Valpolicella is well known for its great wines — Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore, Ripasso della Valpolicella and of course Amarone. (It should also be known for its sweet wine, Recioto della Valpolicella, but that’s another story.)
But what about wine tourism? Sue and I were guests of the Valpolicella Consorzio earlier this month and one of our tasks was get a sense of Valpolicella as a wine tourist destination using a new wine tourism app (available as free download for Android and Apple mobile devices). Here is a brief report.
There’s an App for That!
Whenever I asked the winemakers we met if wine tourism was an important part of their business the answer was “yes!” but I think it is fair to say that for many of the actual tourists wine is at best a secondary reason for their visit.
The fact is that most tourists come to this part of Italy for non-wine reasons — for the history, culture and opera of Verona to the east, for example, or the resorts of Lake Garda to the west. Lying between these two attractive poles, Valpolicella is the perfect “day out” diversion (especially if it is a rainy day as has too often been the case in 2014) but not always the primary destination.
Come for Opera, Stay for Wine
Come for the beach or opera, stay for the wine! That could be Valpolicella’s wine tourism motto, but it would be selling the region short. What do dedicated wine tourists look for? Well, these days they want the complete experience — the wine and wineries, of course, plus beautiful scenery, great food, comfortable lodgings and that something extra to tell their friends back home about. Valpolicella would seem to tick each of these boxes.
The vineyard scenery is certainly spectacular — I really wasn’t prepared for the beautiful vistas. What a stunning setting! A great opportunity for fit cyclists with a nose for good wine or anyone willing to pull off the road and take in the panorama.
The wineries we visited using the Consorzio’s app showed the great variety of experiences available, which ranged from the super-modern architecture at Monteci to the classic and traditional at Valentina Cubi (one of our favorite stops). The sense of history was particularly strong at Santa Sofia, which is located in a villa designed by Andrea Palladio in the 16th century. You cannot dig much deeper into the soul of the Venteo than that!
Zymé, Celestino Gaspari’s ambitious winery in Pietro in Carlano deftly balanced the very old and the very new. The winery building features cutting edge architecture — see the photo taken looking out from the structure towards the nearby hillside vineyards. Wow!
The Zymé cellar and caves are carved into the hillside and touring them gives a sense of both history and nature. One of the best surprises was in the cavern than has become the working part of the winery. A spring that was discovered during construction was incorporated into the design and you can actually look down dozens of feet into the crevasse that the water has carved out over the years. A stunning sensory experience (and great for the humidity needed for barrel storage).
Beyond the Wine
Wine tourists need a place to stay and there seem to be many attractive options (this part of the Consorzio app is still under development). Although we stayed in a basic business hotel on this trip, we encountered a number of options, including very appealing apartments at Valentina Cubi.
If you want luxury, well there seem to be a number of five star experiences available. SalvaTerra’s beautiful estate includes vineyards, the winery, a small hotel and what must be a fine restaurant (judging from the number of chefs we saw working the kitchen as we passed by).
We have no doubt about the food at Villa Cordevigo since we were fortunate to have dinner at this estate that includes the Villabella winery, its vineyards, a fantastic hotel and spa and the sorts of amenities that make you want to linger forever. Or at least that’s how it seemed to us as we looked out over a garden to the pool and the vineyards j8ust beyond with a full moon in the distance.
It’s the Food, Dummy
People talk about coming to Italy for the art and architecture, but let me tell you the truth. It’s the food! And we were fortunate to sample many typical dishes of the regional cuisine and they are worth the effort to seek out. Typical is an interesting word in this context — you see it everywhere in Italy and that’s a good thing. Here in the U.S. “typical” is sometimes a term of derision — Big Macs are “typical” fast food, for example. Ordinary. Unexceptional. Nothing to write home about. That’s typical for us.
In Italy, however, typical means “true to type” or authentic. And that’s why we Americans go gaga over Italian food — the authenticity just blows us away. And the authentic or typical dishes of Valpolicella, many prepared with the wines themselves, are enough to make any foodie go gaga. We enjoyed great meals at the Villa Cordevigo, Ristorante La Divina (overlooking Garda from high on a hill), Locanda 800 and the Enoteca Della Valpolicella.
We also appreciated the lunches that several wineries put together for us including a wonderful (typical!) meal of local meats and cheeses with polenta at Scriani, a satisfying buffet at Santa Sofia and a rather elaborate multi-course feast of typical dishes at the Cantina Valpolicella Negrar. All the food was wonderful — the meats and cheeses at Cesari and the completely addictive “crumb cake” we had with Recioto at Secondo Marco. Foodie paradise? You be the judge. And great wines, too.
That Something Extra
Valpolicella seems to have all the elements of a great wine tourism experience and I think the Consorzio’s app ties things together into a functional package. It will be even more useful when it has time to fill out with more wineries, restaurants and hotels.
Is the app alone enough to bring Valpolicella to center stage? Of course not. Some of the wineries obviously embrace wine tourism more completely than others, for example. It is important that three or four true “destination” wineries emerge that will make it easy for wine tourists to see that a two-day or longer visit can be fashioned that will sustain their interest and enthusiasm — with dozens of other wineries providing rich diversity (and reasons to return again and again) as happens in Napa, for example. And finally there must be even closer ties among the elements of the hospitality sector — wine, food, tourism and lodgings — which is not always easy to achieve.
It takes a village to build a wine route. But all the pieces are there and the app is a good way to bring them together.
But what about that “something extra” I mentioned earlier. What does Valpolicella offer that will push it over the top? Well, the towns and villages have the churches, squares, museums and villas that Italian wine tourists expect — it takes only a little effort to seek them out and I must confess that I actually enjoy the “small moments” more than the three-star attractions, so this suits me very well.
But maybe I am making this too hard. What’s that something special? Maybe it’s the chance to tack an evening in Verona or a day on Lake Garda on to your Valpolicella wine tour experience? Perhaps its time for the wine tail to wag the Veneto tourist dog and not the other way around! (Gosh, I wonder how that will sound in Italian?) Food for thought!
This is the second in a series of reports on our Veneto wine tour. Come back next week for a discussion of the challenges and opportunities facing the Valpolicella wine industry.
Here’s a musical tribute to the merry band of wine bloggers on our Valpolicella tour.