The outsider who became legend
The Romano Dal Forno winery at Val d’Illasi in Valpolicella is the epitome of beauty and innovation. Far away from the prestigious classico zone of Valpolicella, the soil is mainly alluvial with unique volcanic pockets. It is 300 metres above sea level. The weather is reasonably cold during the winter, although less so than it used to be; as a result, ripening is no longer a problem. The landscape around Val d’Illasi is far more Mediterranean, with an abundance of orchards and olive groves.
Romano’s family has owned vineyards for four generations. In the years following the Second World War, at a time when agriculture had fallen into steady decline, Romano’s dream of establishing his own winery, and living off it, was considered nothing if not eccentric. Growing grapes was seen as merely an addition to a farmer’s income, and this area of Valpolicella was completely unknown in terms of wine production.
Fortunately Romano refused to follow established thinking, and a chance encounter with the legendary winemaker Giuseppe Quintarelli, known as il Maestro della Valpolicella, proved invaluable. As an apprentice to the great Quintarelli, Romano began to learn and develop the art of fine wine, not least his mentor’s emphasis on long periods of maturation. He produced his first vintage in 1983, and Romano proved himself to be a visionary of the most tenacious variety.
Dal Forno not only continues the tradition established by Quintarelli, but in the process it has developed a new, world-class tradition of its own.
A visit to the Dal Forno winery is like stepping into a space-age laboratory run by technicians who exude pure Italian finezza.
Dal Forno’s sworn enemy is oxygen, which is being tackled with modern, high-tech innovations. Highly specialised vacuum pumps have been developed that suck the air out of the containers where the wine is racked. Dal Forno himself developed the wine tanks. In the final bottling, nitrogen – a colourless and odourless gas – replaces the air from the atmosphere to minimise oxidation. It also helps to preserve the colour, aroma and flavour of the wine and all its rich phenolic, fruity substances.
Dal Forno also revolutionised the system of appasimento, a traditional technique used in Valpolicella to wither the grapes slowly after harvest which allows more complex substances to develop in the berries. For the Valpolicella Superiore the grapes are withered for 45 days, and 90 days for the Amarone.
Dal Forno noticed that the grapes were drying unevenly, depending on where they were in the drying room and how the bunches were placed in the crate. He designed a bespoke system of movable fans that circulated among stacked crates, ensuring that all the grapes had the same amount of air. The system, which is computer controlled, runs non-stop day and night, exactly mimicking nature. Windows open and close depending on the weather.
As a result, the grapes are dried equally and for longer. In Dal Forno they have a saying: “Even the best chef in the world needs good tools. That’s why we need the most modern and advanced technology. And if it doesn’t exist, we’ll design it.”
If there is just one word that sums up the Dal Forno family, it would be passion. Forty years in winemaking is the blink of an eyelid, but in that time Dal Forno has become a synonym for quality. It is an extraordinary achievement that would not be possible without dedication and persistence. The extremely low yield from the vines and the super-concentration of the grapes results in the small production of the winery.
Two techniques are used to keep the berries concentrated and the wine so dense. First, there is a severe green harvest that leaves fewer bunches of grapes on each plant.
Secondly, the density of the planting is one of the highest in the world. Valpolicella law dictates a minimum density of 3,300 plants per hectare, whereas at Dal Forno the density is 13,000 plants per hectare. It forces the vines to compete with one another and develop deep roots, which in turn produces a ridiculously low but intense yield. A single bottle of wine needs the grapes from 12 or 13 vines. But quality is paramount, even if the costs and investment are huge. “The aim,” according to one of Romano’s three sons Marco, “is the vibration of the heart.”
As they experimented in the past with different types of oak and different periods of barrel ageing, Dal Forno produced vintages that varied from year to year. Even then, though, the wines were always dense and complex and never boring. Those qualities have never been lost, but in the last 20 years the style has become more consistent and defined.
And if the vintage is not considered good enough, they will not hesitate to skip Amarone production.
The vision hasn’t changed for Dal Forno. The perfect grapes. The appassimento method. The vinification. The ageing. The best that nature can provide combined with the best that technology can offer. This way they believe they can not only create a great wine, but something that can change perceptions and spread happiness.
And now with Romano’s sons Marco, Luca and Michele in full support of their father’s vision, the future of the Dal Forno winery is assured.
Main photo Wilson Daniels photo archive.