Making great wine does not come easy. It is made from artistry, and with passion: that’s the romance. But it is sometimes made great because of significant challenges—whether they be climatic and environmental, or personal and professional.
Such was the case at Allegrini, one of the Veneto’s most acclaimed wineries, and today, one of the producers most often cited as the point of reference for Amarone.
In 1983, Marilisa Allegrini and her two brothers, Walter and Franco, were confronted with taking over the family’s business when their father, Giovanni Allegrini died unexpectedly.
Marilisa was running the office and sales; Walter was the agronomist, and Franco made the family’s Valpolicella, Amarone and other wines with his father. At that time, in America, the well-known producers of Amarone and Valpolicella were Bertani, Bolla, Sartori and Quintarelli.
Walter and Franco had excellent vineyards to utilize, and Marilisa observed and translated the American marketplace for her brothers. The wines began to reflect the robust style that Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator rated highly. I thought that some bottlings were over extracted and too polished with oak. They were more a punch in the mouth than a caressing of the palate. But they put Allegrini amongst the elite Veneto winemakers.
I recall in the late 1990s, tourning Franco’s new drying room for the grapes to be used in Amarone, a huge tent-like structure he named Terre di Fumane. The innovation controlled airflow, humidity and temperature, replacing the traditional loft, or drying house (fruittaio) above the winery. With a goal of eliminating botrytis–the fungus that infects grapes for better (think Sauternes) or worse (think rotted fruit)—Franco replaced the straw trays historically used for holding the grapes, which absorb moisture, with more hygienic plastic boxes.
Plastic boxes with drying grapes for Amarone
It was Franco’s relentless quest for making the best modern wines that brought Allegrini to the forefront of Valpolicella producers. Then, in 2003, tragedy struck again when Walter suffered a fatal heart attack while swimming.
With the passage of time, Marilisa’s market knowledge, and combination of steely determination, charm, and style, made her one of Italy’s most successful wine representatives. And Franco’s unceasing drive to improve his family’s Valpolicella vineyards and its wines made him one of the country’s top winemakers
Along the way, Marilisa invested in two Tuscany properties: Poggio al Tesoro in Bolgheri, and Poggio San Polo in Montalcino. But, for now, our focus is the wines of Allegrini, a benchmark in the Veneto.
In the depth of this past winter, I had a tasting with Paolo Mascanzoni, Allegrini’s production manager in the spectacular Renaissance Villa della Torre Allegrini in the heart of the Valpolicella wine area, followed by dinner with Marilisa the next night.
Many consumers have the same perception of Valpolicella and Beaujolais: light, thin wines to be skipped over. It’s not wholly correct. In Valpolicella’s case, that image was formed by large cooperatives and industrial-sized producers like Bolla making wine from poor vineyards and large yields. But Valpolicella from passionate producers such as Allegrini, offer good value and pleasant drinking.
Take the cherry-colored 2015 Allegrini Valpolicella Classico. Born in one of the hottest seasons, and grown in the Classico villages of Fumane and San Pietro di Cariano, this wine captures ripe red-fruit flavors ranging from cherry to cranberry. It is refreshing and delightful with everyday foods like grilled chicken—even pizza and hamburgers. 89 points. Great value at $13 to $17.
Valpolicella’s two classic wines Amarone and Recioto, are made with dried grapes; Allegrini extends that process to a third wine, Palazzo della Torre, named for the vineyard surrounding Allegrini’s historical Renaissance palace.
In this wine, Franco marries the winemaking concepts of Amarone with Valpolicella Classico: 30 percent of the grapes are harvested in September and placed in the Terre di Fumane; the other 70 percent of the corvina, rondinella and sangiovese grapes are harvested in October and fermented in stainless-steel tanks. In December, the dried grapes are added to the Valpolicella wine and a second fermentation is initiated. Then, the new wine is moved to once-used oak barrels for 15 months of aging, followed by seven months in bottle before release.
As the Palazzo della Torre doesn’t conform to the Valpolicella Classico wine regulations, it is classified under the general Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). But this terminology is misleading: there is nothing typical about Palazzo della Torre or Allegrini’s other two IGT wines: La Grola and La Poja.
The 2013 Allegrini Palazzo della Torre IGT is darker than the Valpolicella Classico and with more body. Enticing vanilla, cherry and plum aromas are matched with seductive black cherry, vanilla and a touch of black-pepper flavors. The integrated tannins give support and a soft finish. This is an ideal partner for pasta Bolognese. 89 points. At $15, it’s another great value, and still reasonable at $25.
La Grola is a hillside single-vineyard in Sant’Ambrogio, one of the five villages in the Valpolicella Classico zone. Allegrini combines 90 percent corvina and 10 percent oseleta, to produce the 2013 Allegrini La Grola IGT. While it has the same oak aging regiment as the Palazzo della Torre, the vanilla component in the wine is less obvious. A distinct black-fruit aroma and flavor underlines the cedar and Chinese Five Spice accents. The vineyard’s limestone contributes minerality and oseleta adds freshness, making the finish dryer than Palazzo della Torre. Pair this excellent wine with a Portobello mushroom risotto. 91 points. Retail prices range from a very reasonable $25 to an excessive $40.
After normal spring and early-summer weather, 2012 was marked by a very hot August, driving up the grape’s sugar content and alcohol conversion. The richness of the 2012 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella Classico reflects this heat spike with its deeply flavored black-cherry and black-plum character. Because oseleta brings balance, the 16-percent alcohol is not obvious, and the 18 months of barrel aging refined the tannins, making this a very harmonious Amarone. 91 points. A wide price range of $50 to $90 calls for shopping.
With a decade of age, the 2006 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella is pure pleasure. Its floral, black-cherry and vanilla perfume is so inviting that waiting to taste it is torture. Its velvet texture carries sumptuous black-fruit flavors stitched with soft tannins, and a long, fruit-flavored finish. 92 points. I found only one store in America with this wine; price is $90. The solution: look for it on restaurant wine lists, or buy it at auction.
Mascanzoni, the production manager, introduced the 2004 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella by saying it was a perfect season of rain alternating with sunshine every two weeks. It was a tango that created a surprising Grand Cru Burgundy-like texture and weight—still vibrant after 13 years. It’s more black-cherry fruit driven than 2006 and more delicate than the youthful, exuberant 2012 Amarone. If you own it, enjoy it with a grilled pork chop and black beans. Otherwise you’ll have to find a friend who does have it, or buy it in the auction market, as it’s no longer available retail.
In June, I had dinner with a friends who have wine collections. One collector brought the 1996 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella. While not as pristine as the 2004 and 2006, which came directly from Allegrini’s cellar, the 1996 was in impeccable condition. It displayed the bigger, richer style that Allegrini made in that period. Still pungently flavored and with a round, polished texture from the oak aging, the wine is a stunning success at 21-years-old and from an average vintage. 90 points. It was the second time I’ve had this wine in 2017.
As I was driving to my hotel after the tasting, I thought about the three decades I’ve known Marilisa and the family’s wines. Getting to the top of the hill requires a vision, determination, and talent. Along the way, they lost their father and a brother, but Franco and Marilisa had the other three ingredients that make Allegrini one of Italy’s and the world’s great wineries.
Photos by John Foy