Just as folk music gets louder and more fun as the evening progresses, Valpolicella goes up in different levels of intensity and is often all the better for it.
Understanding these different levels of Valpolicella opens up a world of drinking pleasure.
But it is not always easy.
There are traditional producers and modern producers, seriously bulk wines from this nerve centre of Italian economy alongside artisanal winemakers in the hills; on top of that there are winemaking techniques unique to this region.
Valpolicella has always been about innovation, since Roman times, so you’d be forgiven for not keeping up.
There is the basic Valpolicella Normale and Valpolicella Classico which at their best are light, bundles of black cherry joy. Some are too thin and acidic, but that is, sadly, often the name of the bulk wine game. Not all are bulk wines, with some putting the region (such as Valpantena) on their label. Best to look for Valpolicella Classico Superiore, which has been aged for a year in oak, giving the red wine more complexity.
Then there is Valpolicella Classico Ripasso. This is more full-bodied in style, dry but richer with greater weight. It is a dry table red fermented with leftover dried grapes used in the Amarone, in a process called ripasso (or re-passing the Amarone grape pomace over the Vapolicella Classico wine).
Dry red Ripasso is a recent wine style developed in Valpolicella. Traditional producers sometimes criticize this style as New World. It is a bigger wine than traditional Valpolicella Classico.
Unlike Valpolicella DOC, Amarone di Valpolicella is a DOCG. Probably the most glamorous of the Valpolicella region – even of all Italian wines, and there’s a lot of glamour in Italy! – it is been described as “seductive, sexy, confounding… an aphrodisiac”. Have a look at my post on Amarone -“This is not a love song” for more about this magnificent wine (I will be writing about one of the classic, traditional producers of Amarone separately; it deserves its own post).
In Valpolicella, as in the rest of Italy, there are regulations stating the exact varieties allowed to be used in certain areas. The main varieties are Corvina and Rondinella with a blend of one other, traditionally Molinara, although there are many others for the winemaker to choose from, even including a small allowable percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (although this is not common). Traditional producers stick to the Italian varieties.
Corvina has a fabulous smoky cherry flavour and is definitely the strongest grape of the trinity and some smaller producers, such as Cesari’s Jema, make very interesting 100% Corvina wines.
One of the small boutique wineries I visited recently in Valpolicella, Stefano Accordini, who shows exactly how Valpolicella is a region that balances tradition with innovation.
Tradition with Innovation
Accordini had interesting things happening in the winery. The barrels were neither traditional large Slavonian oak nor “modernist” small French barriques: each panel of wood on the barrel alternated between French and Slavonian in a size half way between the two. This adds a touch of French oak to “hold” or “frame” the heavier wine without submitting to barrique modernism completely.
The winemaker in the Veneto is in a constant battle against humidity, especially as it depends so much on drying of the grapes. What was fascinating was the control of air through the winery. Accordini had developed a computer system which monitors the flow throughout. However, there is no artificial air-conditioning, the grapes are dried naturally and traditionally with the windows open to allow in the winds off the hills.
Accordini does the full spectrum of wines found in Valpolicella. What burned in the memory for me, was the 2009 Valpolicella Classico Ripasso Superiore, an excellent wine which will be released later this year.
I can see why this is asked by name from top sommeliers in London. It had the depth of dark cherry fruit and spicy prunes from the Amarone ripasso technique, but it also retained its freshness, which is what is appealing about the best Classico wines. Especially important when drinking red wine in the heat of the Veneto.
Driving down the hills of Valpolicella back down to the plain of Veneto, the humidity increases and heat rises, and you wonder at the sheer size and diversity of the region. The Ancient Romans called the area, “Valle Poli Cellae or “Valley of Many Cellars.” There are many ways to make Valpolicella with different levels of style of quality; but amongst these many cellars, there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye.
Thanks to Enotria for making this visit possible.