In memory of Franco Allegrini

David Gleave MW

Franco Allegrini, producer of some of the finest wines in Valpolicella, has died of cancer at the age of 65. He will be hugely missed.

Franco was born in December 1956, the youngest of the three Allegrini children. When their father, Giovanni, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1983, Walter, Marilisa and Franco found the responsibility of running the family business thrust upon them. Giovanni was a visionary, having bought the La Grola and Palazzo della Torre vineyards in the late 1970s, going deeply into debt to do so. Not only had they lost their father, but the three siblings also had to work out how to pay off their debts from sales of under 10,000 cases a year, at a time when Valpolicella struggled to sell at premium prices. The wines were light and, at best, vibrant, with most of them sold in two litre bottles by the large negociants.

I once had dinner with Franco at Ristorante Cavour in Madonna del Dossobuono, the restaurant that still serves the best bollito misto in the province of Verona. Franco knew the family well, for he had delivered wine in demi-john to them in the 1970s, together with his father. Those were the days before producers could make decent money from Amarone or Ripasso, the conditions that prevailed when his father Giovanni died.

The three siblings set about fighting for survival. Walter, quiet and calm, was already managing the vineyards and mediating between Marilisa and Franco. They were ‘made from the same pasta’ as they say in Italy: both were bright, dynamic and strong-willed. Marilisa improved her English and hit the road to sell their wines, while Franco set about learning everything he needed to about winemaking. Unlike Marilisa, he spoke no English. “I speak three languages,” he used to joke, “Italian and the dialects of Valpolicella and Verona.”

While such a comment might indicate a provincial outlook, Franco was anything but parochial when it came to tasting wine. He looked around the world for inspiration and education, a severe yet generous critic of the wines he tasted. “Franco was bursting with energy, both physical and intellectual,” recalls Matt Thomson, who has made the Alpha Zeta wines in Verona since 1999. “He didn’t have a lot of patience for anything that wasted time or stood in his way.”

The 1983 vintage saw the release of three new wines from Allegrini. Two were single vineyard wines from Valpolicella - La Grola and Palazzo della Torre - while the third was La Poja, a vino da tavola (at the time) made solely from Corvina grapes sourced from a limestone plateau that crowned the hill of La Grola. These three wines revolutionised Valpolicella, showing consumers – and Franco’s fellow producers – that Valpolicellla was capable of producing outstanding wines.

Despite this, by the end of the 1980s, most growers on the hills of Valpolicella Classico were losing money. The price of grapes was so low that growers could not cover their costs. Those on the more fertile soils of the plains to the south of the classica zone could work more efficiently and ramp up yields, but growers on the limestone soils of the hills, most of which were much more difficult to mechanise, produced significantly lower crops. Nino Franceschetti, the winemaker who created Campofiorin for Masi in the 1960s, was one of a number of people who Franco turned to for advice in the 1980s. In 1988, we were standing in the La Poja vineyard and Nino pointed to a site, below San Giorgio, being grubbed up to build houses. With tears in his eyes, he said “unless we make better wines that can sell for higher prices, all these vineyards, from here to Verona, will disappear.”

Franco was already achieving this with Allegrini. La Grola was the first wine in Valpolicella to be made from vines trained in the guyot system rather than the pergola trentina that was typical in the zone at the time. Guyot trained vines gave riper grapes with better tannins, meaning that neither drying nor ripasso were required. Palazzo della Torre was a pergola trained vineyard when Franco’s father bought it in 1979 (he had been buying the grapes for a couple of decades previously) so it was more suited to Ripasso, as the re-fermentation of the young wine on the skins of the grapes used for Amarone (and, more traditionally, Recioto) gave it the weight that pergola training failed to deliver in the vineyard.

By 1990, Franco’s questing mind devised a new approach to the Ripasso technique. “Using grapes that have already been used in the production of Recioto and Amarone is like using a tea bag twice,” Franco used to be fond of saying, especially to British visitors. “All the goodness has been extracted the first time around. And, on top of that, the dried grapes came from a different vineyard than Palazzo della Torre, so you reduce the importance of site.” In search of the supple tannins he loved in his wines, Franco decided to dry 25-30% of the grapes from the Palazzo della Torre vineyard for a couple of months and, after fermenting the remaining grapes, re-ferment the young wine they had produced on the skins of the dried grapes. “Not only were we getting all the goodness out of the dried grapes the first time around, but we were also amplifying, rather than masking, the character of the vineyard,” he explained.

While La Grola and Palazzo della Torre were changing perceptions of Valpolicella, La Poja quickly came to be seen as one of Italy’s most outstanding wines, and proof that Corvina could, when planted in the right spot, produce wines that stood with the best of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Not content with having created three ground-breaking wines, Franco turned his attention to Amarone. The wines at the time were high in alcohol, often over 16%, and lacking freshness. His aim was to produce a wine of the same depth and intensity but with a greater purity of fruit and lower alcohol. He realised he could only do this by improving the quality of grapes he laid down to dry, and by altering the drying process.

The 1980s had shown him that no matter how good the growing season, he could not make a good Amarone unless the drying season was equally as good. But if it wasn’t, if the autumn was warm and humid, the grapes laid down to dry on the bamboo mats would become tainted by botrytis. “The goodness of red wine is in the skins” was Franco’s mantra, so he set about trying to understand the drying process, and how it could be improved. His partner in this project was the head of oenology at the University of Verona, Professore Roberto Ferrarini. The 1990 vintage showed both of them the quality of Amarone that could be produced if a great growing season was combined with an outstanding drying season. “How do we do that each year?” they asked themselves.

Their experiments over the next few years created the template that all producers follow today: drying in large rooms where, if the weather is infelicitous, the temperature and humidity can be controlled. To provide further protection, the grapes were only handled once, being placed in slatted plastic crates in the vineyard, and then transported to the drying centre. “The key is handling the grapes once. The more you handle them, the more likely you are to damage the thin skins of Corvina. And if you do that, you create the conditions for the development of botrytis.” Franco’s intuitions as a wine producer, someone who walked the vineyards and knew the quality and character of wine produced from each plot, were tested and proved or disproved by Roberto’s empirical approach.

This approach led to Franco opening the Terre di Fumane drying centre in 1997. When I first visited, together with Matt Thomson, Franco challenged Matt “to find a single berry with botrytis.” He couldn’t. This was the key to producing a clean wine, one that tasted of intense dried cherries but without the oxidation that had characterised Amarone until that time.

This cleaner, fresher style of Amarone ensured that it became a wine to drink, rather than the vino da meditazione it had been in the 1970s and 1980s. This led to a boom in Amarone sales, ensuring growers on the hills could now make a profit from growing grapes. It was heartening to see vineyards being planted again on the hills of Valpolicella Classico in the late 1990s and early 2000s – and all thanks to the work that Franco and Roberto had done to revolutionise the style. As Marilisa Allegrini said of Roberto when he died in 2014: “If he’d had five cents for every bottle of Amarone sold as a direct result of his innovations, he’d have been a very wealthy man.”

The drying centre in Fumane was not a silver bullet, however. As Franco said, if you put in poor quality freshly picked grapes, you’ll end up with low quality dried grapes. But the purity of fruit he was now achieving in his own wines showed him what he needed to do next. He realised he needed better grapes, grapes from vineyards that were guyot trained to give a lower yield per plant and a greater phenolic ripeness. This meant buying new sites (the splendid Villa Cavarena) and grubbing up iconic vineyards like Fieramonte and replanting them with better clones and better techniques. Once again, he led the way in Valpolicella, forging a path that others have followed.

Every time I visited with Franco or Marilisa, I would marvel at what they had created. When I first visited their old winery in Fumane in the mid 1980s, we’d sit in the cantinetta and talk about new vintages and new wines. It was there I first tasted the 1983 La Poja, about six months before its release, a tasting that is imprinted on my memory. Together with Walter (who died in 2003), Franco and Marilisa took a small and indebted property in Valpolicella and built it into one of Italy’s – and quite possibly Europe’s – great family estates.

Franco is survived by his sister Marilisa, his wife Marilena and three sons, Francesco, Giovanni and Matteo. And for the rest of us, he has left a remarkable legacy, a wine region transformed, that I will toast every time I drink a bottle of wine from Valpolicella.