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Italy: The valley of many cellars

In the cloudy hills of Italy’s Valpolicella region, Connor McGovern gets a taste of the local elixir

Italy: The valley of many cellars

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It’s definitely autumn in the hills of Valpolicella. As Verona’s outer fringes slip away, we ascend into the wine region’s muted landscape, where a thick, almost milky blanket of cloud hangs across the hilltops. I shift in the car seat to get a better look of the rural scenes below: the sprawling vineyards with their mangled, fruitless vines; villages subdued in mist; the forest-covered slopes naked for another winter. Even with the season’s quiet yet austere arrival, there’s still an eerie beauty in this green, plentiful corner of Italy.

But the brooding peaks are just the backdrop to today’s itinerary. I’m discovering Valpolicella, which sprawls between Verona and Lake Garda, with Veronality, which offer a host of tours in and around fair Verona. “They say the name Valpolicella comes from a mixture of languages,” explains my guide, Irene, turning to face me from the front seat. “‘Val’, from the Latin meaning ‘valley’; ‘poly’, from the Greek for ‘many’, and ‘cella’… I suppose meaning ‘cellars’. So it’s the Valley of Many Cellars.”

We begin to descend, weaving through hushed hillside villages. Volpare, Palazzin, Negrar. “They’ve been making wine in Valpolicella for about 2,000 years,” Irene explains, “and even my grandfather was a winemaker. But trust me, the wine was awful!”

I am assured, however, that better wine is waiting for us as we pull up at Zýmē, a smart, modern winery whose sleek lines cut a stark figure amid the hills’ muted russets and greens. With her mass of curly golden hair, guide Elena Morbioli greets us warmly like an innkeeper to weary travellers.

“Take a look here,” she says, beckoning us closer. I peer into a well, at the bottom of which a torrent of water swirls and rushes. “When the winery was founded, the team discovered a natural spring below. So, we’ve used the natural spring and the sandstone walls from the site’s excavation to naturally regulate the temperature here in the cellars.”

Elena leads us through the winery, past the enormous 5,000-litre oak barrels and the ‘library’ – a dazzling, floor-to-ceiling wine rack shaped like pentagonal honeycomb. It’s not the first time pentagons have popped up here; the shape is emblazoned onto various surfaces throughout. “It’s symbolic, actually,” Elena explains. “The pentagon has five points, and so does the process of winemaking: soil, sun, rain, grape and man.”

We round off our tour in the tasting room, where Elena begins uncorking seven of the estate’s bottles, including the zesty From Black to White, which surprises me with its long finish, and Oseleta, a red made with a local grape and with soft hints of lavender. But I’m especially seduced by the heady Amarone Riserva. The hulking bottle is over nine years old, and sells for a cool £200. I swirl it around the glass, its darkly fruity aromas wafting nosewards; hints of cherry and blackberry are familiar, but feel luxuriously exotic as they flood my palate. The whole thing leaves a lingering whiff of oak: quiet deference to its decade in an oak barrel.

Now suitably primed with wine, I’m in need of carbs. We make our way back to Verona, calling in at Enoteca della Valpolicella, in the village of Fumane. It’s packed, the wooden floorboards groaning beneath hordes of locals who chinwag between mouthfuls. Our waiter quickly plies us with more Riserva. He’s terribly handsome, diligent and speaks perfect English, but I’ve already forgotten his name; my attention is grabbed as the food arrives, each course proudly introduced like an act from an opera. Steady though the dishes come, I’m reluctant to finish the pumpkin ravioli swathed in sage butter; it’s so perfect that I linger over the final morsels for as long as I can.

But it’s fine. I’m quickly consoled by tiramisu.

Classic Collection Holidays offers three nights at Hotel Palazzo Victoria, Verona, from £444, B&B. Includes return flights from London Gatwick to Verona and private transfers.