When I die, I hope God will ask me to carry on making wine in paradise: it’s the only thing I know how to do.” But Giuseppe “Bepi” Quintarelli, who died in 2012, was being modest. He knew more than just how to “make” wine. He was an alchemist who devoted all his love and intelligence to creating some of the world’s very best wines.
Each year, Pendolino’s group sommelier Cristian Casarin and I visit family-run wineries in Italy, sampling the latest vintages. This year, partially for a Venetian cookbook I’m working on, we were lucky to visit the wine phenomenon that is Quintarelli. While I was familiar with the winery and Bepi’s legacy, seeing and experiencing it first-hand was an absolute treasure, especially considering the fact that cellar door visits here, while not impossible, are rare.
The Godfather of Amarone, Bepi is the mastermind behind Valpolicella’s most celebrated winery, which for more than half a century has enjoyed an almost mythical reputation around the world. Bepi managed to create and maintain a cult-like status for a brand that is the very definition of boutique, and with very little fanfare – actually without attempting to do so at all. The winery has no website or social media presence, there’s not even a sign out the front. It doesn’t seek media exposure, awards or industry accolades, it just wants to be the very best at what it does, and has absolutely succeeded.
“All were stunning – some of the best wines I’ve ever tasted.”
Quintarelli was established on a family estate near Negrar village in the 1920s, in the heart of the Valpolicella wine region in Verona. But the winery started its best work in the 1950s when Bepi took the reins from his father. He shifted the brand’s focus from bulk wine to super-high premium products, a move that catapulted Quintarelli into another realm.
‘Catapulted’ suggests speed, however, and Bepi was never one to rush things. He was the perfect mix of innovation and traditionalism, of using technology to further a cause while valuing the fact that all good things take time. Take Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella, for example. The normal ageing period for Amarone, a DOCG wine, is three years. But at Quintarelli it sits in barrel for an additional five years – eight years in total.
Today, Quintarelli’s entry-level Valpolicella Superiore is aged for seven years. They could sell it after six months and it would still be an incredible product, but no, that’s not the Quintarelli way. It’s an audacious move to hold onto your product while those around you are going to market, but Quintarelli’s method hasn’t just been rewarded, it’s what defines it, and it’s why the winery is today synonymous with exceptional quality.
There are larger and older estates in the Valpolicella region, but none have the respect or reputation of Bepi and Quintarelli. In fact, the driving forces behind some of the very best producers in the area, including Romano dal Forno and Zyme, cut their teeth at Quintarelli – some are even blood relatives.
Another key difference is Quintarelli’s complete control over the winemaking
process, from grape-growing to (until relatively recently) hand-bottling. A lot of fellow Valpolicella wineries are negociants, making wine from grapes from third-party vineyards. But Quintarelli ensures everything is estate-grown and made. Granted, the grapes used and the wines sold at rival wineries are also exceptional in quality, but that was neither here nor there for Bepi. He never had any interest in what everyone else was doing. For him, it was about quality control, and keeping it in the family.
With an annual run of just 60,000 bottles, Quintarelli’s range includes one white, Bianco Secco – one of the first dry white wines in the region – as well as its benchmark Valpolicella and, its most celebrated, the aforementioned Amarone.
“Quintarelli is Amarone,” says Mauro Lorenzon of Enoiteca Mascareta in Venice, and president of Italy’s Wine Bar Association, Vinarius. Bepi would only release it after an exceptional vintage and if, after eight years of ageing, he deemed it to be of the absolute highest standard. This is still the case. If a vintage fails to meet the almost unattainable standard set, it is declassified (willingly by Quintarelli, not by the appellation’s governing body) and is bottled as Rosso del Bepi. Second-rate wine? Hardly. Most winemakers would fall over themselves to attach their names to such a premium drop – it would arguably sit comfortably as a bonafide superior quality Amarone in the vast majority of portfolios.
Quintarelli’s other flagship in its range is Recioto, its dessert wine. Decades ago, Bepi and fellow luminaries realised it had the potential to become stunning as a dry wine, if fermentation could be maintained. This was the genesis of Amarone, which in its early days was called Amarone di Recioto.
For Recioto, like Amarone, the grapes are picked as normal, then undergo the same process of appassimento, where they’re dried for a minimum of three months, until they appear almost raisin-like, intensifying the colour and flavour, and rounding out the tannins. They’re then fermented in barrel as normal, and it was at this point that Bepi started to create a league of his own. He realised that if he could temperature control the wineries and keep the fermentation process going through the cold winter nights, almost all the sugar would be converted into alcohol, and Recioto would transform into something completely different. The Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella was born.
Bepi’s passing sent shockwaves through the wine world, and of course through his family, who have embarked on the humbling role of maintaining the late patriarch’s legacy and exacting eye. Today, his daughter Fiorenza, son-in-law Giampaolo and grandsons Francesco and Lorenzo run the winery. When Cristian and I visited, we were lucky enough to be shown around the stunning property by the very reserved but absolutely genuine, thoughtful and warm Francesco.
Like the brand itself, the winery is a perfect mix of antiquity and modernity. It’s reserved but sophisticated. Impressive, without trying to be. Quality is everywhere: in the skill of the people, the winery’s design, furnishings and, of course, wine. We enjoyed a tasting in the ageing room, where each wooden barrel has a different symbolic etching. Some represent family members – dedicated to Bepi, his wife, their daughters – and I was particularly taken by a beautiful nod to Negrar’s history and the role African slaves played in its establishment in Roman times.
The walls are lined with some of Quintarelli’s oldest and most celebrated wines, bearing the customary handwritten and hand-glued labels. We tried the full range, from the Bianco Secco to the Recioto. All were stunning – some of the best wines I’ve ever tried, but I wasn’t expecting anything less. If you’re lucky enough to visit Quintarelli, it’s not to assess the wines, it’s to experience artistry at its finest and to be grateful for the opportunity.
Enoteca Sydney is the exclusive importer of Quintarelli in Australia. For cellar door visits and sales go to enotecasydney.com.au