An ongoing conversation about wines & wine production of Verona, Italy
we are honored to re-post a great article Sara, our sommelier, wrote for an American wine journal.
Thank you so much for this great opportunity! Christopher Dispensa!
– Valpolicella, Veneto and Verona.
As autumn is upon us what better way to greet her than with some of the finest wines in all of Italy from the region of Veneto, specifically Valpolicella and its varied styles. To enhance this months discussion I reached out to Italian wine colleague, Sommelier and tour director based in Verona, Sara Valittuto, to recount some of her experiences in and around the vineyards of the Veneto.
Valpolicella is a historic winegrowing district in the Veneto region of Italy. The wine grown in this area has been prized since Roman times. Excavations have uncovered traces of winemaking from the Iron Age. The vines grow in pastoral settings characterized by cypress, cherry and olive trees. This growing area is north of Verona at the edge of the western and central foothills of the Monti Lessini Range and the Adige river forms its western border which separates it from Bardolino DOC. To the east Valpolicella abuts the Illasi Valley, which it shares with the Soave appellation.
The name Valpolicella comes from a mix of Greek and Latin, “Vallis-pollis-cellare,” meaning the “valley of the many cellars.”
The Veneto is Italy’s largest wine producing region and its biggest producer of DOC wines. It is home to two of Italy’s best-known exports, Valpolicalla and Soave. Valpolicella is the second most important DOC after Chianti.
The Valpolicella hills are dotted with Renaissance villas among impressive parks and formal gardens; Villa Moscini Bertani in Novare, Villa Rizzardi in Negrar and Villa Sarego in Santa Sofia.
To the casual wine drinker Valpolicella is most likely not thought of as a wine of any significance but something they remember seeing in a commercial in the ‘70s with casual deference…Io Sono Franco Bolla!
It fact it is Not just a single varietal wine but as we will discuss in a moment, Valpolicella is actually representative of 4 “styles of wine” and is a blend, in most cases, of 2-3 indigenous varietals.
Wine Sense: “An ongoing conversation about the wines and wine production of Italy and the EU.”
A Quick background…
In the late 60’s and ‘70s the region received official recognition for quality wine production when it was granted its own DOC. However, with DOC recognition also came a large expansion of vineyard areas that were permitted to produce Valpolicella DOC wine, including land in the fertile plains of the Po River, which tend to produce excessively large yields of grapes with varying qualities. This led to a general drop in quality, which had a detrimental impact not only the area’s reputation but on the international wine market impacting sales and prices. The1990s saw a renaissance of mindset in the region with respect to viticulture and winemaking practices, which initiated a path towards quality. This also sparked renewed interest in planting vineyards in the high altitude hillside locations that produced lower yields of grapes better suited for production. In the 21st century, the reputation of Valpolicella wines continued to expand on the world’s wine market, as ambitious winemakers began to invest more in advanced viticultural and winemaking techniques that produce higher quality wines.
The historic Classica wine-growing zone includes three valleys: Fumane, Marano and Negrar as well as the hills of Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella and San Pietro in Cariano.
Valpolicella is produced from grapes as dictated by the Italian Disciplinare according to the DOC. As we have seen in other parts of Italy these grapes are Indigenous in nature and as with all of Italy’s wines they are food magnets!!
– Corvina Veronese – Considered the superior grape of Valpolicella it represents 45-95% of the blend and adds aromatic complexity.
– Corvinone – May in some cases, replace the Corvina Veronese in the blend up to 50%. Corvinone provided tannin and structure.
– Rondinella – may be included up to a maximum of 5-30% of the blend.
Sounds a little confusing…wait there is more! Additionally the producer can add “auxiliary grapes” up to 25% of the blend with No auxiliary exceeding 10% of the total. The most common varietals included in the blend are Molinara, Oseleta, Negrara Veronese, Dindarella, Croatina and Rossignola! So now you’re really confused – Yes?
This blending formula is new. Prior to 2003 the traditional core blend was composed of Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Molinara. After 2003 Molinara was excluded from the list of compulsory varieties, having been deemed a lesser quality grape. Not all producers are of this opinion. In fact, many producers consider Molinara an important element in the blend for balance, particularly as it adds lightness and freshness to the specific style of Amarone.
“But lets not get bogged down with all these details – it’s the tasting that gets us excited about a wine!”
So what are the actual styles of Valpolicella and how are they similar and different…
- A) Recioto – it is an ancient practice (since the Romans) of selecting only the berries on the lateral sides of the bunch, as they are usually better exposed to the sun and therefore, the ripest. The second step is to lie the bunches on traditional racks made of bamboo and wood in a single layer to prevent crushing or bruising. The racks are then placed in well ventilated lofts on the hillsides. Here the grapes are left to dry for at least three to four months, sometimes even longer in order to concentrate the sugars. This “process” is called Appassimento. The resulting wine is sweet…
- B) Ripasso – a traditional wine making technique that has been practiced in Valpolicella for millennia. Re-introduced in the 1960’s with more mastering and efficiency it is the process of pouring freshly made Valpolicella wine over the leftover skins and lees (the Must) of Amarone and or Recioto wine, then leaving the liquid in contact with the solids for weeks.
Before moving on a quick look at the techniques used which involve the vineyard and fermentation processes that make Valpolicella’s distinctive styles…
This initiates a short fermentation of the wine. Once the desired level of sweetness is reached the Must is chilled effectively stopping fermentation and retaining residual sugar in the wine. Think of it as a “second” fermentation. The resulting wine is dry…
- C) Amarone – the most prestigious wine produced within the Valpolicella appellation. The grapes are air-dried, “appassimento” as in a Recioto but for less time. This lessens the concentration of sugar. The resulting wine is essentially a dry Recioto.
There are 4 styles are delineated by 4 different appellations within the geographical expanse of the Valpoicella district.
Valpolicella DOC, Valpolicella Ripasso DOC, Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG and Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG.
Valpolicella DOC – the wines made here represent a light, easy drinking style. Wines that are refreshing and fruity with fragrant aromas of sour cherry and flowers, coupled with a slight bitter almond finish. Light in body, moderate in alcohol, low in tannin with a lively acidity. As mentioned earlier the 1990’s saw an increase in quality and distinction of these wines due to the efforts of producers.
Sub classification – Valpolicella Superiore – Several producers make more complex and weighted styles under the Valpoicella DOC. These wines are made from selected grapes, which results in more structure and higher alcohol. The wines are characterized by higher concentration, complexity with more aging potential. Some, but not all, use the Ripasso technique or add semi-dried grapes to the fermentation.
Wines under the Superiore designation must be aged for at least one year before release.
Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG – As we mentioned above (refer to A Recioto) Recioto is an ancient sweet wine made from air-dried grapes. Before the advent of drier wine styles, it was considered to be the traditional and most prized wine of Valpolicella. Recioto wines are deep ruby in color, medium to high in alcohol, highly extracted giving them a rich and velvety mouth feel. The wine displays rich aromas of berries, dried fruits, maraschino cherries and chocolate. The sweetness however is well balanced by the bright acidity.
Additionally there developed 2 schools of thought over the years regarding these wines, one from a Traditionalist perspective and one from a Modernist view. We will hear about that in our discussion with our Italian wine Sommelier Sara in the subsequent section.
Valpolicella Ripasso DOC – this is a very “technique” driven wine (refer to B Ripasso above). The finished products style and quality may vary considerably depending on how the techniques are employed. Factors affecting the outcome depends on the quality of the base Valpolicella, the Amarone/Recioto Must, the length of time the liquid is in contact with the solids.
The finished product acquires a heavier structure, fuller body/higher alcohol, more tannin and higher overall complexity than the basic Valpoicella. The wine has longer aging potential and is stylistically considered to lie between the basic wine and the heavier more powerful Amarone.
Amarone della Valpoicella DOCG – Amarone is the most prestigious wine produced within the Valpolicella appellation. It single handedly restored the Valpolicella appellation’s reputation in the 90’s after years of mediocrity. It was so well regarded that it pushed producers to make vast improvements to the basic Valpolicella and categories of Valpoicella Superiore and Valpolicella Ripasso. As stated earlier Amarone is essentially a dry Recioto. The first bottlings of “dry”” Recioto appeared in the early 20th century. It was not commercially marketed until the 1950’s and labeled “Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone” to distinguish it from its sweet cousin.
These wines are opulent and powerful – full bodied and intensely flavored. On the palate they show a high extract and roundness with velvety tannins. Aromas are varied: ripe berry, dried fruit, tobacco, licorice, dark chocolate, rum, tar coffee, leather, and spices. Alcohol levels can easily reach 15-16%.
A Prologue…”Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona,
where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life; Whose misadventured piteous overthrows do with their death bury their parents’ strife. The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love, and the continuance of their parents’ rage, Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove, Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage; The which if you with patient ears attend, What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.”
What better way to start our discussion of Verona than with a little Shakespeare. And as a point of introduction to my colleague in wine, Sara Valitutto, Italian wine Sommelier and one of the principal owners of the “Romeo and Juliet Guide”. Together with her business partner, Virginia Conta, both born and raised in fair Verona, they have been creating custom tours for groups and individuals for over 10- years. Their experience in hospitality and the wine world always takes on a personal touch with embracing the lifestyle, food, wine and culture of Verona, Lake Garda and the surrounding region(s).
As Sara likes to tell her clients “I can’t wait to meet you and uncork Verona through my eyes!”
In a recent conversation Sara and I discussed the Veneto in general and shared her thoughts about Valpolicella and its storied history…after our conversation she was heading out to meet 4 producers in Valpolicella to work on contracts for her wine club. The pictures below are from her visit.
“There is a uniqueness about the appellation(s) of Valpolicella. Here with exactly the same blend of 3 or 4 local grapes you can produce 5 completely different wines for 5 different occasions and food pairings. Similarly in a single day you can visit 3-4 wineries, as I do during my wine tours, and experience 3-4 totally different approaches to the same varietals.
Because it’s true that the Appellation gives producers the basic rules in order to produce those 5 wines but it is also true that every wine maker is creating his/her own recipe by picking different oak, different barrels size, different ageing processes, different timing for each
process (drying process, oak and bottle ageing for example). Everything is done in order to create a specific identity for the individual winery. I find this unique and mindblowing!”
“Another aspect is the difference between local palate and habits and what we see abroad. Locally palates migrated from extremely sweet in 1938 to dry wines in 1968 and continued into the 90’s. So here, Amarone is perceived as a very dry wine, high alcohol but extremely balanced in terms of alcohol content, acidity and residual sugar. A wine to drink in winter with hearty foods. Consumed for celebration more so than every day use. Of course it’s also a matter of price considering that locals might drink a glass or 2 almost every day!”
“Conversely the global market is moving in the opposite direction. The demand for Amarone’s Modern Style wines; less dry, more bold, rich in alcohol, residual sugar, aromatics and jammy character are sometimes hard to pair with the local Italian food (maybe only Amarone Risotto or a Stew) but evidently perfect with the Scandinavian cuisine for example.”
“A key feature that sets Amarone apart is its two distinct styles. It can be broadly grouped into two principal categories. Traditional Amarone is medium-weight, lower in alcohol, elegant and food friendly most often chosen by Italian diners. The Modern Amarone is more powerful, dense and concentrated and is higher in alcohol and glycerol with noticeable but well-integrated oak. I have my favorite but as we know wine is such a personal matter that there is no right or wrong answer.”
For more information about The Romeo and Juliet Guide tours go to Sara and Virginia’s website at: https://www.romeoandjulietguide.com/