When you talk to the elegant Marilisa Allegrini, a couple of things stand out: her lovely Italian accent resplendent with rolling Rs, and her commitment to producing exceptional wine.
Marilisa Allegrini, CEO and co-owner of Allegrini Estates in Valpolicella, Italy, carries on a centuries-old tradition of winemaking expertise in her family that runs more than six generations deep. Allegrini Estates operates vineyards throughout Italy and sells wine in more than 60 countries.
As leader of one of the most prominent wine producers in Italy, Allegrini is one of the top women in the wine industry. She is considered a worldwide ambassador not just for the Allegrini company, but for Valpolicella and Italian wine production.
“I am very proud of my achievements,” Allegrini says. “I work very hard and I am happy that people recognize my hard work.”
Marilisa and her brothers took the reins of the family business in 1983, after the death of their father, Giovanni, the company’s founder. Marilisa Allegrini is keenly aware of her responsibilities as steward of the family legacy, which dates back to the 16th century, and draws inspiration particularly from the work of her late father.
Giovanni Allegrini was one of the first winemakers to devote himself to producing only excellent wines in Valpolicella, an area previously known for creating low-quality wine. A passionate viticulturist, Giovanni revolutionized traditional winemaking methods as he pursued new approaches to grape selection, drying, and fermentation, which influences the concentration of sugars and flavors in wines, particularly in regard to Amarone – a typically rich, Italian dry red wine made from partially dried grapes.
Not only did Giovanni’s hard work and devotion to winemaking establish new standards of quality, it had lasting effects on Valpolicella, which lies just outside Verona in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy. Valpolicella is now considered the home of some of Italy’s finest wines, and Allegrini’s aromatic, sumptuously fruity Amarone serves as an ambitious benchmark for the industry.
Decades after Giovanni’s passing, his passion remains evident in the continued growth and distinction of Allegrini products. Starting in the early 2000s, Marilisa led the company’s expansion into Bolgheri and coastal Tuscany, with the founding of Poggio al Tesoro and the purchase of Poggio San Polo.
Bolgheri, in Tuscany’s coastal region, provides a unique microclimate – its ventilation, sun exposure, and soil foster the growth of complex berries for winemaking. Bursting forth from a combination of clay, limestone, sandy soil, and in some areas, topsoil that contains pebbles, all of the right environmental characteristics come together in Bolgheri.
“Fantastic wines are produced in Bolgheri,” Marilisa Allegrini says. “If you go north 20 kilometers or 20 kilometers south, wines are not exactly the same. We have the wind that comes from the Mediterranean Sea, and the breeze that comes from the mountains, (which) are very important to maintain the health of the grapes. And there’s also the brightness. Being close to the sea, we have many days throughout the year where you have a very low level of humidity. But these are characteristics that other areas close to the coast have. So in my opinion what really makes Bolgheri special is the soil.”
Projects such as investing in Bolgheri have given Marilisa’s creativity free rein.
“Starting from scratch a new company and deciding which grape variety to plant, how to plant, the name of the wine, the style of the wine—it was a very, very creative experience,” she says.
In a sense when you run a winery “you can renew the creative experience every year [because] every year we can learn from the year before so we can improve our vineyard management and we can improve the quality of the wine.”
Blending tradition with innovation is an important aspect of Allegrini wines.
“You know, tradition is very important because we cannot be what we are without looking at our history, not only as vintners but also as human beings,” Allegrini says. “But we have to look for innovation, and when you are able to combine these two things, I think that this is a key factor for success. Innovation is vital because through innovation we can work better in our vineyard.”
It’s a particularly important element as climate change brings more extreme variations in weather conditions, she says.
Moving forward, quality wine will depend on the winemaker’s ability to maintain a balance of various wine components, she says. A decade ago, for example, many wine drinkers focused on the wine’s body.
“Consumers loved a lot of body, a lot of intensity,” she says. “Now we look to balance, which to me means three things: body, structure, and elegance. All of these things are important.”
She also sees a trend of people enjoying wine more often. “In the past, wine consumption for some people was not an everyday occurrence,” she says. “Now people have it on a regular basis. Consumption must be limited, of course, but more and more we want a glass of wine with a meal, and food has changed so much. For example, in Italy many foods had a lot of butter in the past. Now, there is a trend to have less fat in our food, and more of a focus on the flavors that come from ingredients. The wine must match the food.”
So, the traditionally high alcohol content of Amarone, for example, must be kept in check.
“Ours is usually 15 percent; we try not to get to 17 percent,” she says.
Given winemaking’s many enjoyable aspects, Allegrini finds it easy to remain passionate about working in the industry.
“It’s many different things together,” she says. “To work with nature, to go in the vineyard is probably the best feeling that I can have because I can really regenerate when I go in the vineyard. And to see the cycle of the nature is beautiful, and then, when you see the results and you see the grapes, and in the end, you see the grapes transformed into this beautiful product that is wine, and then with the wine, you can make many friends all over the world.”
She also delights in wine’s ability to bring people together: “Wine is a product where you have really good social communication. You sit at a table and you drink together, you enjoy life. So, everything is really exciting in wine production, from the beginning to the end.”
Every Allegrini wine tells the story of Marilisa’s family, she says, and is a reflection of “the long commitment that my family had to the wine production.”
“The vineyards that we have speak more than what I can do, because when you visit our vineyards, you can see that they are not just vineyards, but they are gardens with vines,” she says.
Indeed, Allegrini’s commitment to the land is evident in the company’s everyday choices such as not using pesticides and working the land manually. The extra work is worth it, Marilisa says, because “when we say a good wine starts in the vineyard, it’s true. My father used to say when in the winery and we have harvested the grapes, the only thing that we have to do is not to ruin what we did in the vineyard. If you have the good grapes, and if you use of course good practice and procedure, you make good wine.”
And so, the passion and innovative spirit that Giovanni brought to the family business years ago continues today, along with the core values that have been passed down through six generations of Allegrinis.
“There’s a big responsibility because you’re taking over a long legacy,” she says. “I always consider how much my father, my grandfather, my ancestors worked to build the company into what it is today. And so, I feel proud. I feel the passion that they had working very hard and I hope that I will be able to pass on the same value to my daughters.”
Giovanni Allegrini and his forebears no doubt would be proud of the family business today, and of Marilisa and her winemaker brother, Franco. (Their elder brother, Walter, who oversaw the care of the Allegrini vineyards, died prematurely in 2003.)
“Giovanni was a very positive guy,” Marilisa says. “Even in difficult times, because you can imagine the Italian wine production 40 years ago was not the same as it is now, he was always positive. He was a kind of pioneer and a kind of really strong personality. He introduced a lot of innovation in Valpolicella, and is still remembered, even though he passed away in 1983.”
When she considers the significance of upholding and building upon Giovanni’s legacy, Marilisa pauses, looks wistful, and places her hand on her chest: “I feel this deeply. It’s inside me. He gave me so much. He gave me his knowledge, he gave me his enthusiasm, and he gave me an example of a fantastic human being. Everything I do, every decision I make, I think ‘What would my father do?’ Every presentation I give about wine, I think about him. He represents my past, but he is still very present inside me.”
Written by Karen A. Jamrog for the May issue of Celebrate Magazine.