Monday, July 7, 2014

Little Village, Big Wines: Le Salette

By Catherine L Luke

Valpolicella, like much of what is now northeast Italy, used to be covered by water.  What was once sea is now blanketed in fertile green hills, vineyards, quaint villages, and people who seem to go about their days knowing what used to be.  It is not only the region’s people who keep their marine history alive, remnants of the days of water show up from time to time in the form of massive fish skeletons and fossil-rich soil from which everything grows.

In relatively more recent times, Valpolicella has become known for its production of a rich style of red wine called Amarone.  Amarone is traditionally made using a blend of native varieties such as Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Oseleta, Molinara, and Croatina.  Following harvest, grapes are laid out to dry for about 4-6 months in the region’s generous breezes.  The dried grapes, luscious with sugar, are vinified into a voluptuous wine perfect for roasted meats and post dinner life-is-strange-and-mysterious-and-beautiful type meditation.  It is wine that can stand up to time, often growing more elegant with some years in the cellar.

Valpolicella Classico, a specific area of Valpolicella, brags the highest elevation in the region.  It sits around 300/350 meters above sea level, a height that provides ample soil drainage and perfect balance between temperature variation of night and day.  Constant winds blowing in from Lake Garda create a naturally well-ventilated, mold-resistant microclimate.  There is hardly a better equation for grape growing.  The area’s soil is rich in complexity thanks to sandiness from leftover sea skeletons.  Clay and basalt runoff from the Dolomites add to the mix.

Valpolicella Classico is the place where the Scamperle family farms their 49 acres of vines.  Their winey is called Le Salette and is located in the little town of Fumane.  Its vineyards are scattered in and around the town in some of the most respected growing areas of the region, places with names like Fumane Ca’ Carnocchio, I Progni e Ca Melchiori, Sat’ Ambrogio Conca D’Oro, and San Floriano Monte Masua.   Le Salette produces a basic Amarone, along with a few single vineyard Amarones, as well as some typical local styles like Valpolicella Classico Rosso, Ripasso, and Recioto.

Le Salette’s vines are mainly trained in the local pergola style, which is placed pretty high up so that clusters of grapes can hang down, making it easy to cut whole bunches for the drying process.  The height of the vines inspires a hometown joke that this is the reason people from the area are so tall.  Knee-slapper!  Le Salette’s practices in the vineyard and cellar are very much in rhythm with nature, achieving quality wines produced in the healthiest way.  The Scamperles know that this is very special land that they have the privilege to cultivate.  They cherish it, so au naturel is the way they go.

You may be wondering why this very Italian winery sounds...a bit...French.  Le Salette is the name of a small village in southern France.  It was the home of two Frenchmen who were around Fumane in the late 1800’s when phylloxera was ravaging so many of Europe’s vines.  These two men had already witnessed what the disease could do in their own region and were able use what they’d learned to to teach the people of Valpolicella Classico how to protect their vineyards.  Their knowledge proved so valuable as the area’s vines- a major agricultural, cultural, and economic staple- were saved.  Local farmers constructed a chapel atop the highest peak in Fumane to show their gratitude.  It is called the chapel of Le Salette.  One of the vineyards that the Scamperle family has owned for many generations sits just beneath the chapel, and so it was only appropriate to lend its name to their establishment.

The vineyard beneath the chapel is a piece of three of Le Salette’s vineyards that sort of line up in a triangular shape, or as they call it, a “Bermuda Triangle”.  Another unique vineyard they own grows within a walled garden, or a brolo,  Le Salette’s brolo is one of very few left in all of Italy. The garden was once planted to vegetables and now fosters a field blend of grapes.

Standing guard near the gates of the brolo is a gigantic, ancient cyprus tree.  The story goes that there once were many more cyprus trees, but during the Second World War German soldiers cut them down to use as winter firewood.  It eventually whittled down to one tree left to chop.  A brave young woman from the village bargained with the soldiers.  She offered wine for a promise to spare the tree.  Wine would keep them warm.  They agreed and, thanks to her, the tree lives on.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Catherine lives in Brooklyn, and has worked in the wine industry in Napa Valley and NYC. She is certified by the WSET, as well as the school of "wine in real life".  Understanding the patchwork of little-known Italian regional wines, dishes, and customs excites her most of all. She (sometimes) muses on her blog GrapesofCath.

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