Maestri Quintarelli – continuing to aim for perfection

Bepi Quintarelli

Giuseppe Quintarelli, known familarly as Bepi (1927-2012) was one of the pioneers who created world-class fine wine in Valpolicella. As most of the wine which came from the hills north of Verona was, at best, pleasant, everyday drinking, that was a remarkable achievement. He took over the estate in 1950 from his father Silvio. He had been a share-cropper. In this old semi-feudal system the workers were allowed to work the land in return for half the produce.  From share cropping to a wine which graces the tables of collectors and wine enthusiasts in one working lifetime is a remarkable achievement by any measure.

Today his daughter Fiorenza, her husband, Giampaolo Grigoli, and the next generation, including Lorenzo, a recently graduated enologist, run the estate.  There is absolutely no doubt who is in final control.  Our group of four visitors asked the question twice and the answer was unequivocal: la madre.  But this feels like a tightly-run family concern, secure in the common aim of continuing to produce the very best wines that are humanly possible.  The maestro may have made his last vintage but he has passed the baton on to the next generations, the maestri who are clearly doing a great job.  

The tributes to Bepi were marked by a sense both of real fondness and awe.  Typical was Kermit Lynch who wrote: 

Nothing is ever hurried at Quintarelli. The wines take their time and are given the time they need. In the still, quiet calm of the family cellars above the town of Negrar, along the winding via del Cerè, deep in the Valpolicella zone, the wine from the family’s hillside vineyards ages patiently and gracefully in large casks until it is ready. Every release is a masterpiece, a testament to time, tradition, skill, and passion, the creations of a master artisan. You can’t really compare these wines to any other in the region, or anywhere else in the world. They really are in a class and a category all their own. 

Appassimento rules!

In terms of winemaking approach Quintarelli is marked by a strong commitment to the historical appassimento technique.  This involves picking perfect bunches and then drying them naturally for months during which time they lose water. The juice is concentrated and undergoes complex changes which contribute to the range of flavours in the final wine.  I have already written about my amazement at the quality of Quintarelli’s supposedly basic Valpolicella Classico Superiore when I drank it in a restaurant in Verona a couple of years back.   Of course the Amarone and the sweet Recioto are made with semi-dried grapes.  But the Quintarelli commitment to quality and to appassimento extends to 50% of the wine for the Valpolicella Superiore being made with grapes which have been dried for 3 months. This is a few weeks short of being eligible for Amarone status and price.  So I know understand how the Superiore has the deep colour and the contained and well-balanced richness which makes it completely unlike your average bottle of Valpolicella Superiore. (Another factor is the long ageing as we will see.) The top wines, the Amarone, the Recioto and the Alzero are all subject to very long periods drying, five plus months. This produces remarkable levels of concentration – and remarkably little wine, which in part explains the high prices they achieve.  Even the absolutely baby Primo Fiore has 50% semi-dried grapes. Appassimento rules at Quintarelli! 

Long silent ageing

Secondly, the Quintarelli wines are aged for many, many years in large format neutral oak (botti).  The number of years for the various wines is recorded below. The main wines are matured for a very long time, up to a decade. This allows them to develop very, very slowly, without any noticeable additional oak aromatics. The aim is to exalt and to round out the fruit.  It also means that the winery has the silence of a vinous chapel inhabited by the ghostly presence of large casks. Some of these are beautifully decorated with a rich symbolism. The carved wood celebrates work in field and winery, Christian symbolism of growth and nurture (Bepi was said to be a deeply religious man), and the Veneto region.  You can see all this in the pictures below.  Incidentally, I can’t really remember a winery which has such a stark contrast between the super clean, bright and modern vinification room (brand new) on the one hand and the hallowed space of the ageing cellar on the other.  A visit to Quintarelli is a profound experience at many levels.  

Quintarelli the innovator

Thirdly, the Quintarelli story is not just one of the arch-traditionalist.  Yes, he did make some of the greatest Recioto that has ever been made, the historical sweet wine of Valpolicella. But he also helped to define the modern, rich, dry and, at its best, elegant style of Amarone. And then of course there is also the innovative white wine and the Amarone-style Cabernet Sauvignon.  The family are of course keen to preserve everything that was good about Bepi’s work and to maintain the very highest standards he set. But they will also have the challenge of taking his tradition of innovation forward.   Suddenly, inheriting a world-famous winery is even more of a challenge!  

This visit was all about the family, the winemaking and the wine in the glass.  It would be great to return to hear about the work in the vineyards. Quintarelli has just 11 hectares of land and produces 60,000 bottles a year. You can guarantee that the same meticulous approach is applied to the work in the vineyard as was evident in the winery.  Alla prossima volta/here’s to next time!  

The wines

Vino Bianco 2016, 12.5% – 70% Garganega, the rest being a blend of Trebbiano, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and the rare local variety Saorin, a small proportion aged in oak. Intriguingly aromatic and floral, ripe apricot fruit at the core, refreshing acidity, a distinctive and worthwhile white.

Primo Fiore, Veneto IGT, 2013, 14.5% – the entry point for Quintarelli reds, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon/Franc and 50% Corvina/Corvinone made with 50% dried grapes.  bright red plum fruit with some raisined notes which gives this wine some depth.  Three years in large format oak for a savoury, developed touch.  

Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC, 2009, 15% – as discussed above 50% of the grapes for this wine are dried for three months and then the finished wine is aged in the large format oak for between 6 and 9 years, in this case for  7 years.  I really love this style – substance and depth without any heaviness, a real drinkability and a sublime elegance in the best years such as 2007.  This does not quite touch those heights, coming as it does from a hot year.  And 15% abv takes its toll on the fullness of the body of the wine, never mind on the drinker.  But nonetheless, this is very polished, with sleek red to black cherry fruit, balancing acidity, very very good.  

Rosso del Bepi 2008, Veneto IGT, 15.5% – when the Amarone is not up to Quintarelli standard they produce the same wine in the same way and declassify it: 5 months of drying the grapes, aged for 7-9 years in casks.  But it is still spectacular: weighty and but with precise fruit and excellent length.  

Amarone della Valpolicella DOC, 2007, 16.5% – I was delighted to taste this wine as the big brother of the Valpolicella Superiore I have from this vintage in my cellar at home. Nine years of maturation in the casks.  This is much more obviously developed after that wait in the sidelines for the grand entry on to the stage: chocolate notes, dried cherry, tobacco, lovely mild oxidative note, stunning intensity all supported by firm fine tannins.  Genuinely outstanding. 

Alzero, Cabernet, IGT Veneto, 2007, 16.5% – a cult wine made from 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Cabernet Franc and 20% Merlot. It is given the full Quintarelli Amarone treatment of long drying and super long ageing. Interesting I find this blend less complex than the classic Veneto blend with its intense if somewhat simple sweetness of fruit.  I would have thought the Bordeaux blend would make for a yet more structured wine than Corvina & Co but perhaps the drying process of the local varieties (and the changes the grapes undergo) is really the key to the success of Amarone. However, for its power and balance Alzero is a remarkable wine nonetheless.  

Recioto della Valpolicella DOC, 2004, 16% – a full six months of appassimento and a decade in the casks produces this great Recioto with about 70-80g/l of residual sugar.  Hugely savoury compote of cherry and plums accompanied by seductive sweetness, but in no way sickly.  It carries its concentration, alcohol and sweetness effortlessly. A masterclass in concentration with subtlety and balance.   

It was a huge privilege to visit Quintarelli and to taste the wines of the next generation of maestri.  

My friend and fellow MW student Guy Seddon has written an admirable account of the estate, including some detail on the grape growing: read more.  

 

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