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Valpolicella and a winemaker from Berwyn

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Valpolicella and a winemaker from Berwyn

RST | Nov 15, 2003 07:48 AM

I sent this out privately last night but got several emails urging me to repost on the board. I couldn't do that bec my aol 5.0 doesn't allow me to cut-and-paste (I had to retype the whole Thai predictions piece). Cathy is posting this physically for me.

I have been digging up my old Italian stuff for Joel who is writing the Italian section of the Slow Foods Guide. Found this old old piece I wrote for one of my wine classes many years ago. I know that there are many wine lovers on the Chicago board (Lee, JeffB, Markbarolo, David Dickson, Melissa and so on) and I thought I would send it out on the listserve (I'd love to do it on the board bec of the local interest-many people in Chicago knew and loved Dr. Raimondi-but my aol 5.0 doesn't allow me to cut and paste to the CH website: the Thai predictions piece I had to retype in its entirety). This was written to train young inexperienced waiters, which explains the funny "pronunciation guide" and the general pedagogical tone (so, don't laugh!). A couple of years ago, I "met" Marco Raimondi the son of Dr. Raimondi on WLDG.com. We were supposed to meet up but it never happened and I have no recent news of what's happening at the estate. The original handout had a photocopy of the long long Tribune obituary stapled to it (I guess it is searchable thru the Tribune site). "XXX" simply hides a few personal details. It's actually kinda funny to reread this after these years: I had forgotten completely about its existence.

Wine Notes
December 31, 2000
©Richard XXX

New wine-by-the-glass
Introducing Valpolicella and Dr. Anthony Raimondi
1997 Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Campo Santa Lena, Dr. Anthony Raimondi (replaces the Rosso di Montalcino from XXX)

In April this year, I had the opportunity to attend this year's edition of Vinitaly in Verona (in the Veneto region of Italy), the largest wine fair in the world. This annual show is daunting: five whole days trudging through massive pavilions with every imaginable wine-related exhibits (stainless steel tanks, barriques, concentrators, bottling machines, cork embossers…) There were hundreds of booths to visits, hundreds of winemakers and oenologists to say hello to, thousands of wines to taste and retaste, seminars to attend, deals to strike…One is constantly waylaid by wine salesmen/importers ("you absolutely must meet/taste so and so") and at night, there were endless parties/drinking sprees where one can schmooze to heart's desire with fellow sommeliers from every part of the world.

Verona is a cool, modern, forward-looking, on-the-go city that bisects the important Industrial/transport/business corridor (the highway/autostrada A4) that links Milan and Venice. It is also a young university city and an important convention center. In the heart of the city is the massive Roman arena, which you have probably seen as the setting for one of those grandiose PBS opera telecasts/productions with Pavarotti. The city itself is rather medieval in aspect with narrow, winding streets and sinister alleys with dark nooks and crannies. These open up suddenly and unexpectedly to cruisey little plazas and the funkiest little hipster hangouts with tons of cool music and attitude. The limestone with which Verona is built has a pinkish shade, giving the whole city a rosy hue. Throngs of tourists stop here to pay homage to the greatest lovers in all literature in the atmospheric but bogus Casa di Romeo and the Casa di Giuletta.

Valpolicella is the wine of Verona (much as Beaujolais is the everyday wine of Lyon). Valpolicella (the region) is a valley or a series of valleys located northwest of the city (see map). The classic area of this winemaking region (or "Valpolicella Classico") centers around the towns of Sant'Ambrogio (near which are important quarries for marble) and Negrar. Some people claim that "Valpolicella" translates as "the valley teeming with cellars": val = valley, poli = Greek for "many", cella = cellar. Remember that "cella" in Italian is pronounced "chella" (cf. violonCEllo). This is a very musical and beautiful-sounding word with accents on "val" and "chell" = VAL-po-li-CHELL-a.

Valpolicella (the wine) is a delicious, fruity, simple but characterful red wine. For a while, during the 60s and the 70s, it was quite popular (along with Chianti) as the kind of cheap, unpretentious red that one would enjoy with pizza or spaghetti. Unfortunately, winemakers from this region resorted to production of high yields (that is, large quantity of juice, instead of pruning and limiting vine growth for flavor and concentration) and to industrial methods to keep up with the market. The image of Valpolicella (and Chianti) degraded to that of "cheap plonk." Valpolicella lost quite a bit of its soul.

Yet this area has an ancient history: Pliny wrote about the "Retico" of the Verona region and praised it as one of the best and most prized of the Roman world. The Emperor Augustus loved this wine. Although we cannot be sure that the modern Valpolicellas, Amarones and Reciotos of this region are made in the same way and from the same blend of grapes as the wines celebrated in old texts, the descriptions of those wines seem to match these made today and suggest a continuity of tradition spanning over 2,000 years.

Valpolicella is not a varietal/monovarietal wine: it is a blend of grapes that have long associations with this area. The chief variety is Corvina (up to 70% allowed by law), one of the "noble" varieties of Italy, contributing "color, body, bouquet, flavor" (Wasserman, p 553) to the blend. Rondinella (up to 40%) adds "color, strength, tannin, and vigor" and is also more resistant to disease and rot. Other minor varieties include Corvinon (a clone or subvariety of Corvina), Molinara (now less used by serious winemakers), Negrara, Rossignola etc.

From these same varieties, but from parts of the vineyard that produce riper, richer and more concentrated grapes, a different kind of wine (a kind of big sister to Valpolicella) is made. This is the famous Recioto made from very ripe grapes that in addition are spread out after harvest on bamboo trays and taken to an airy loft (airy to prevent unwanted molds) to dry out over a period of months (as many as 5 months) almost to the point of raisins. From the concentrated trickle that remains in these "raisined" grapes, a powerful wine is produced. Because of the high sugar concentration achieved in the raisining process, high alcohol content and residual traces of sweetness/sugar are natural attributes of Recioto. This is why Recioto is sometimes compared to port. Like port, it is a majestic wine often enjoyed with cheeses at the end of a meal or on its own as a "vino da meditazione" (a wine for sipping and quiet contemplation.)

Sugar transforms into alcohol during fermentation. So if the sugar content in the juice for Recioto is completed fermented to dryness, you end up with yet another wine, the Amarone, a dry wine with high alcoholic content (15 %, 16%, sometimes much more) and all the muscle, full body and sumptuous fruit of the Recioto. Amarone is considered one of the greatest wines in the world and the best examples are packed with the aromas and flavors of ripe figs, raisins, chocolate, coffee and licorice. The fragrance of this wine has been compared to that of roses and irises. There is also a characteristic bitter-almond finish. On our wine list, we have two splendid examples of Amarone della Valpolicella Classico: the 1990 Tommasi and the 1995 Allegrini.

To sum up and explain this to a guest you might say as a simplification/generalization, that Amarone is by intent, and by style, a dry, bigger, more concentrated and more alcoholic version of Valpolicella made from grapes that have been left to dry and concentrate through the raisining process.

After Vinitaly, I was lucky to be able to tag along with my friend and mentor Henry Bishop, the sommelier of Spiaggia to visit and taste with two of the legendary makers of Amarones/Valpolicellas: the maverick Quintarelli and the modern master, Romano dal Forno. The top wines of these men fetch several hundred dollars per bottle in the open market. Romano's wines (tasted out of barriques) were majestic in the manner of Amarones but they had a dreamy fragrance of roses and violets; and on the palate, they were as plush as the softest velvet.

It was a splendid trip: made no less memorable by the hundreds of blossoming cherry trees (cherry is an important crop in the area), all white and cottony as snow, dotting the green landscape everywhere we went in this area.

We also visited Dr. Anthony Raimondi, an old friend of Henry's. Dr. Raimondi was born in Berwyn, on the west side of Chicago. For years, he was an influential surgeon and Emeritus Professor of neurosurgery at Northwestern University. His students are legion. He had a tremendous impact on generations of doctors, specifically in the field of pediatric surgery. Virtually every surgeon in Chicago (including the gastronome Dr. Cerullo) would know his name. Apparently, he was also a bon-vivant, wine-ing and dining in the best restaurants in the city: including Spiaggia, where he forged his friendship with Henry. When he retired, he and his wife Lucia bought an estate in Gargagnago, in Valpolicella Classico. After a long period of study and research (reading, traveling, asking local farmers/peasants lots of questions), they started producing wines that have been attracting much attention in the Italian wine press.

From the terrace of his Villa Monteleone, one has a beautiful view of some of the finest vineyards of Classic Valpolicella. One can also see (about 500 m away) the ancient homestead of the family of Dante Alighieri. On that day, we enjoyed an unforgettable luncheon with the couple: one of those leisurely, timeless Italian meals, served course after simple course in slow and deliberate progression. While Signora Lucia presided over the service and progression of each dish, Dr. Raimondi engaged himself in the rituals of swirling and rinsing each glass with wine and of tasting each wine before it is poured and served. Yet there was nothing pretentious in any of these gestures; everything proceeds with a simple logic and a simple rhythm from a deep-rooted respect to the food and to the wine. It was then that I realized that the elaborate matters of service that I learned at XXX and XXX, codified into rules of posture and behavior, ultimately stem from this sense of care and attention, this thoughtfulness, this love. Is not the care that we take in decanting for sediments, the love that we bring to the polishing of glassware, the thoughtfulness that we bring in resilvering properly ultimately, care and love and respect for food and wine itself?

While we enjoyed Dr. Raimondi's two different Valpolicellas, his Amarone and his Recioto, Henry and I asked him technical questions about his wines and the wines of the region. Among other intriguing things, Dr. Raimondi mentioned rustic makers of Valpolicella who continue to produce wines that are singular (outmoded) in method and so marginal in style. For instance, he talked of people who ferment in bottle: holdouts perpetuating remnants of possibly truly ancient techniques, outside the realm of modern consensus/taste and the permitted regulations of appellation laws.

Dr. Raimondi had not been back to Chicago for a while and had not heard of XXX where I worked. We were both surprised to discover that he maintained an office for decades on higher floors of the very building where the restaurant is and where I worked. In fact, he used to come down to take his lunch at the old XXX whose space XXX took over.

It was then that I realized that the wines which had begun to command attention abroad belonged right here in Chicago and had a natural home at XXX itself.

After the meal, we took a tour of the tiny beautifully-kept cellar and the drying loft. When we took leave of the couple, their housekeeper and their yappity and frenetic little dog, we did not know that Dr. Raimondi was dying of cancer. It was with shock that, a few months later, I received from Henry a copy of the attached obituary taken from the Chicago Tribune of June 23, 2000.

I put the wine on the XXX list in his honor: in honor of his labor as a surgeon and a teacher here in our city as well as his labor as a grapegrower/winemaker in the land of his grandfathers.

This Valpolicella, a superiore version (this means that it has greater alcoholic strength, 12% instead of 11% and has been aged longer in wood than he "normale" version) from the vineyard Campo Santa Lena, shows the signs of careful viticulture. Though lightweight in the style of this wine, there is a fine core/depth of fruit that shows good vineyard management: smaller quantities of grapes with better quality of fruit. The wine is delicate, aromatic, simple and vibrant with fine acidity. A famous TV food critic to whom I served this with the truffle risotto marveled at the combination. I suspect that it would be just as delicious with the veal chop.

Hope you enjoy talking about this wine!

End of wine notes
RST

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