The land where Valpolicella wine is produced has always been considered bountiful for its presence of water ways that have made agriculture economically viable and ideal for human settlements through the centuries.
Its valleys are full of history and show evident signs of human presence right back to the Lower Palaeolithic period of 120,000 years ago.
Remains of human settlements from prehistory dot the territory, with the oldest finds being located mostly in grottoes, caves and rock shelters, namely, sites such as the Ponte di Veja, the Grotto of Fumane and the “Riparo tagliente” (rock shelter) that have a great effect on the imagination. Apart from the stone paintings and objects at these sites, they are also rich in plant fossils which prove the importance and widespread nature of vineyard cultivation since ancient times.
Despite the complexity of the area, its cultural and historical identity came together at the time of the Roman conquest, traces of which have been found in digs of certain villas that were the predecessors and guiding influence of the Venetian and Veronese aristocracy of the Renaissance. Inside one of these villas in the hamlet of Ambrosan, between the towns of San Pietro in Cariano and Fumane, hypocausts (central heating system from Roman times) have been found in some of the rooms, which were reserved for the drying of grapes that went into making Raetian wine, and this confirms that the “appassimento” (drying) technique was already in vogue in Roman times. Within the walls of the bell-tower of the Church of Castagné there are two pediments of tomb stelae which prove just how much this area was inhabited and known by the Romans.
A hypogeum (underground area) of the late Roman era Nymphaeum of Santa Maria in Stelle dates back to the first decades of 3rd century after Christ, and took advantage of the springs; it would eventually become a place of Christian worship, as can be seen in the remarkable frescoes that are among the first examples of Paleochristian art.
The historical centre of Valpolicella in Roman times was also inhabited by a Raetian-Etruscan population, the Arusnati, who were to leave much testimony to their presence. The Arusnatis chose the hill of San Giorgio in Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella as their administrative centre, which would continue to serve as such in the following centuries, to the point that in the 7th century the Lombard king, Liutprand, had a royal chapel erected there: the “Pieve” (rural parish church) of San Giorgio.
In a decree of 1117 from the Emporer Federico Barbarossa, we have the first mention of the name Val Polesala, a term whose etymology is still under debate. It may derive from the Greek term polyzèlos, meaning “very blessed” (hence, “very blessed valley”) or from the Latin pulcella, which would explain the dominating presence of a young girl in the emblem of the town of San Pietro in Cariano. Doubts remain however, but perhaps the best explanation is one that pays tribute to the wine-growing tradition in the valley, that is, Val-poli-cellae or “valley of the many cellars, with “cella” being Latin for cellar.
In the medieval era, the land of Verona gained its own autonomy and by 1313 its borders were legally defined, authorized and signed in a treaty by Federico della Scala, Count of Verona. Federico was able to establish precise borders between the different valleys of which he was feudal lord, and the outer lying areas of Verona, by convincing Della Scalla to underwrite this business agreement that was also a defence agreement. After a attempted rebellion, Federico della Scala went into exile and this brought the County of Valpolicella to an end, even though the area had already earned its own special recognized status that would continue to be recognized. The castles, as symbols of medieval power, were spread out over the land and are cited in documentary sources.
The only castle remaining nowadays is that of Montorio, along with the ancient manors overlooking Ilasi and Tregnano and some ruins in the Valpolicella Classica zone, such as those at Castelrotto. Instead the fate that many of the Romanesque rural parish churches (“pievi”) was kinder, including the most important ones of San Giorgio di Valpolicella, San Floriano, San Leonardo di Limoges in the town of San Mauro di Saline and the “pieve” of Santa Maria in the town of Colognola ai Colli.
After the aristocracy of the Della Scala family came the Viscounts, who instituted the figure of Vicar in Valpolicella to oversee an autonomous administration that was later honoured by the Very Serene Republic of Venice as well. In fact, on the façade of the old town hall in San Pietro Cariano, at that time the seat of the Vicariate, some emblems of the presiding Vicars are still visible today. This period was one of almost complete political stability in Valpolicella, which led to the reorganization of agricultural lands, an activity that would continue up to the seventeenth century, and one that radically changed the face of the land.
Between the 15th and 18th centuries, many aristocratic villas were built on the hills of Valpolicella to include the characteristic feature of a “porch” or “loggia”, and were often built on knolls or raised grounds, so as to dominate over the surrounding lands.
These villas represent a new concept of architecture for agricultural properties, which involved a more human view of place by associating a centre of production with leisure time.
At that time the agricultural economy was based on seeded crops and vegetables, but vineyards played a decisive role as well, as we can see from the many references to local wines and vineyards in documents of the era.
Modern times have witnessed the movement of people away from the countryside and mountainous regions, which happened even more so after World War II, and as a result, the landscape has changed and traditional buildings of the past have been abandoned, especially the rural villas with courtyards. Urbanization has also changed the countryside of the valleys and only certain isolated places have retained their old vestiges.
Modernizing of agricultural methods after WWII led to “specialization” of land use, according to altitude: the strip of land closest to the river is reserved for fruit trees; the foothill area and the lower hills are taken up with vineyards, where there are also smaller and well-maintained olive groves that can be easily detected; the higher hills host cherry orchards which, starting from the rows where the vines are interspersed, are on meadows and slopes that were once wooded; in the springtime other types of fruit trees can be seen, such as apricot and plum; and still further up are meadows and pastures, with more cherry trees and woods of chestnut trees.
Even with the modernization of the agricultural landscape, there are still signs of more traditional agriculture: the terraced lands with their dry stone walls, the so-called marogne, and scattered here and there are the trees that once lined the rows of vineyards, in testimony to the fact that they were used to hold up the vines. Along the roads stone tanks can been seen, in which verdigris was prepared, and huts, once again in stone, that serve as tool sheds, along with a scattering of hunting lodges and protruding stairs for access to the steeper terraces.
You may even come across some religious shrines and wooden crosses at the head of the rows of vineyards. Further up, and again in stone, are the manure tanks in the ground, and fencing systems for the fields and poles to hold up vines. Next to a small hollow facing north and half-hidden in the ground, you may even stumble upon an icehouse or a water tank.