Anteprima Amarone is a 3-day wine festival held annually in Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Verona's famous Piazza Bra. The event provides an opportunity to enjoy a sneak preview of the region's latest vintage before it hits the market, as well as a selection of earlier Amarone vintages.
Organised and promoted by the Consorzio per la Tutela dei vini Valpolicella, over 70 cantinas are present. For the very reasonable entry price of €30, you can sample as many wines as you like. The entrance fee also includes a tasty selection of local sweet and savoury snacks.
Equipped with a glass, a map of the famous wine growing region and a steely resolve, I bravely enter the fray.
The territory - Valpolicella
Valpolicella (the latin translation is said to be "valleys with many cellars") is a semi-rural area to the north of Verona. The region extends from the shores of Lake Garda in the west to the Lessini Mountains in the north, beyond which lie the Eastern Alps. The area is heavily cultivated, with most farm land dedicated to wine production. A fan-shaped landscape, with a series of valleys that emanate from the city itself, they open outwards as they extend north.
These gentle hills, the fertile soil and a particular microclimate, provide the perfect conditions for wine production. Many of the vineyards in Valpolicella are small family run affairs, for whom sustainable and environmentally-friendly production techniques are a long-standing way-of-life, rather than simply just a modern marketing fad.
The wine - Amarone della Valpolicella
Amarone is widely regarded as one of the best and most important Italian red wines. Although production has expanded significantly since the mid-1990s, limits on overall production capacity mean that ordering a bottle of Amarone should never become a routine matter of course.
Amarone originated from the ancient Recioto, (a sweet velvety wine) and was originally known as "Acinatico", in recognition of its dry, bitter taste. Amarone itself was first bottled in the early 20th century for family use or for sharing with friends; it was only put on the market the years after the second world war. In 1968 it received the controlled designation of origin (DOC). Some of the cantinas that produce Amarone have been making wine in Valpolicella for centuries, others, are relative newcomers, having been established in the last 20 years.
Amarone production requires the very best quality grapes and attentive, hands on, care. Depending on local climatic conditions, the grapes are generally harvested towards the end of September or the beginning of October. Once harvested, they are carefully laid out in wooden or plastic crates or on bamboo fruit drying racks. In order to allow the air to freely circulate and to avoid crushing, the fruit is laid in a single layer. The racks are then moved to the grape-drying building known as the fruttaio. In order to survive this delicate drying phase, the grapes must be perfectly healthy and ripe.
The grapes remain here for three-four months until they lose at least half of their weight and reach a concentration of sugars equal to 25-30%. They are kept under constant control and the bunches are turned regularly to avoid rot or mould forming.
When the drying process is over, the grapes are crushed. The crushing generally occurs in January and February, when the temperatures are low.
Maturation takes places in wooden barrels ranging from big Slavonian oak casks to small French barriques. Remarkably, some of these casks have now found there way to the Scottish Island of Arran, where they are used to mature a unique malt whisky. You can read about that here.
After maturation the wine is finally bottled. About 6 out of every 10 bottles of Amarone are exported. The USA and Canada are the biggest export markets. Switzerland, Sweden and Germany are also popular export destinations.
The 2013 vintage
Although it seems to have been a tough year for the local winemakers, the 2013 vintage is considered to be of medium to high quality, offering wines of high color intensity, rich nose and taste, with significant alcohol that blends harmoniously with the acidity and body. Generalisations are difficult, however, and I was genuinely surprised at how different each Amarone tasted. From robust and full bodied, to light and watery. Some were extraordinarily fruity while others were spicy, caramel flavoured and even medicinal.
With over 70 wines to choose from, you could quite happily spent the entire day at the fair. I limited myself to sampling around a dozen. There can't be many better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon!
Perhaps it was the fine Tuscan wine. Perhaps it was the strong Florentine Negronis. Perhaps it was just the time of year, that festive lull that falls somewhere between Christmas and New Year.
For whatever reason, a recent trip to Florence found me in somewhat reflective mood.
The topic of my reflections?
Like everyone else, I was pontificating on the remarkable spate of 'celebrity' deaths that had occurred in 2016.
The news of Carrie Fisher's death, which broke just as were arriving in Florence, was the final blow in a year in which such tragedies seemed to strike with breathtaking frequency.
From global icons like David Bowie, Prince, Mohamahed Ali and Fidel Castro, to national treasures including Paul Daniels, Victoria Wood, Caroline Aherne and Andrew Sachs, the full list of celebrity deaths in 2016 makes for sobering reading (www.independent.co.uk/news/people/carrie-fisher-debbie-reynolds-david-bowie-prince-clebrities-died-dead-in-2016-year-a7500181.html).
Throw in monentous political events like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the Italian constitutional referendum and, by anyone's standards, 2016 has been a truly momentous year.
But, I hear you ask, what has all this got to do with Florence?
This was my first time in Florence in nearly 20 years. The last time, was as a fresh faced 19 year old in the baking heat of the Tuscan summer. The intervening years have been kind to the city (if not to me). I remember a tired city, saturated by tourists, littered with shabby public spaces. It was a city that, perhaps understandably given its remarkable contribution to language, art and society, seemed to be living in the past.
This time, while the city still teamed with tourists, it seemed to be coping much better with its extraordinary artistic legacy.
Wide pedestrianised avenues, excellent shopping, and welcoming bars and restaurants, particularly in Oltrarno, the city's blossoming south bank.
Wandering the streets, piazzas and public spaces of Florence, it is clear that the city's Renaissance treasures are still its number one attraction, but the city seems to be wearing its past so much better than I remember.
With the exception of one unsavoury incident involving a frozen pizza, we ate (and drank) extra-ordinarily well. We stumbled into warm lively bars and cafes, not to mention modern public spaces, galleries and markets.
Of course, the Renaissance still featured heavily on our itinerary. Florence has been described, after all, as the greatest factory of beauty the world has ever seen, and it is still home to the finest collection of pictures and sculpture in the world.
The Medici Dynasty Show, by the English Theatre Show, tells the fascinating story of the three hundred year reign of the Medici family who, from the early 15th to the early 18th Century, bankrolled the great age of Florentine art. It was a great show and, for a philistine like me, a fantastic way to get to grips with this truly remarkable period in the city's history.
Later that night, after the crowds had dispersed, we took a a spine-tingling stroll across the Piazzale degli Uffizi. The imposing statues of the great Florentines, from Giotto and Donatello, Leonardo and Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, Galileo and Amerigo Vespucci (the Florentine explorer who gave America its name), gaze imperiously across the narrow piazza. In the eerie presence of such towering genius, this late-night walk through the deserted portico was a surreal and strangely moving experience.
Crossing the Ponte Vecchio to the southbank, we soon found ourselves falling into a warm, welcoming and lively (despite the hour) osteria on Piazza Santo Spirito.
Is it possible, I pondered over a bottle of Chianti and some delicious seafood, to compare the artistic impact of contemporary artists, including those who died last year, with the masters of the Renaissance?
Will the work of Bowie, Prince, George Michael and Carrier Fisher be revered 200 years from now in the same way as that of Dante, Monteverdi, da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo are still revered today?
I know, it seems like an absurd comparison.
Modern pop culture is a shallow, transient phenomenon with little lasting impact. The Renaissance, on the other hand, was one of the greatest cultural movements known to mankind, bringing with it great advances in literature, art, science, politics and philosophy.
How can you possibly compare the contributions of unique polymaths such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo with the better half of a 1980s boy band?
Of course, art is for its time. But surely some art from our age will stand the test of time, amongst which must surely be the work of Bowie and Prince?
And, I like to think, 200 years from now, teenagers might find themselves bopping along to the simple but compelling rhythm of Club Tropicana, pontificating on a time long ago when drinks were free and strangers took you by the hand.
Rome’s famous Stadio Olimpico is well-known as the home of Italian football giants SS Lazio and AS Roma.
Twice a season, this modern-day colosseum is the setting for one of Italian football’s fiercest rivalries.
The dark history behind this iconic sporting arena is less well-known.
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