I would be hard pressed to identify the “best wine I’ve ever had”. But one of the candidates would be the Romano Dal Forno Amarone 2008 which I had the opportunity to taste a few years ago. A consummate marriage of power and finesse, it was simultaneously dark, fierce, grandiose and gentle, and sells for $300 per bottle.
When I tasted it, I new nothing about the backstory but that proves to be as compelling as the wine, as Andrew Jefford’s article in Decanter makes clear.
In 1983 Romano Dal Forno, who was growing grapes in one of the least prestigious regions of Valpolicella, Italy, decided to to make wine rather than sell his grapes. Almost everyone told him he was nuts, but with no background in winemaking, no degree in oenology, and using grapes from a region acknowledged to be inferior, he’s managed to make one of the world’s finest wines.
Obsessed with avoiding oxidation Dal Forno has invented all sorts of tricks and devices to keep oxygen away from the wine.
There is no use of vacuum, of course, during fermentation (though there is plenty of innovation, as I describe below). Once fermentation is over, though, the finished wines are racked into nitrogen-flushed tanks and are put under vacuum prior to barrel ageing, and after barrel-ageing for the blending process prior to bottling. Bottling itself is done by putting the empty bottle under vacuum, then flushing it with nitrogen, then putting it under vacuum once again before filling; while a nitrogen flush followed by vacuum and another nitrogen flush precede corking.
Dal Forno also invented a system of four independently operating pistons in each tank to perfect the extraction process. These are even capable of turning the entire cap upside down, the aim being “maximum extraction with maximum softness,” according to Michele. He also went on to design a moveable automated washing system for each tank which works at high temperatures and high pressure – and therefore dispenses with any chemical adjuncts, using water and steam alone.
The grapes for Amarone must be dried and raisined before fermentation, so Dal Forno designed computer-controlled drying chambers that regulate airflow with a degree of randomness programmed in to mimic nature. And all the work of the winery, with the exception of harvest, is done by his extended family.
This is a story of fearlessness, determination, intelligence, and creativity. But it also illustrates a fact that is becoming increasingly clear—wine regions with lesser reputations have hidden potential that can be unlocked by the right person with the right skills. There is no reason to think we’ve discovered all the best places to grow wine grapes.