Andrew Jefford tastes Valpolicella in its different guises and recommends wines to try.
In most fine-wine regions, there’s a clear resemblance between the simplest wines of the place and those enthroned at the summit. Varieties and vinification styles are shared; certain soil types and structures are preponderant; the wine comes into being in a single climate zone. The differences between a glass of basic red Bordeaux and a glass of young classed-growth Pauillac may be stark, but they are those of degree, not kind.
Valpolicella is an exception. Why? Because the grapes used for the region’s finest wines, Recioto and Amarone, undergo metamorphosis.
The raw materials for a glass of Valpolicella (fresh grapes) and a glass of Amarone (part-dessicated grapes) are not the same – and the difference is more than just missing water. The appassimento process involves many other microbiological changes in the grapes, though exactly what these might be is still a matter of mystery. In a way, indeed, the two antithetical styles of Valpolicella incarnate the alpha and omega of red wine; other expressions (such as Ripasso and Recioto) lie between.
Let’s begin with Valpolicella. The light should cascade through it, as through high windows. It should smell of fresh fruits – often the cherry with which the region’s key grape variety, Corvina, is intimately associated, but also cranberry, raspberry and other red fruits on occasion. Freshness, though, is the key: a beguiling, lifted simplicity of scent. On the palate, this is a red wine with little tannin or extract, and it can be as smooth as glass; its defining quality, by contrast, is a zesty, fruit-saturated acidity which, in combination with its bitter-cherry flavours and muted alcohol content, makes for what one might call a cordial wine — one which drinks so well as to invite immoderation.
Taste: Novaia, Valpolicella 2016
Just 12% and bottled under screwcap, this is a glowing, translucent cherry-red in colour, with light, fresh, zesty, almost explosive fruits lit from within by ripe, juicy acidity, and given a little complexity by an apparently saline edge. In this example, there’s a sprinkling of tannins just to give the primary fruit a little bottom and depth, and it’s all the better for that, but the zesty cherry is what lingers after you’ve swallowed. 89
Ripasso and its peers
Now we get into the middle ground – and it represents a huge spectrum of efforts, from a mere gesture towards depth and substance via a brief passage over near-exhausted Amarone lees and marc, all the way towards wines made with a sizeable percentage of true dried grapes, or from true dried grapes alone which have been given a less lengthy drying process than for that part of the crop destined for Amarone.
To add to the complications, many of the best wines made in this style don’t actually call themselves ‘Ripasso’, either because they don’t meet every legal requirement, or because their producers consider the term debased. For the sake of completeness, I should also mention wines like Allegrini’s La Grola and La Poja which utilize no dried grapes at all nor any passage over marc or lees – but whose depth, complexity, sumptuousness and tannic presence nonetheless puts them firmly in the middle ground rather than with classic youthful Valpolicella styles.
Don’t give up! The subject may be complex, but these ‘middle ground’ wines represent in many ways the finest mealtime reds produced in the region (as opposed to Valpolicella’s thirst-slaking, summer-party vocation and the more meditative, contemplative or nocturnal role of Amarone and Recioto). If you want a Veneto red to set alongside a great Tuscan or Piedmontese red for a grand dinner, look here.
Allegrini, Palazzo della Torre, Rosso del Veronese 2013
There is no use of marc and lees here, but this blend of Corvina with 25% Rondinella and 5% Sangiovese contains around one-third of grapes dried for around 40 days (longer in lighter vintages, shorter in generous ones). Deep black-red in colour, with bright, engaging aromas of red fruit, leaves, smoke and vanilla, and a cascading, succulent tumble of fruit on the palate, fine tannins and a dash of incense spice, too. Poised, lively and stylish. 91
Allegrini, La Grola, Rosso del Veronese 2013
This blend of 90 per cent Corvina with 10 per cent Oseleta, both entirely un-dried, is grown in a limestone-soiled single vineyard lying at 310m in Sant-Ambrogio and gets a classic, two-week fermentation with daily pump-overs followed by 16 months in barrique. There are settled, calm, serene forest-fruit scents with a sumptuous, textured, spiced-fruit elegance on the palate; fine, ripe tannins, too. Almost Vosne-like in shape. 93
Masi, Campofiorin, Rosso del Veronese 2013
Made without a passage on Amarone marc and lees, but with the addition of 30% of semi-dried grapes. Sumptuous ripenesss in dark fruit mode: loganberry and blackberry, with a dusty autumnal warmth and a little sweet meatiness, too; smooth-textured, thanks to the 25% Rondinella and 5% Molinara. The fruits then subside and a dark, bitter-edged, burnt raisin note creeps in to cauterise the finish. 90
Three notes of caution here, as you tiptoe in to Amarone’s enchanted garden.
First, the method alone (the use of grape dried for 100 days or more) does not guarantee an exquisite experience. “All wines which are called Amarone are legally Amarone,” says Sandro Boscaini of Masi, “but they will not give the same experience and emotions. Quality is not made by law; quality is made by passions.” There is much gestural Amarone on the market (the same is true, of course, of other large-volume fine-wine zones – like greater Chianti, or St Emilion, or Châteauneuf du Pape). Such wines hereabouts can be jammy, fudgy, simple.
Secondly, ask yourself what each producer’s Amarone ideals might be. Some may wish to make a fine-grained, scented Amarone from high-sited, cool Marano or Fumane vineyards, thus foregrounding site expression; while others may wish to make a hugely impressive generic Amarone in blockbuster style using local materials and techniques. Both results will be compelling, but they will be comprehensively different from each other (just as pan-regional blended prestige Champagnes will be very different from growers’ single-vineyard Champagnes).
Thirdly, appassimento potentially creates a microbiological jungle – which is why great Amarone is so interesting. When something goes wrong in the jungle, though, the results can be bizarre and disconcerting. Treat inexpensive Amarone with caution.
The more I taste Amarone, the more convinced I become that the metamorphosis undergone by its partially dried grapes brings something entirely new to the wine. This, for me, is the wine’s ‘crocodilian’ side – by which I mean an element that, extracted from the wine and tasted on its own, would be savage, biting, dangerous and almost repellent, but which incorporated into the wine and balanced by its intrinsic fruit and sublimated sweetness, lends the wine a seriousness of intent, a grandeur and an almost shocking allusiveness which marks it out from the world’s other fine wines. This, after all, is what is meant by the ‘grand bitterness’ to which the wine’s name alludes.
What else? It’s also notable that, in contrast to the smoothness of much Valpolicella, a great Amarone can be profoundly tannic, especially if the indigenous grape Oseleta (which dries to a juiceless corpse of skin and pips) is used as part of the blend. Acidity, by contrast, is rarely prominent in its makeup when young, though it can become more apparent with time. A little funkiness and the occasional whiff of VA can add to the complexity and pleasure of Amarone – provided they don’t get the upper hand in a wine. Oxidative notes, too, play a complexing part in some Amarone, particularly those which have seen some cherry-wood ageing. (If you do note touches of funk, VA or oxidation in a young Amarone, though, drink soon; only chose the most pristine versions for ageing.) Amarone is always rich in alcohol, but such is the profusion of other elements in its composition that the alcohol itself is impalpable in any high-quality example.
Allegrini, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2012
This blend of 90 per cent Corvina with five per cent each of Rondinella and Oseleta has a beguilingly sensual scent of black fruits dusted with sweet cinders, orange peel and root spice. In the mouth, it is rich, fleshy and milky-soft despite its profuse tannins, and with alluring flavour complexities: black fruits, cured meats, cracked pepper, dried mushrooms. Pristine and disarming. 95
Masi, Campolongo di Torbe, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2009
This is a single-vineyard wine, from the south-west facing and relatively high-sited (375-400 m), limestone-soiled Campolongo di Torbe vineyard in Negrar. Aromatically, it’s still clearly a young wine, rich with creamy fruits which are just beginning to deepen and acquire a little secondary patina. The palate is youthful, too, with a deep, searching synthesis of flavours: apple, plum and elderberry fruits; a drench of extracts – and then the asperities of burnt raisin, dried orange peel, plant extracts and crushed walnuts. Perfumed to the last. 96
Masi, Campolongo di Torbe, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 1993
Opinions vary about the ‘ageability’ of Amarone, so I include this note on a 23-year-old wine to provide some account of what those ageing these fine wines might expect over the long term. It’s still dark in colour – but with no red or purple hues at all; rather a black hue with browning edges. It smells fully mature, the fruits now entirely transmuted to mushroom, felt and leather, but there is an aromatic energy there nonetheless. On the palate, too, it seems young in terms of volume and density, but old in terms of its flavours: orange peel, treacle and tar, with apple almost the principal fruit note. 93
Quintarelli, Rosso del Bepe 2005
The Rosso del Bepe is produced in vintages which don’t meet the Quintarelli family’s standards for Amarone. Complex and secondary now, thanks not least to eight years in large tuns: northern orchard fruits, straw, tar. On the palate this is sweetly dry, chewy, with intense though harmonious orchard fruits plus a whisper of bubbling tar, some bitter almond and an umami note, too. 93
Quintarelli, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2007
The extended and loving cosseting which Quintarelli’s wines receive in large oak tuns has left this wine translucent, with a refined sweetness of peony, violet, autumn leaves and vanilla tobacco. On the palate, it is a wine of northern yearning, with almost none of the textural profusion and notes of rigour and asperity you find elsewhere: soft, succulent, refined, lifted, its notes and allusions gently shawled into harmony. 95
Serego Alighieri, Vaio Armaron, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2011
A fascinating Amarone for two reasons: it is a single vineyard wine grown on the limestone-soiled hill slopes above this Sant’Ambrogio estate, purchased by Dante’s son Pietro Alighieri in 1353 and still owned by the family’s descendants; and it undergoes a period of ageing in traditional cherry wood. Both mean that it is a light to mid-weight Amarone with dried red fruits and fugitive balsamic complexities mingling in the aromas. On the palate, it is smooth, dry, structured, intense and dramatic, as the strawberry, redcurrant and cherry fall away towards burnt raisin and crushed walnut. 91
If Amarone is omega, then Recioto is probably phi – sited, in other words, a little way back into the alphabet. Sweet Recioto preceded dry Amarone historically, remember, and the association of this Greek letter with the golden ratio in mathematics is not inappropriate: a great Recioto may be less showy than an Amarone, and less vivacious than a Valpolicella, but as you sip it, on its own, at some peaceful and silent moment, it is hard not to concede that all of the elements in play in the fine wines of the Veneto hills are most perfectly and choicely balanced here.
Masi, Angelorum, Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 2012
Masi’s beautifully labelled Angelorum, the most classical of its Recioto styles, prefectly illustrates the way in which this style is a step backwards from the complex asperities of Amarone – towards primary fruit notes (plum, prune, loganberry, blackberry, elder and sloe – they all seem to be here) with supportive though unobtrusive tannins and pure, lively, zesty acidity. Polished and delicious. 92