by Lee Marshal, The Telegraph, March 28, 2017
Verona ’s unique and historic centre is a lovely, lived-in palimpsest of Roman, Medieval, Renaissance and later overlays. Just beyond the city gates, the landscape of Valpolicella is no less carefully moulded by time and man; a play of vineyards, cypresses, olives, cherry trees, persimmons and traditional marogne dry-stone walls, its hilltop villages and historic villas as seductive – once you leave the busy Verona to Garda road behind – as anything Tuscany has to offer.
There’s a bond between city and country, too, not just because many of Verona’s most powerful families had summer houses in the amarone wine zone but also because Rosso Verona, the fossil-rich building stone that brings a pink blush to the Roman Arena and many other veronese landmarks, comes from quarries in Valpolicella.
In summer especially, when the stones of Verona radiate the sun’s heat and make the city a very attractive oven, it makes sense to base oneself in the country and make daytime forays into town, rather than the other way around. Well-to-do locals have been doing so for centuries; there’s even a word for this summer relocation that was invented in this part of the world: villeggiatura – literally, “villa-ing.”
The oldest of those villas, like mysterious Villa della Torre, a Humanist pleasure palace of Roman-style water features and monster-mouthed fireplaces that now belongs to the Allegrini wine family, date from the 16th century.
It was then that the Venetian Republic began to reorganise Verona’s countryside around a series of landed estates, most in the fertile valleys that descend from the Lessini mountains to the north. Perhaps as a result of this oligarchic land-grab, the towns and villages in the Valpolicella are mostly small-scale, ridge-perched communities, that traditionally provided labour or artisanship for the wealthy landowners.
One result of this for today’s visitor is an enjoyable contrast between the aristocratic lifestyle on offer at hotels like Villa del Quar or Villa Giona, both based in historic villas, and the more rustic, neighbourly vibe of some of the bed and breakfasts or small boutique hotels in small towns such as Negrar or San Pietro in Cariano.
Some of these occupy converted corti – traditional rural buildings arranged around a central courtyard where chickens, rabbits and the occasional pig would once have been raised. The proximity of Lake Garda adds a third scenario: the handsome stone-terraced vineyards of Sant’Ambrogio and the lakeside cafés of Bardolino are less than half an hour away by road. The hardworking, matter-of-fact local character is reflected in the region’s solid, unfussy cooking, which revolves around specialities like buttery gnocchi sprinkled with melting Monte Veronese cheese (a brisk walk is in order before or after that one) or rabbit casserole with white wine, olives and rosemary, served with cornmeal.
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Just as well they can field a big, tannic wine to stand up to the wintry, carb- and meat-rich cuisine. Valpolicella is the homeland of amarone, one of Italy’s most complex reds; a spicy, dense, long-lived number made from partially dried grapes that is as far from a frisky, easy-quaffing wine like lambrusco as traditional balsamic vinegar is from its distant chip-shop cousin. But they make another red here, which takes its name from the region: valpolicella, which when made in the core, historical wine-producing zone north-west of Verona is called valpolicella classico.
Forget the low-grade party plonk that for years ruined its image abroad. Good valpolicella classico, with its fresh, seductive morello cherry flavours, is very good indeed, and unlike amarone, not so rich as to test one’s endurance. Order a carafe of house red in a local trattoria, and 10 to one it will be a classico, either straight-up, or in the ripasso style, where the wine is given more body by adding fermented amarone skins to the barrel. Amarone is the sophisticated globetrotter, a Cuban cigar of a wine that should by rights be sipped from a jewelled goblet in a frescoed Veronese palazzo.
Valpolicella classico is its country cousin, an honest farmer who shares, however, the same noble blood.
Both wines are blends of the zone’s traditional red grape varieties, corvina, molinara and rondinella, and both are deeply embedded in the landscape.
Valpolicella is a hand whose five fingers are separated by deep river valleys. Walk or cycle along one of the ridges, like the one that separates Fumane from Negrar, and the vineyards fall away on either side, trained low in the “pergola veronese” system, which one producer memorably described to me as “shade walks for cats”.
This is rocky soil, scattered with hard gnarls of limestone; whole blocks of the stuff are driven into the ground as field markers, rather like isolated standing stones.
The same stone, now veined with pink, recurs in one of the area’s loveliest monuments, the Pieve or country church of San Giorgio, its 13th-century cloister, edged by naif Romanesque capitals, breathing the spirit of an era of simple faith and oneness with nature – a spirit which, beneath the area’s aristocratic veneer, is very Valpolicella.
The perfect Valpolicella break, for those active souls in search of more than just a week by the pool, would involve a couple of nights in Verona, at least three in the heart of the wine-growing area, and a couple more at the end imbibing Lake Garda’s dolce vita charm in Bardolino, Sirmione or Garda town. It would ideally include at least one guided wine-tasting, such as the hour-long overview offered by established local tour operator Veronality ( veronality.com ). It would also take in at least one walk or cycle ride during the Valpolicella segment, preferably one that ended up in one of the area’s serious, unfussy country restaurants (see below for a selection). A few of the well-marked trails are detailed on the useful little tourist consortium website ( valpolicellaweb.com ), but to make the most of them you’ll need to invest in a good map – like the 1:50,000 Monti Lessini map by Kompass, available in Verona bookshops. Though a hire car will free you up, it’s not essential: this is a compact area that’s well served by public transport. Trains ( trenitalia.com ) serve the southern and western edge of Valpolicella and the southern shores of Lake Garda; a reasonably efficient country bus network ( atv.verona.it ) reaches the rest.
Where to stay:
In March 2016, wine producer Allegrini unveiled 10 stylish rooms, all with four-poster beds, in a converted annexe of historic Villa della Torre (0039 045 683 2070; villadellatorre.it. Doubles from €300 a night). The default luxe option in the Classico area remains Villa del Quar (0039 045 680 0681; hotelvilladelquar.it ; doubles from €260 a night), a comfortable, old-fashioned 15-room country relais housed in the 16th-century villa of architect-owner Leopoldo Montresor; the attached Arquade restaurant is among the best in Valpolicella.
For something a little more edgy, head for Byblos Art Hotel Villa Amistà (0039 045 685 5555; doubles from €225), where contemporary artworks and design pieces play off against the opulent backdrop of an 18th-century villa. Up in pretty San Giorgio di Valpolicella, Osteria della Pieve (0039 380 0706604; osteriadellapieve.jimdo.com; doubles from €120) is a real find, a lovely, friendly, romantic b&b with views across the vineyards to Lake Garda from some rooms, and from the outside terrace where breakfast and evening drinks are served.
Over in Fumane, Costa degli Ulivi (0039 045 683 8088; costadegliulivi.com; doubles from €100) is a good-value 18-room agriturismo in an organic winery, with the bonus of an excellent trattoria-style restaurant that serves up local dishes like polenta with sopressa salami.
Where to eat:
It’s the local trattorias, not the fancy places, that make a trip to Valpolicella so special. One of my favourites is century-old Trattoria Caprini (0039 045 750 0511; trattoriacaprini.it; closed Wednesday, dinner around €32 a head with house wine) in the little roadside hamlet of Torbe. Downstairs is a simple osteria full of local vineyard workers in for a quick tipple; upstairs, the old-fashioned family-run restaurant, accessed via a room where wooden trays of homemade pasta strips are laid out to dry, ready to star in lasagnette alla Pierina. But this is one of those places where whatever you order will be good – including the desserts, which include a rather fine pomegranate-topped cheesecake.
Wine lovers should head to Enoteca della Valpolicella (00 39 045 683 9146; enotecadellavalpolicella.it; closed Sunday evening and Monday, dinner around €48 a head with a modest bottle) in Fumane, another scenic first-floor dining room, in a garden setting on the edge of a quiet village. An 800-label-strong wine list that ticks off just about every local producer worth their salt is their claim to fame, but the regional food’s pretty good too – don’t miss the risotto with reciotto (the area’s famous sweet red wine).
Any visitor to this part of the world should look in for lunch or dinner at Dalla Rosa Alda (0039 045 770 1018; dallarosaalda.it; closed Sunday evening and Monday, dinner around €40 a head with house wine) in San Giorgio di Valpolicella. This classic family trattoria, with its rustic vine-shaded terrace (once the local bowls court), could wing it on location and charm alone. But in fact the menu takes a Slow Food approach, spotlighting the local peasant tradition in dishes like tortellini stuffed with wild spinach from their organic kitchen garden, or smoked pork loin marinated in beetroot juice. Owner Lodovico certainly knows his wine – alongside some celebrated amarones, you’ll find a good selection of bottles from smaller producers.