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THE MAGIC OF VALPOLICELLA

THE MAGIC OF VALPOLICELLA

Trust the Italians to use the same grapes to make four completely different styles of wine under the Valpolicella banner. First you have the mainstream Valpolicella, which is light and fruity. Second, you have a fuller bodied and richer version called a Ripasso. Then you have a monstrously dense blockbuster called an Amarone, and finally a relatively rare sweet red desert wine called a Recioto.

Maybe the Italians got bored. Maybe they wanted to broaden their portfolio for commercial purposes. Or maybe they got tired of wine snobs criticizing simple Valpolicella and decided to come out with a massive, full bodied, high alcohol Amarone. You almost need a knife and fork when you crack open an Amarone, which is surely amongst Italy’s great wines.
Unlike in most of the New World, there is a real history to production here in north-eastern Italy. Grapes were grown by the ancient Greeks who cultivated the hillsides. The wines were enjoyed by the Courts in the 6th century, and noted for their special powers.

Over the years, Valpolicella became so successful that producers sold everything they could make. Inevitably, growers increased the yields on their vineyards so they could produce more, but the quality of the wines began to slip because the grapes lacked concentration. The local authorities also granted permission for growers to cultivate new areas, which were generally on the fertile plains. These areas were not well suited for high quality vineyards.

So in some respects, Valpolicella became a victim of its own success. The large volumes of simple wine masked the exceptional quality of the best producers. But on the other hand, the reasonable pricing of the wines (usually sub $20) was a bonus for consumers, and the light bodied fruity style made straight Valpolicella the perfect pizza wine. You can chill it, you can drink it within hours of release, and it’s often the house wine at the millions of Italian restaurants that have helped showcase the country’s wines at export.

At the opposite end of the spectrum to straight Valpolicella you have Amarone, which is a stunning wine, revered amongst wine lovers, and made in the most bizarre and unique way. The growers harvest the ripest and healthiest looking bunches from their vineyards, the rest being for regular Valpolicella production. They then take these perfect bunches and spread them out on straw mats, and sometimes they even tie a piece of string to the stems and hang them from the ceiling in a warehouse, or their kitchen, as the case may be. There are not many other winemakers doing this elsewhere in the world…

Over the next five months the grapes then shrivel into raisins, which means the water content evaporates and you are left with a sweet concentrated flavor of dried fruits. The grapes are then fermented, and because they are so rich in sugar the alcohol degree ends up being around 15% and the wines still taste very slightly sweet. After long ageing, they are released onto the market and can be enjoyed for a few decades thereafter.

Amarone is a thrill. The color is almost black, the viscosity coats the glass, the bouquet is heady with notes of dark chocolate, prune, raisin and stewed fruit. The palate is explosive, rich and full, with the high tannins masked by the massive concentration. On the finish the warmth of the alcohol screams for a log cabin, a roaring fireplace, and an iPhone that’s out of range. Many of them cost around $60+ dollars. Of all the more premium wines I’ve shared with people, I’ve never seen someone turn their nose up at an Amarone.

But if you want something a bit more moderate, both in terms of price and quality, then buy a Ripasso. In terms of style, this is halfway between a straight Valpolicella and an Amarone. A Ripasso is a Valpolicella that has been refermented on the skins of the Amarone. This gives it more weight and extract, boosts the alcohol, and makes for a much richer style of wine. Many of them cost between $20-$30 and so they are good value, and make for a perfect match with lasagna.

The last style of Valpolicella is called a Recioto. This is basically a sweeter Amarone, where the ferment has been stopped in order to leave more residual sugar. This is a perfect match with Christmas cake or blue cheese.

Recioto is a unique red wine with an exciting taste. When you drink it you get a burst of energy, and it sends tingling sensations across your taste buds. The combination of sweet dried fruit flavors and black forest cake are to die for, and typically at less than $50 for a bottle it’s one of the world’s buried treasures.

So there are plenty of styles to choose from when it comes to wines from Valpolicella. But what they all have in common is the use of the Corvina grape and it’s cousins, usually complemented by Molinara, Rondinella and others.
Masi is probably the most famous producer, but there are dozens of others to look out for including Bertani, Tommasi, and Allegrini. I always look for the words “Classico” on the label, indicating that the wine was produced from vineyards in the original planted area, which is considered to be the best. And if you’re going to crack a bottle of Amarone, then be sure to decant it for an hour or so, to let the genie out of the bottle.