THE CHARMING WINES OF VALPOLICELLA

 The 'valley of many cellars' is formed of several famous fingerling valleys

The 'valley of many cellars' is formed of several famous fingerling valleys

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.

 Grapes drying in traditional wooden racks (originally used in the region's production of silk)

Grapes drying in traditional wooden racks (originally used in the region's production of silk)

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. 

 Golden pergolas

Golden pergolas

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.

 Valpolicella's sub-regions, in the Verona foothills of the Eastern Alps, with Lake Garda to the west

Valpolicella's sub-regions, in the Verona foothills of the Eastern Alps, with Lake Garda to the west

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.

 Grapes in the fruit drying loft called a 'fruttaio' in the magical process of  appassimento

Grapes in the fruit drying loft called a 'fruttaio' in the magical process of appassimento

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!

Cin cin,

Rachel

Photos courtesy of Valpolicella Consorzio Tutela Vini

PROSECCO SUPERIORE & WHY IT'S WORTH SPENDING MORE FOR

 Future UNESCO site? An application is in the works

Future UNESCO site? An application is in the works

It's a truth universally acknowledged... that a chilled bottle of Prosecco must be in want of a drinker. But must it be true that all Prosecco is equally cheap and cheerful?

Dear reader, today I will try to convince you in favour of spending a smidgen more in pursuit of higher quality. I put it to you that Prosecco Superiore is not only a delicious wine, but that it's worthy of your respect and interest.

Prosecco is made in an area of Italy called Conegliano Valdobbiadene, in the Veneto region in the northeast of Italy. Perhaps you've heard it's a hilly place where the vineyards are so steep they have to be harvested by hand, as no tractor would survive the slopes, but I think this picture says it best:

 It's a leg day

It's a leg day

There are two towns which give the region its name: Conegliano (home of the famous oenology school) and Valdobbiadene. There are 15 communes in this area, and you may see the name of one of 43 individual sites, or Rive ("ree-vay") on your bottle, in addition to the words Prosecco Superiore DOCG

The most famous subzone within the DOCG area is called Cartizze ("car-teet-zay"), a tiny 107 hectares that is known for some very special bubbles. One trick I learned from a winemaker is that Cartizze often has the scent of wisteria blooms, which is very romantic, as is the touch of sweetness found on the palate.

So what sets Prosecco DOCG apart? It's these steep, steep slopes, which make the best home for quality sparkling made from the Glera grape = the best aspect, the best soils, the best ripening (ps: Glera's a distinctive creature: it has a delicate floral aroma, peaches too, especially white peach, plus green apple). 

Wines made from the best steep sites have a definite brightness and lift that is utterly refreshing, and yes, you can taste the difference in a blind test. By law, the grapes must be picked by hand. Non-DOCG wines have a huge demarcated area, including the lesser regarded valley floors. 

Aren't you curious to try more of the wines produced in these hills? I know I am.

 These slopes are mayjah (the terraces are the work of centuries)

These slopes are mayjah (the terraces are the work of centuries)

Here's where things get a little confusing: the residual sugar content. There are three levels you'll see on the label: Brut, which is the driest (0-12 grams/litre), Extra Dry is the traditional style in the middle (12-17 g/l), and the sweetest is called, wait for it... Dry (17-32 g/l). So, easy to remember: just think the reverse of dry is Dry!

Other terms you might see are: Millesimato, which is the vintage the grapes were harvested. Spumante means sparkling. Frizzante, which is semi-sparkling and aged on the lees in a traditional style, and Tranquilo, which means 'still' (the rules are that Frizzante and Tranquilo wines aren't labelled with Superiore). Demi-long refers to the wine sitting on lees for at least six months, and Long is for at least one year.

Most Prosecco is made using the Martinotti (also known as Charmat or autoclave) method, which helps glorify the Glera perfume, although interestingly there are some wines being produced in the Traditional (or Champagne) method. 

 Veneto, meet Friuli. Friuli, Veneto. Protected from north winds by the Dolomites, with the Adriatic to the east.

Veneto, meet Friuli. Friuli, Veneto. Protected from north winds by the Dolomites, with the Adriatic to the east.

Notable Prosecco DOCG Wines to buy:

Bisol Superiore di Cartizze DOCG Dry 2014: Meyer lemon meets purple floral, and sweet red apple, lightly spiced with ginger. Creamy bubbles, luxurious.
Colvendra' Prosecco Superiore Millesimato Brut DOCG 2015: Soft candied pear, white honeysuckle, refreshing acidity with harmonious mineral and green apple palate. Summery. Melon kissed with grapefruit zest.
Sorelle Bronca Particella 68 Prosecco Superiore DOCG: Delicate green melon, leesy, creamy, yet vibrant. A stony mineral core with lilac top notes.
Terre Di San Venanzio Fortunato Valdobbiadene Brut DOCG: Luscious bubbles, fuller bodied. Notes of pear drop, green apple, and floral.
Val D'Oca Le Rive Di Colbertaldo Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry DOCG 2015: Full of green apple and crisp fresh pear. Orange peel citrus, green melon. Mineral for miles. Acidity balances plush residual sugar. Notably creamy mousse. Pair with delicate foods.
Villa Sandi Valdobbiadene Superiore Di Cartizze Vigna La Rivetta Brut DOCG: Lilac and fresh bloomed purple wisteria. Leesy complexity meets red apple on the palate. A treat.

I hope I've piqued your curiosity and you'll give these wines a try. Let me know, what's your favourite Prosecco? 

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

Photos courtesy of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Consorzio

INTERVIEW WITH WINEMAKER GABRIELE TACCONI OF RUFFINO

This week is the Vancouver International Wine Festival, featuring many of the best wineries of theme country Italy. I was lucky to sit down with Gabriele Tacconi, who is the chief winemaker of historic Ruffino.

We had a chat in the tasting ballroom, looking over the vista of the North Shore mountains and ocean, to discuss (over some delicious sips): his work as the third winemaker at Ruffino since 1877, Pinot Grigio, Chianti, the new Gran Selezione category, native grapes in Chianti, and Supertuscans, plus recent vintages in Tuscany, and what foods to pair with his wines.

Ruffino wines tasted in the podcast:

  • Lumina Pinot Grigio IGT 2014
  • Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2012
  • Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG 2010
  • Modus Toscana IGT 2012

Cheers,

Rachel

CHIANTI CLASSICO IN THE LIMELIGHT

ONCE upon a time, the powerful Republics of Florence and Siena were great enemies. Being medieval times™, it was decided a battle between two noble knights would settle the score over just who owned the territory between their beautiful cities, in the area we know today as Chianti.

At dawn, the rooster’s crow would be the signal for each knight to leave their city and where they met, they would fight to create a border between the territories. The Sienese had a lovely white rooster, who they groomed and fed. The Florentines had a black rooster, who they caged and treated (at least according to the Sienese) quite poorly. The little guy was underfed, and really, really hungry.

On the day of the duel, the black rooster was so eager for the day to begin, and for breakfast, that he started crowing and crowing, nevermind that dawn was hours away. Since, technically, Mr. Florence can now start to ride, he gains a massive head start on his journey south. Dawn arrives, and the white rooster crows. Mr. Siena starts on his way. But the black rooster has given Florence such a head start, that the two meet only a few miles north of Siena! The Florentine knight wins the duel, and coincidentally, most of the territory of Chianti comes under Florence’s power.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the black rooster comes to be on bottles of Chianti Classico… or so they say!

When you think of Chianti, does it bring to mind the straw-wrapped candle holder from Lady and The Tramp? Well, if so, it’s time to reconsider, and give Chianti a fresh chance. A good Chianti is a delicious prospect.

Chianti Classico is a region in Tuscany that lies between the cities of Florence and Siena. Look for ‘Classico DOCG’ and that trademark symbol of a black rooster on the label, this means you’re getting wine from this specific region. There are about 10,000 hectares of rolling-hill vineyards in Chianti Classico, and most of them are the grape variety Sangiovese. Sangio must make up at least 80% of what’s in your bottle, and the other 20% can be a local grape like Canaiolo or the more familiar Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.

About that Sangiovese: when it’s a younger wine, expect red fruit flavors like strawberry and some good tannins. Then, as it matures, it can develop an earthy, baking spice note that is quite appealing, and as those tannins soften they become almost magical. I love this grape when I catch the scent of violets. I think of it in some ways as a more powerful cousin to Pinot Noir, so if you like those aromatic PN qualities, I think you’ll enjoy Sangio.

Sometimes, it’s a little confusing – what’s the difference between regular Chianti and Chianti Classico? For that, we have to go back to 1716, when the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, gave official borders to the wine region. Then, flash forward to the early 1900’s, when Chianti, growing ever more popular, has greatly expanded production. In response to the higher demand, wine starts being grown in lesser areas, outside the official zone but still called Chianti.

Of course, quality and reputation start to suffer. So, in 1932 specific rules were set out, that only Cosimo’s original historic area can call itself ‘Chianti Classico’ (there are 9 communes within Classico such as Greve in Chianti and Radda in Chianti). The outer areas that don’t fall within Classico can call themselves plain old ‘Chianti’ plus a place name (for example Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Senesi).

Italians love quality, just think of Italian suits or Italian sheets. So of course, they have a quality ranking system within Classico:

~There’s the basic ‘Chianti Classico’, which has to have at least 12% alcohol and mature for 12+ months. These can be quite good, and will be the most cost-effective option.

~Then there’s Riserva, which has a little more alcohol, 12.5%, implying that maybe the fruit was a little better, and it gets double the aging at 24+ months, which can also help those tannins get a little smoother and bring out the spice and earth notes. Very good value to be found here.

~Now, as of 2013, there’s a new top tier blockbuster, called Gran Selezione, boom! It needs to have at least 13% alcohol and age for 30+ months, plus it must be made from the winery’s best grapes of a single vineyard – and yes, the price is much higher to match. If you like Brunello, you’ll love the Grand Sel’s.

If you’re open to giving Chianti Classico a try (and you really should), these are all wines that I loved and would give my ‘buy’ rating to:

Classico

Chianti Classico DOCG Cennatoio Avorio 2012

Chianti Classico DOCG Casina di Cornia 2012

Chianti Classico DOCG Rodano 2010

Chianti Classico DOCG Castello di Cacchiano 2009

Chianti Classico DOCG Felsina Berardenga 2012

Riserva

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Castello di Gabbiano 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Villa Antinori 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Cortevecchia 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Carobbio 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva O’Leandro 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Casa Sola 2009

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Montornello 2012

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Poggio a’ Frati 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Vigna Misciano 2011

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva Campoalto 2009

Gran Selezione

Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Don Tommaso 2010

Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Castello Fonterutoli 2011

 

Cin Cin, Rachel

THE BEST OF 2010 BRUNELLO

Lovely Brunello. Delicious, expensive, debonair Brunello di Montalcino.

Brunello is a red wine made from the Sangiovese grape. The best Brunellos are capable of long aging (30+ years), and can take several years of cellaring in order to be considered ready to drink.

The region has about 3,000 acres of vineyard, in the tiny and romantic Tuscan hilltop town of Montalcino, Italy. If you visit, you will get some exercise as you walk up the cobblestone walkways, under arches and past fountain squares, to arrive at one of the many chic wine boutiques.

Brunello is aged for a minimum of five years after the year the grapes are harvested (six years for Riserva wines). The time in oak barrels, and in the bottle, helps to mellow this powerful, tannic, and complex wine. If you like Pinot Noir, think of Brunello as it’s older, more powerful cousin.

Yes, a good Brunello will set you back some money. It’s not the kind of wine you pop out for and drink the same night. These bottles require a little love and patience. I’ve got a couple sitting downstairs that will be ready to drink over the next five years; I visit with them every once in a while, just to check in. That being said, if you’re splurging and see a bottle on the winelist, prepare for a sensory experience – this is a sexy, thoughtful wine that will prompt discussion!

The other thing to consider about Brunello is that not every vintage is as good as the others. Keep an eye out for these years, they are excellent vintages: 2004, 2006, 2007, & 2010.

If you want a taste of Brunello, but at a lower price point, may I humbly recommend Rosso di Montalcino. These wines are less than half the cost, made from younger vines and aged for less time. But, they are good drinking, easy to enjoy (less tannic and softer), and offer some of the same intoxicating bouquet of a Brunello. 2012 is a vintage to buy.

What to eat with your Brunello: this wine pairs best with savory, rich dishes. Think roasted or grilled meats, or aged cheeses like Pecorino.

Here are my top 5 Brunello to look out for from the 2010 vintage. These are in no particular order, but if I had to buy just one, it would be the Campogiovanni:

~ Banfi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {sweet earthiness, plum, light cinnamon spice, vibrant & alive}

~ Campogiovanni Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {black roses, hint of vanilla, dark sour cherries, moody spice, grippy}

~ Capanna Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {violets, juicy red fruits, softer, sexy, feminine, earth, pure silk}

~ Il Grappolo Fortius Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {powerful concentration, a little savory, mineral, spicy violets}

~ Tenute Silvio Nardi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {ripe fruit balanced with leather, earth, spice, stone, silky tannins, approachable now}

Cin Cin,

Rachel