WINES THROUGHOUT HISTORY
The presence of grapevines in the Veronese area goes back to the Middle Eocene epoch (40 million years ago), but the first presence of their cultivation in the Valpolicella area dates back to the 5th century BC, at which time the vineyards were mostly located in the area around Lake Garda, where agricultural tools have been found that were used for cultivating the vines.
In the second century BC, after a period of Roman expansion, the Veronese region became part of the region of Raetia, and Raetian wine was the name recorded by classical authors such as Martial, Strabo and Virgil, who all mentioned how good the quality of the wine made from dried grapes was, and that it was a wine particularly appreciated by Emperor Augustus.
The excavations near the Roman villa (2nd-3rd centuries AD) in the hamlet of Ambrosan, between the towns of San Pietro and Fumane, turned up “hypocausts”, a type of central heating system that was used for drying of the grapes used to make Rhaetic wine, confirming the fact that this type of drying (“appassimento”) system was already in vogue with the Romans.
In De rerum Natura, the historian and naturalist Pliny the Elder documents how Roman farmers must have realized that the Raetic vines were indigenous to the territory and that they adapted well to the temperate climate of the similarly named area, but when they were planted in other areas they lost all their identity.
Even the king of the Ostrogoths, Theodore, who had chosen Verona as the capital of his kingdom, liked the wine: his minister Cassiodorus makes a reference to how the king encouraged the development of grape-growing in more ideal areas so that his cellars would always be stocked with the best wines in the kingdom. The fall of the western Roman Empire was to bring on a decline in Veronese wine production and it was only in 463 AD that an edict appeared for the safeguarding and conservation of the vineyards, and anyone causing damage to them was to be punished.
With the spread of Christianity, the first large-scale renewal of wine-growing occurred. Abbots, monks and bishops in the medieval period dedicated just as much time to saving the souls of their parishioners as they did to extending and cultivating the vineyards in a rational manner.
This was, as a result, the beginning of a true and proper agricultural revolution, supported by special edicts regulating times of harvest, how to work the grapes and sales of wine. From between the 13th and 15th centuries, there is much artistic testimony to the growth of the Veronese wine-growing culture with scenes showing how daily life was linked to wine: it has been calculated that in the 1300s, Valpolicella dedicated between thirty and forty percent of its agriculture to that of vineyards.
This fact is explained by the increase in wine consumption, especially in the city of Verona, as confirmed by city statutes which that mention the most important “corporations” were hosterii (innkeepers), tabernarii (taverns) and torcolotti (wine transporters), to which secchiarole (dry wine transporters) were added in the 1400s.
With the onset of the Very Serene Republic of Venice, commerce of Veronese wine greatly increased, especially that of Valpolicella wines, since the area was near the navigable Adige River and could be transported on barges to the so-called Riva del Vin (wine docks on a bank of the Grand Canal) in Venice, close to the well-known Rialto bridge and its market.
The 16th and 17th centuries were times of crisis for Valpolicella wines because of recurring pestilences (including the well-known one of Manzoni’s time in 1630) and for the wars between Venetians, France, Germany and Spain. Wine did continue to have an important role in the local economy however, even though with the advance of the Enlightenment in the 18th century would not have a great effect, as it did in other areas of Europe where wine-growing lands underwent significant changes.
It was in this period that Scipione Maffei provided news about Veronese grapes and wines in his treatise entitled Verona illustrata that goes as far back as Roman times to include information on the techniques of wine-making using dried grapes, and credible testimony as to the etymological roots of Amarone wine. La coltivazione dei monti, by the Abbot Bartolomeo Lorenzi, originally from the hamlet of Mazzurega in the town of Fumane, gives more general information of the area, and turns once again its attention to wine-growing activity in the hills.
However, it is only towards the end of the 18th century and in the first half of the 19th century that the first types of research were carried in order to improve the quality of the wines, together with the first attempts to revolutionize drying and fermentation methods.
Moreover, in order to be more in tune with the changes in tastes occurring across Europe, Veronese wine-growers began the move towards producing dry wines. The botanist Ciro Pollini and the academic Giuseppe Beretta have been responsible for important documents related to wine-making and to the world of wine. At the end of the century Giovanni Battista Perez published La provincia di Verona e i suoi vini [“The Province of Verona and Its Wines”], the first document in which the term “recchiotto”, an Italianized version of the term Recioto, appears, indicating that at the time this was the most requested wine by the Veronese, despite the fact that numerous wine experts at a meeting in Padua in 1888 severely criticized it as a wine of poor quality.
But we must consider these facts in the light of this being a period of uncertainty, with the recouping of vineyards and the fight against new vine diseases: powdery mildew was the cause of a 50% reduction in production in just four years, and peronospora (water moulds) and phylloxera (a pest), against which nothing could be done in the beginning. These hardships would lead, however, to instrumental scientific analyses which brought about an evolution in wine-making.
In 1940, after reaching its maximum level of proliferation, phylloxera was conquered and most of the vineyards in Valpolicella were recouped. This is also the same year in which the first bottle of Amarone was made, and a bottle of which is still jealously safeguarded in the Cantina Sociale di Negrar (The Wine-Growers Cooperative of Negrar). This is also the year that the world was suffering the turmoil of the war, and it was only after the war ended that Valpolicella once again started to produce wine at significant levels, through the efforts of various wine-making companies, and exportation began around the world due to initiatives aimed at increasing its visibility.
The year 1954 was the first year of the Palio di Recioto in Negrar and, in 1969, SNODAR (“The Sovereign and Very Noble Order of Ancient Recioto”) was founded, which revived a confraternity established in medieval times by the Count Federico della Scala, and whose aim is to promote local wines, starting off with Recioto, along with the historical and cultural heritage of the land. Another important milestone in the recognition of the area’s wines was the establishment of the Consorzio per la Tutela dei Vini della Valpolicella, the “Valpolicella Wine Guardianship Consortium” on February 5, 1970, whose mission is to supervise, defend and promote wine-growing and production of DOC wines.
With decree no. 2954, dated October 29, 2002, the Veneto Region instituted the Valpolicella Wine Road Association, whose aim is to promote arrivals and overnight stays of tourists and aficionados wishing to learn more about the wines, the cuisine and the artistic, cultural and environmental heritage of this unique and outstanding land.