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Veneto Travel Diaries Part 5 – Valpolicella 101

Valpolicella

Valpolicella…land of wine, charm and tradition. So proclaims the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella, responsable for the marketing and promotion of the region. And they are not wrong. Those three descriptors aptly sum up what awaits you when you arrive in this sunny paradise. Lush green hillsides and plains covered in vines, cherry and olive trees, farmers out tending to their crops and ancient stone villages boasting delicious trattorias.

The vineyards of Valpolicella lie in the province of Verona in Northeastern Italy. There are three distinct areas. Firstly, the “Classico” region, the historic heart of the appellation which consists of three major valleys (Fumane, Marano and Negrar). This area is slightly higher in altitude than the outlying DOC area and benefits from optimal ripening conditions. “Classico” on a label of Valpolicella is generally a good indication of quality, although increasingly producers from the outlying areas further to the east (Valpantena and the generic Valpolicella DOC area) are now producing excellent wines.

Valpolicella is red wine country. All of the wines are blended from the same set of indigenous grapes featuring the prerequisite Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. Corvina is the major grape. It gives structure, body, bright acidity and attractive cherry and herbal notes to the wines. Its thick skin is a vital quality for the appassimento process (more on this later). Corvinone was originally thought to be a clone of Corvina, but has been proven to be a separate variety. The bunches are looser, with bigger grapes. It gives heady, perfumed wines, redolent with cherry and floral notes. Molinara is the minor player, accounting for 5 – 30% of blends. It is also a fairly aromatic grape, with the necessary thick skins. Small amounts of lesser known varieties like Molinara and Oseleta are sometimes thrown in for seasoning. Each producer will determine their own blend (within the DOC regulations), depending on what grows best in their vineyard, and what style they are looking to craft.

Corvina…gives structure, body, bright acidity and attractive cherry and herbal notes…

There are two key elements that make the wines of Valpolicella so enticing. Firstly, there is incredible value for money on offer here. While Tuscany and Piedmont enjoy greater international renown, the producers of Valpolicella have quietly but surely ramped up quality, while keeping the prices nice! Secondly, the region boasts unique winemaking methods resulting in a range of wine styles from light and fruity to rich and full-bodied.

As with so many classic, Old World wine regions, the wine classifications are best understood by picturing a multi-tiered pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, you have basic Valpolicella DOC. This is your every day, barbeque wine. It is lively, with tart cherry fruit flavours, medium body and smooth tannins. Served slightly chilled, it is dangerously drinkable. The next step up the pyramid brings us to Valpolicella Superiore DOC. These “superior” wines are aged a minimum of one year in oak or other wood vessels, and have a minimum alcohol content of 12%. They retain the bright, fruit driven character of the basic level, but with a little more depth and persistence. Ripasso della Valpolicella DOC offers even greater concentration and complexity. The vinification technique for Ripasso is unique. Dry base wines are made in the same manner as basic Valpolicella. Several months later, the base wine is transferred into a tank containing the leftover pommace of grape skins from the vinification of another wine, the Amarone. These skins are still rich in sugars and yeasts, provoking a second fermentation for the Valpolicella. The wine is “repassed” (hence the name Ripasso). This process adds glycerol (leading to a rounder mouthfeel), gives richer flavours and higher alcohol levels.

At the top of the pyramid, we have the two DOCG wines: Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella. This is where the “appassimento” process comes into play. Appassimento is the act of drying grapes for an extended period so that 40% or more of the water evaporates, resulting in shrivelled berries rich in flavour and sugar. The Amarone destined grapes are dried for 90 to 120 days on average, in large drying lofts designed to permit good air circulation. The bunches are carefully inspected throughout the process to ensure they remain in good condition, free of moulds that would taint the flavour. The raisined bunches are then carefully transferred to tanks or large wooden vats for fermentation, followed by long aging (2 years for Amarone, 4 years for Amarone Riserva) in large, generally neutral wood casks. The wine is opulent, bold, rich, full bodied, highly alcoholic, generally over 15% and often up to 17%. These are reds to cellar for 7 – 12 years and serve with savoury, hearty fare. Recioto winemaking begins in the same way, but the drying period is longer (120 to 150 days on average), and instead of then fermenting the wines dry, the process is halted mid-way to give a rich, concentrated, cherry and dried fruit scented, sweet wine (often up to 150g/L of residual sugar).

The wine is opulent, bold, rich, full bodied, highly alcoholic…best served with savoury, hearty fare.

Recioto is the oldest wine style of the area with a history dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The “Retico” was the wine of choice for the emperor Augustus, and the pride of all growers. It was in crafting this fine nectar that the Amarone style was (accidently) born. Amarone derives from the Italian word for bitter, and was the adjective used when the Recioto was occasionally left too long during fermentation with all of the sugar transformed to alcohol. The dry, alcoholic wine was considered overly bitter and generally thrown away. Not until the 1050s did opinions change and the Amarone style become appreciated in its own right.

Valpolicella is a storied region, with a long history of crafting unique, captivating wines. From light and fruity to heady and rich, there is a wine for every palate. Try this local recipe with a glass of Ripasso or Amarone and you will be packing your bags for Verona!

http://www.amaronetours.it/wines/amarone/amarone-recipes-risotto

 

Education

And Now for Something Completely Different

Italian Vineyard

Italy, as you may know, is the largest wine producer in the world. Wine is literally made in every region of the country….a boast regularly made by our American friends….but who was actually tried one of the famed Tempranillos of Texas? And while we might naturally be inclined to praise the Romans for their industry, it was actually the Etruscans and Greeks that started vineyard cultivation here. It is perhaps due to this long history and proud heritage, that the Italians have maintained a rich diversity of indigenous grape varieties. Roughly 350 different grapes have official, recognized status, and there are said to be another 500 or so in production. So while you may know and love Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, or the grapes in Valpolicella blends…how many of you are familiar with Sagrantino, Falanghina or Negroamaro?

At the Italian Wine Trade Commission tasting in Montréal last week, I was fortunate to taste a variety of the weird and wonderful lesser-known Italian grapes and blends. Most of the wines are sadly not imported into Canada yet, so I won’t cite the winemakers. I will however list some of the more interesting grapes and regions that you should look out for. Next time you head to your local store, ask the staff to dig you up one of these to impress your friends (or make them think that you are an obnoxious wine geek):

Whites

Pallagrello Bianco

An obscure grape grown in the Campania region (the front part of the ankle in the Italian boot). It might be a stretch for your average liquor store to find you one of these, but you’ll feel wine savvy asking! This grape is often found in blends; sometimes as a single varietal. On its own, Pallagrello is often likened to Viognier; though styles can vary depending on ripeness and oak treatment. I tried an unoaked, medium bodied example that was fresh and lively, with bright lemon aromas, subtle floral and peach undertones; showing good balance and a clean finish. This is a fairly simple, every day style of wine; perfect for summer aperitifs when you are sick of the same old Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc!

Falanghina

This might be a little more familiar territory for some. It should be fairly easy to find one or two to try in bigger liquor stores. This is also a Campanian grape, sometimes compared with Pinot Grigio, though the best examples show a little more complexity. I sipped my way through a few of these, and found the best ones were medium bodied, with crisp acidity and moderate alcohol. Aromas of apple, citrus blossom dominated, with lovely spice and mineral touches and the characteristic Italian bitter almond note on the finish. Current SAQ & LCBO prices tend to range from 15 – 20$.

Arneis

This grape is grown in the Piedmont region, home to the celebrated Barolo and Barbaresco reds. It is most commonly found in DOCG Roero and DOCG/ DOC Langhe white wines. Arneis means “little rascal” in the Piemontese dialect and was so named due to its pesky tendency to become over-ripe and lacking in acidity. When well-made, it is a dry, vibrant white with the example I tasted showing moderate acidity, pretty floral, honeyed and nutty aromas, medium body, a smooth texture and a pleasant grassy note. From lighter to more full bodied, complex styles, current LCBO & SAQ prices range from 15 – 30$.

Vernaccia

Most famously cultivated in the DOCG Vernaccia di San Gimignano wines of Tuscany. Many styles exist from simple, unoaked, every day wines made to be drunk soon after harvest, to more complex, layered examples that some consider the best expression of top Italian white wines. When at their pinnacle, they are full-bodied, distinctive wines with intense floral, mineral and earthy aromas. Rounded and suave on the palate; they often show a mineral edge and a touch of that aforementioned bitterness on the finish.

Reds:

Negroamaro

This is a bit of a different beast; not necessarily for you if you like smooth, fruity wines but worth a swig for those that like their reds dry and earthy. The grape hails from hot, sunny Puglia (the heel to Italy’s boot), notably the Salento area. The name literally means black and bitter, which is an apt description. These rustic wines are generally deep garnet in colour, with a perfumed dried floral and blueberry bouquet, and underlying earthiness. They are medium to full bodied, with a firm structure, grippy tannins and a sometimes bitter, herbal edged finish. They range in price from entry level offerings at 10$ to premium, cellar-worthy wines at 80$.

Montepulciano

After Sangiovese, Montepulciano is the most widely planted red grape in Italy; cultivated in 20 of Italy’s 95 provinces. The most well-known examples come from the DOCG and DOC appellations of Abruzzo (calf of the boot). Confusingly, the highly reputed Tuscan DOCG Vino Nobile di Montepulciano does not actually contain this grape, but is made primarily from Sangiovese. Montepulciano offers fantastic value at both ends of the spectrum. The examples tasted were deep, garnet in colour with moderate acidity, smooth texture and firm, rounded tannins. They ranged in style from soft and plummy, with tart cherry notes to more concentrated, dense wines with an aromatic array of black fruits, floral notes, spice and a hint of leather. A huge range of pricing is on offer, from 10$ pizza pairings to 100$ decanter worthy wines.

Sagrantino

This is a fairly uncommon grape, mainly grown around the village of Montefalco in Umbria (just south of Tuscany). The best expressions come from the DOCG Sagrantino di Montefalco. This appellation requires a minimum of 30 months ageing (12 months in oak) before release. These rich, full-bodied reds are dark and brooding, with intense red fruit aromas; underlaid with cherry, dark chocolate and herbal notes. High in alcohol, with a velvetty texture and firm, chewy tannins; these are robust and age worthy wines in need of equally full flavoured food pairings. A sweet, passito version is also made in very small quantities. Here the grapes are left to shrivel in the wine under protective ceilings for a 2-month period to produce rich, sappy wines with kirsch and cedar notes. Pick one up for 20$ – 80$.

Aglianico

According to French oenologist Denis Dubourdieu, Aglianico is potentially the oldest wine grape consumed in history. Its origins are Greek; the root of the name is thought to come from the latin for “Greek Vine”. It is grown in the Basilicata and Campania regions of southern Italy, with each province boasting a DOCG: Aglianico del Vulture and Taurasi respectively. The wines are dry, with moderate to crisp acidity, full body and robust tannins. Intriguing aromas of black berries, plum, smoke, cacao and musk abound on the most lauded examples. More entry level offerings are equally pleasant, though simpler, with a lighter bodied profile, and softer red berry notes. Current SAQ & LCBO offerings range from 15$ – 70$.