Ca’ La Bionda’s terraced hillside vineyards above its winery.
Alessandro Castellani is built like a rugby player and thinks like a philosopher, which is a good combination for a winemaker.
After graduating from the wine program at San Michele Institute in Trentino, Italy in 1998, Castellani worked at Tuscany’s prestigious Isole e Olena winery and a short stint at Chateau Margaux. He returned home in 2000, joining his brother Nicola, an agronomist, and his father Pietro in running the family vineyard, Ca’ La Bionda.
The vineyard was started with about seven acres in 1902 by Alessandro’s grandfather, also named Pietro, in Marano di Valpolicella, one of the five villages in the Valpolicella Classico area. Beginning in 2001, the brothers made a series of hillside vineyard purchases (the most recent only two weeks ago), expanding Ca’ La Bionda to 72 acres.
On a freezing January day, I stood on one of the family’s hillside vineyards while Alessandro pointed to the sloping land below, “In the valley you can make a good Valpolicella. But producers want to make an Amarone from valley grapes and that is a big mistake,” he said, his speech punctuated by small puffs of breath, exhaled and hanging in the frigid air like tiny clouds.
Alessandro Castellani with Ca’ La Bionda’s hillside vineyards in the background.
Castellani explained that the higher vineyards planted in volcanic soil give the grapes a level of acidity that offsets the richness and sweet black-raisin taste created by the Amarone winemaking process, whereas grapes grown in the valley floor’s alluvial soils lack an acidic backbone.
“The big producers buy grapes from everywhere, they use oak barrel, cabernet and merlot instead of indigenous grapes to make a soft wine like Coca-Cola,” he said, dismissively. “Amarone without acidity is boring.”
Amarone is made by a unique process called “appassimento.” In September, the grapes are harvested, and using the traditional method, put on large straw or bamboo mats called “arelle.” They are placed in buildings—some have old wooden barns—with all the windows open for a natural drying process that lasts until January or early February. The water, which constitutes 40 percent of the grape’s weight is eliminated, leaving a small, raisinated, sugary berry. But this process also subjects the wine producers to additional risks of spoilage, or mold developing from inclement weather during these months.
Technology has reduced that risk with temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms where the grapes dry in small plastic baskets. Wine regulations responded to this innovation by shortening the required drying period to December 1. Traditionalist argue this modern method sacrifices aroma and flavor complexity for security. Ca’ La Bionda is such a traditionalist.
Castellani uses only the indigenous corvina, corvinone, rondinella, and molinara grapes for its Amarone, Recioto di Amarone, and Valpolicella-labeled wines. The family farmed its terraced vineyards with various organic techniques since 1990. In the last decade, it eliminated all chemicals, receiving its organic certification in 2013. Today the biodynamic lunar system is considered for all its winemaking decisions.
After walking back to the winery, I peeled off my scarf, jacket and gloves and settled into a comfortable chair in the warmth of the tasting room. Two groups of Valpolicella wines were on the table: Ca’ La Bionda’s Classico, from the original Valpolicella area, and the estate’s single-vineyard Casal Vergi Classico Superiore, with a higher level of alcohol and aged at least one year in oak barrels.
Alessandro Catellani opening the Casal Vergi single-vineyard Valpolicella Classico Superiore
Castellani introduced the 2016 Ca’ La Bionda Valpolicella Classico as a vintage that was “born well.” Its translucent raspberry color, pronounced cherry aroma and flavor deposited a richness and elegant texture that supported Castellani’s opinin about Valpolicella: “Color is not important.” 90 points. Not yet in the market
In my next glass was the 2015 Ca’ La Bionda Valpolicella Classico. As I noted the color and aroma similarity to the 2016 wine, the richer and deeper black-cherry flavor grabbed my attention. While the blend of the two wines are the same–70 percent corvina, 20 percent corvinone and 10 percent molinara–Castellani said 2015 was a drier year, giving those wines added richness and a longer finish. 92 points. Great Value at $15.
The 2015 Ca’ La Bionda Casal Vergi Valpolicella Classico Superiore is a single-vineyard wine. Castellani aged it 18 months in large 3,000 liter oak barrels, which is six months more than required for the Superiore classification. It has more acidity and a mineral backbone in its Maraschino cherry-flavored fruit than the two Valpolicella Classicos. 91 points. Not yet in the market.
If the 2016 vintage was born well, the 2014 was born wet. Castellani said that due to the rains, his total estate production for 2014 was only 55,000 bottles compared to a normal year of 135,000 bottles. (For those with the romantic idea of owning a winey, please take note of what Mother Nature can do to your income.)
Ca’ La Bionda’s 2014 Casal Vergi Valpolicella Classico Superiore shows the rain’s influence with its mild red-fruit aroma and flavor that is less generous than the 2015. The vineyard’s minerality is also on vivid display. 87 points. Retail is $28.
The 2013 Ca’ La Bionda 2013 Casal Vergi Valpolicella Classico Superiore has developed an enticing mildly spicy and raspberry aroma from its two years in the bottle. Its tasty black-cherry flavor is seasoned with a slight smoky taste from the oak barrel aging. The vineyard’s minerality and acidity underlie the satisfying fruit-flavored finish. 90 points. Wide price range of $20 to $30.
Castellini showed that his single-vineyard wine has excellent aging potential when he presented the 2010 Ca’ La Bionda Casal Vergi Valpolicella Classico Superiore. With nearly six years of bottle aging, the wine has evolved to a black- cherry color with aromas ranging from blackberry to leather to fig. A mouth-filling blackberry fruit flavor, integrated tannins, acidity and minerality gives it an elegance not normally associated with Valpolicella wines. 92 points. Not in the market.
It was this consistent level of quality, without the use of any ripasso method (putting the pomace from making Amarone into the Valpolicella wine and initiating a second fermentation) that is striking about these Valpolicella wines. The brothers’ vineyard practices and winemaking are producing generous, stylish, and graceful Valpolicella wines that are the antithesis of the mass- produced thin, acidic Valpolicellas that turned off generations of American wine consumers.
Ca’ La Bionda produces two Amarones: Amarone della Valpolicella Classico and the single-vineyard, Ravazzol Amarone della Valpolicella Classico. Castellani uses approximately the same blend of 70 percent corvina, 20 percent corvinone, and 10 percent divided between rondinella and molinara in both the Classico and Ravazzol Amarones.
When I looked at the translucent black-cherry hue, inhaled the profound perfume of red fruit, and enjoyed the refined black-cherry flavor of the 2011 Ca’ La Bionda Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, I thought about the palate weight, aroma, and flavor profile similarities to Santa Barbara pinot noirs and Piedmont nebbiolo wines. 91 points. Not in the market.
Ravazzol is a historic 18-acre vineyard sitting more than 600 feet above the valley floor and owned entirely by Ca’ La Bionda. Its soil is a complex mix of calcare, clay, volcanic and limestone, giving the Ravazzol Amarone greater richness, acidity and aging potential.
The 2011 Ca’ La Bionda Ravazzol Amarone della Valpolicella Classico is bigger and more robust than the Classico (also referred to as the “normale”) but it is not obese. Blackberry and leather scents announce its complexity, and pungent blackberry, black olive flavors are backed by bright acidity providing freshness and a long, balanced finish. 93 points. Retail is $69.
As Castellani poured the 2008 Ca’ La Bionda Ravazzol Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva, he said it was a personal favorite. Its translucent black-cherry color is youthfully brilliant and its medium body is wrapped with blackberry, herbal and a sprinkle of clove flavors. Ravazzol’s minerality slides underneath keeping the wine fresh and balanced. I think Castellani favors this vintage not because it is substantially better than others, but because its captures the purity of the vineyard, which is the ultimate compliment to his winemaking. 93 points. Not in the market.
We finished the tasting with the 2005 Ca’ La Bionda Ravazzol Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva. It shared the color and palate weight of the other two Ravazzol Amarones, while its aromas of blackberry and leather were coaxed out only by a vigorous and continuous swirling of my glass. A mouthful of black fruit, fig, and toasted oak were equally noncompliant but obeyed the physics of force. There is much to appreciate in this wine, but it will require hours of aeration to gain all of it. 90 points. Not in the market.
As I bundled up to re-enter the frigid Alpine air, I thought that from the vineyard management to the winemaking restraint to the organic and biodynamic farming, everything speaks to the Castellanis dedication to purity and harmony. Their wines are elegant, balanced and among the very best in the Valpolicella zone. They belong on your dinner table.
Photos by John Foy
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