Romano Dal Forno (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
In many wine zones throughout Italy, there have been a few individuals or families that have made a tremendous impact in how that area’s wines are perceived. It makes no difference if you like the style of their wines or not; what’s important is that these vintners have brought a significant amount of acclaim and attention to their area through their tireless efforts to truly make the best wine possible. There is no question that in Valpolicella, Romano Dal Forno has done just that.
For more than 30 years, Dal Forno has been producing deeply concentrated Valpolicella, Amarone and Recioto at his estate in the Illasi Valley of the Valpolicella zone; this valley is situated in the eastern part of the district. The key here lies with the remakably small yields in the vineyards. During a recent visit to the cellars in Cellore, Romano’s son Michele told me that for the vines used for their Amarone, there are two bunches per plant and that at the time of green harvest, they completely cut one of the bunches. The final result is that it takes nine vines to produce one bottle of Dal Forno Amarone!
Michele Dal Forno (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
While Valpolicella is often an easy-going, medium-bodied wine at many estates, it is a powerful wine when produced at Dal Forno. Also produced from very small yields, Dal Forno takes the unusual step of drying all the grapes for his Valpolicella Superiore; several producers will dry a percentage of the grapes for their version, but almost no one else goes to this extreme. Thus the Dal Forno is much more like an Amarone than a Valpolicella; deeply concentrated with outstanding persistence, this wine drinks well for 12-15 years and often longer than that.
The Amarone is a step up; a massively concentrated wine, it is not released for almost ten years after the harvest. Aged solely in new barriques, there is more than sufficient fruit to balance the wood. The persistence is amazing as is the complexity; this is a wine with powerful cherry fruit along with notes of tobacco and sage, that tends to drink well some 20-25 years after the harvest. One could probably age a Dal Forno Amarone for 30-40 years, but this is only an educated guess, as there have not been that many releases of this wine, since it is not produced every vintage. The current release is the 2004; I tasted the 2008 from barrel, a wine that will be released in 2016 or 2017.
Romano Dal Forno cellars (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
The third wine produced at Dal Forno is called Vigna Seré; this is a Recioto that cannot be labeled as such. Michele explained to me that when this wine was presented to the board that decides on whether to award a DOC designation or not – a process that is usually a rubber stamp sanction – this wine was not given approval. When Romano and Michele asked why, they were told that it “tastes different.” I asked Michele exactly what that meant, as different could be perceived as good or bad. He laughed and told me that he honestly didn’t know, so they label this wine as a Passito Rosso Vino Dolce. I acquired a bottle of the current 2004 Vigna Seré, which is produced entirely from one of their finest vineyards; the wine is a brilliant example of what is basically a Recioto. Bright purple with aromas that are the essence of black raspberry and plum, the wine is full-bodied with a powerful finish, a light sweetness and outstanding complexity. I noted 10-12 years for peak drinking, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this wine was still enjoyable in 20 years.
Toward the end of my visit, I asked Michele about pairing Valpolicella and Amarone with food and his answer was clear. “If I had to choose between a Valpolicella and an Amarone with food, I would definitely choose the Valpolicella.” For Michele, his Amarone is a wine that would overwhelm most foods. It also means the Amarone is clearly meant to be enoyed on its own, a true vino da meditazione.
One final note about the obsession with perfection at this winery. I tasted the 2008 Valpolicella from barrel – you do not taste wines from the bottle at Dal Forno, as I learned from Michele. He drew two ounces of this wine from a barrel with a thief and poured it in my glass; he immediately topped up that particular barrique with the same wine from an unmarked bottle he had ready for such a purpose. That’s not something you see everywhere, but Michele took the extra step of injecting gas into the barrel to displace the miniscule amount of oxygen that has escaped when he removed the bung. I had never seen that before- now that is attention to detail! Is it any wonder, given the fastidious work in the vineyards and in the cellar that the wines of Romano Dal Forno are extraordinary?