The wines of Valpolicella have never been better. As more consistently warm summers in the north of Italy increase the likelihood of a fully ripe crop at harvest time in the Veneto region, so reliance on the appassimento process (the partial dehydration of grapes to produce wines of greater concentration and depth of flavour) begins to come into question.
Scroll down for Michael Garner’s pick of the best 18 wines from Valpolicella
Simultaneously, a market more receptive to distinctive wine styles based on local varieties, coupled with a growing confidence in their ability to express the unique character of their terroir, has enabled Veneto winemakers to scale new heights across the five denominations made in the demarcated area of Valpolicella.
The hillside vineyards north of Verona are beginning to show the true potential of the Corvina grape which, supported by Corvinone and Rondinella, as well as a host of minor varieties such as Molinara and Oseleta, determines the essential personality of these wines.
Span of styles
The ‘new’ style of simple Valpolicella DOC is all about authenticity: pale and fragrant, light-bodied reds whose zingy cherry fruit and crisp acidity are an ideal match for all sorts of foods, ranging from vegetable and simple pasta dishes to white meats, especially pork.
The Valpolicella Superiore version – because of an almost completely open-ended set of production regulations – can show huge variations in style. More and more winemakers are, however, resisting the siren call of appassimento and choosing to produce wines entirely from freshly harvested fruit (historically there has been no limit imposed on how much semi-dried fruit can be used). Crucially, producers are also starting to single out vineyards dedicated to the production of Valpolicella instead of creaming off the best fruit for Amarone, which was too often the case in the past.
The uniquely local custom of refermenting or macerating Valpolicella wine on the lees of either Amarone and/or Recioto (see below) is a traditional practice designed to boost richness and substance in the base wine. This ‘ripasso’ process – harking back to leaner times when nothing of any potential value was thrown away – had become so popular in recent years that it threatened to engulf both the Valpolicella and Valpolicella Superiore styles. Guided by the grower’s consortium, limits on the amount of fruit set aside for appassimento at harvest time over the past decade are designed to help even out production figures across the various denominations.
Amarone is produced from grapes naturally dried, to intensify flavour and sugar content, before fermentation and ageing for at least two years in oak barrels. Despite its fairly brief history (the first bottles were produced around the time of World War II), it remains for most wine lovers the reference point for Veronese reds. Even in this instance, we are seeing the emergence of a new breed of sleeker wines that are made to be less dependent on the generous levels of residual sugar permitted under current legislation, and which focus instead on a drier, more food-friendly style.
Meanwhile, Recioto – produced in similar manner to Amarone, rich and concentrated but fermented as a sweet style – is the ‘mother’ of all Veronese red wines upon which the area’s reputation was founded in Roman times. It remains a rarity, though many wineries keep the tradition alive and produce a few bottles.
History is turning full circle and Valpolicella is rediscovering its roots. The wines are beginning to recapture the style feted by Ernest Hemingway which, back in the mid-20th century, made them popular in the first place.