Valpolicella is one of Italy’s best known wine appellations, but the intricate details and complexity of the styles of wine from this large region in the province of Veneto, just north of the city of Verona, are perhaps not so well known. A recent trip there refreshed my memory and I will try to explain some things in this article. Next week I will talk more in detail about some of the individual wines from the producers that I visited on this trip.
The term Valpolicella itself comes from a mixture of Greek and Latin, signifying « valleys of many cellars », and I suppose that this in turn certifies the long-standing history of wine production here. The grape varieties are all local, with four main ones, which are Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara, and several other more minor ones that, individually or collectively, cannot surpass 10% in the final blends. This sort of rather arbitrary restriction ,plus other concerns such as marketing, mean that some producers opt out of part or all of the denomination system for at least some of their wines.
To begin with, there are two different appellations based on a territorial distinction. Valpolicella and Valpolicella Classico, the latter being essentially determined by the historical heartland of the zone that lies in the hillier ground to the north-west of the Valpolicella region, equally north and west of the city of Verona. This is where theory and practice begin to separate, causing another possible layer of confusion. In theory, the best « terroirs » are within the Classico part, at least that is what the holders of these vineyards say. But when you look at a shelf of wines from the region, you might well notice that by far the most expensive wines come from a producer, Dal Forno Romano, who is within the « simple » Valpolicella region, and thus does not have Classico status. I have tasted his wines on various occasions, including once on this trip in an excellent wine bar/shop In Verona called Signorvino, and they definitely hold up to their high reputation. Price is another matter, partly driven also by small production and high demand creating cult status. So we see, as in so many other cases around the world, that quality is not just based on place, but on the talent and hard work of the wine producer, and also that good viticultural spots may lie outside the most reputed regions.
Then we also have, in the case of both Valpolicella and Valpolicella Classico, a higher level of wine called Valpolicella Superiore (as with the Dal Forno wine shown above), which has slightly more stringent production constraints in terms of yield, alcohol levels and ageing. But we are not finished yet, and I will have to go to the end of the chain, as it were, to explain how the links in-between came to exist.
The other three types of wine, each of which form an official category clearly mentioned on the label, are all based on different production techniques. As in many parts of Italy, there is in this region a tradition of producing sweet wines from dried grapes, both red and white. Valpolicella produces just red wines, and their sweet wine category, made with the same grapes as the dry wines, is called Recioto di Valpolicella and has probably existed as a recognized type for a very long time. The grapes are dried for 3 to 4 months on racks indoors and then are pressed and fermented, the fermentation being stopped by chilling the tanks, leaving between 70 and 130 grams of residual sugar in the wine which is then aged in (usually) large barrels, mostly of oak but sometimes also of cherry wood. These wines have not been fortified and generally have between 13% and 14% alcohol levels.
Probably at some point fermentation went through to the end by accident on one of these wines and it was discovered that the result was a powerful (15 or 16 degrees of alcohol) dry, intensely tannic and richly fruity wine that had, naturally, a solid touch of bitterness on the finish. Bitterness is a strong component of Italian food and drink culture (think expresso, roquette or Campari, for example). In the 1950’s, this dry wine became known as Amarone (amaro being Italian for bitter) and was defined as a new type which later obtained official DOCG status as Amarone della Valpolicella. These wines are made therefore with dried red grapes that are pressed and fermented slowly after a few months on indoor drying racks, then undergoing a fairly long ageing process in mostly large barrels.
So we now have a fair stylistic range with a bit of a gap in the middle, in between the lighter Valpolicellas and the much more powerful Amarones. This has now been filled by an intermediate style that has also become an official category and which is called Valpolicella Ripasso. It can come from the Classico region or not. « Standard » Valpolicalla has some dried grapes added to it, which kicks off a second fermentation and also increases the intensity of the flavours, including the tannins. In other words it puts some muscle on what is otherwise usually quite a light red wine. And adds a characteristic hint of bitterness, with flavours like bitter cherries.
Now all of that makes for quite a big range and producers often cover all categories, adding in for good measure some additional wines such as single vineyard versions of any of the above categories. And when you take a look at the relief map above, the combination of variable altitudes and very different vineyard orientations, not to mention different grape combinations, you already have a vast palette of possibilities and options here.
More to come next week….