Some of you know I spent almost a month in the Verona area earlier this year, to study with the Vinitaly International Academy in becoming an Italian Wine Ambassador. While in Italy, I was happy to explore from Lake Garda all the way over to Venice, with a focus on the wines of Valpolicella.
As I walked the city and hiked the hills, my previous affection for the local red wines blossomed into full blown amore. I suppose that's not hard to believe, given the area has natural beauty in spades, a sense of romance, Roman ruins galore, and some of the best food anywhere on the planet (served from a multitude of delightfully no frills osteria: polenta with melting gorgonzola, anyone?).
Back to those wines. There are several local grapes that are blended together to create a spectrum of styles ranging from simple and quaffable tavern fare, to richer and rounder, and some so intense they're given the distinction of being called a vino da meditazione or 'meditation wine'. What a blissful concept.
The unmistakable flavour of cherries is the foundation they all share: Valpolicella, Ripasso, Amarone, and Recioto.
The main grapes are Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella, each adding something special to the blend. Corvina brings deep colour, Corvinone is excellent for drying, and Rondinella brings fruitiness. What makes them easy to remember is that they are all named for birds. Corvina and Corvinone are both named for the raven's black plumage (the -one in Corvinone implies greater plumpness), and Rondinella is named for the swallow. It's tempting to imagine they got their name for the birds' enthusiasm in plucking ripe grapes off the pergolas in Autumn. You'll also hear of Oseleta (for dark colour and backbone), and Molinara (pale, adds acidity and herbal spice) playing a role in blends.
Valpolicella has three sub-regions centered in the hills just to the north of Verona: 1) Valpolicella DOC Classico, the historic heart of the area, with the famous finger-shaped valleys of Fumane, Marano, and Negrar (and the towns of Sant'Ambrogio and San Pietro in Cariano), 2) the Valpatena Valley (Roman writer Floro said the sweetness of Valpatena wines made them a favourite with Romans and Celts), and 3) the larger zone of Valpolicella DOC.
If you pick up a bottle of Valpolicella DOC off the shelf, you can anticipate a light bodied cherry-flavoured red with enough natural acidity to stand up to rich regional dishes like creamy risotto or hearty bigoli ragu. If the label says Superiore, it's a step up in terms of aging, creating a little extra roundness on the palate.
Valpolicella Ripasso DOC is one of the great easy drinking wines of the world, and I'd love to see it receive more attention. Take a basic Valpolicella wine, and add the skins left from the Amarone or Recioto (more on those below). These skins give a sugar boost to the wine, which ferments a little longer for more oomph. Slightly higher alcohol, rounder body, and smoother tannins are the reward. These are available as a Superiore as well. Ripasso is sometimes called 'baby Amarone', as it's in between the lightness of a Valpol and the richness of an Amarone.
Now we get to the meditazione: Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG (from amaro meaning bitter). Why lie? This is one of my favourite styles of wine IN THE WORLD. I cannot hide my enthusiasm, so there it is. Bias!
Amarone is a dry to off-dry wine that evolved from the very sweet Recioto style. Take your grapes into the fruttaio, a loft where the drying winds blow coolly through the racks, and leave them to dry for 100 to 120 days or so. The water in the grapes evaporates, and the sugars remain and interact with the skins creating extra complexity.
What you get is a powerful wine, with alcohol that can knock your socks off if you don't share the bottle. Sip slowly, friends. We're talking 16% ABV, but with all the dried cherry, tobacco, spice, and vanilla, you might not even taste it. Tannins are smooth and ripe and round in the mouth. Amarone can age for eons, but I prefer to drink it on the youthful side (under 10 years old).
Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG is a distinctive dark red sweet wine. I like to imagine a Roman emperor sipping on it as he issues directions to his scribe by torchlight. The name derives from the ears of the grapes (those little wings that form at the top of the bunch and become super ripe), which in Italian are called orechie.
Recioto's fermentation is stopped while there are plenty of grape sugars left, making it richly unctuous, endowed with jammy cherry deliciousness, and a perfect pairing for gorgonzola.
Notable Valpolicella Wines to Buy:
Tenuta Santa Maria alla Pieve Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Superiore 2013: Soft velvet textured tannins and a plush ripe nose of summery sun-ripened fruit, spiced with clove.
Cantina Castelnuovo Del Garda Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Classico Superiore 2014 Ca' di Mori Montaer: Medium ruby with soft velvety tannins, dried cherry, plummy cinnamon spice, cocoa and licorice. A great food wine.
Domenico Fraccaroli Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Superiore 2012 Grotta del Ninfeo: Vibrant but earthy. Clove spice lifted by tart red cherry freshness. This estate dates back to a Roman farm.
Cantina Valpolicella Negrar Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2010 Domini Veneti Vigneti di Jago: Bright fruit and muscular tannic structure with cherry, plum, and warm spice from this co-op produced wine. Classic Valpol dust and peppery earth.
Corte Scaletta Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG 2011: Marzipan spice, purple floral, pure, fresh, bright, peppery. Unique and delicious. Grapes were dried 90 days and a natural ferment was done.
Cantina Valpatena Verona Amarone della Valpolicella 2012 Torre del Falasco: Hint of garnet colour, higher alcohol, dried fruit, licorice, vanilla, and a hint of oaky toast. A popular style that can be enjoyed young. The grapes spent four months drying before fermentation.
Scriani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG 2011: Very pure ripe cherry flavour, singing with baking spice, dried plums. Full bodied and intense.
What's your favourite version of Valpolicella, or favourite producer? Please share your wisdom!
Photos courtesy of Valpolicella Consorzio Tutela Vini