journey

­­– Romeo and Juliet, the town of Lazise and Lake Garda

Verona city is only 20 minutes drive from Valpollicella, so a trip to the romantic city can be a great extension of the journey to Valpolicella. Verona is a small and charming city, considered a more pleasant and relaxing destination than the nearby Venice. The cobblestone streets lined with medieval pink-hued buildings, well-preserved Roman gates and churches are popular among visitors. The house of Juliet Capulet and the balcony on which she stood while Romeo promised his eternal love are visited by hundreds of thousands each year, although the whole story was made up by Shakespeare. There are two things you shouldn’t miss in Verona. The first is to visit the Castel San Pietro, which lies on top of a hill that offers a beautiful night view of Verona. Second, book a show in Verona’s most famous landmark, the vast Roman amphitheater. Many wineries offer wine tasting events with the show, such as Sartori Di Verona winery.

Lazise is situated on the east side of the famous Lake Garda, about 25 kilometers from Verona. Just about 7,000 people live here, at the foot of the moraine hills, where the lake reaches its maximum width of 17km. The old city wall takes visitors back to the medieval time, and after you pass the main gate, you feel transported into another world as you see the beautiful Lake Garda. People jog and ride their bicycles around the lake while swans and ducks swim in the clear, blue water and seagulls fly above. Archeologists have found remains of a settlement around the lake that dates back to prehistoric times. The name Lazise derives from the Latin word “lacus” which means lake.

If time permits, jump on a train, and head to Milan, Venice, or Florence. But no matter how many places you get to visit during your trip, once you’ve been to Italy, you will always want to return for more — more of its food, its wine, its people and its charm.


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