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Alex Ulreich

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There’s a Valpolicella to Go With Every Dish

Valpolicella: From appetizer to dessert, one red wine in four styles.

In Valpolicella, home of Italy’s revered Amarone, references to the Nebbiolo-based wines of neighboring Piedmont and Lombardy crop up unexpectedly. Perhaps it’s hard for winemakers here not to think of Barolo or Valtellina, those insistently tannic varietals just to the west. But this viticultural zone in Verona, Veneto, has its own gems to offer. Four more restrained and slightly less grippy blends—only one of which is the powerhouse Amarone—centered on the native Corvina Veronese grape are made into wines that run from fresh to bold to sweet using one of four winemaking methods.

Verona has been famous for its red wine since Roman times. The sweet wine with a brilliant ruby hue about which writers like Cassiodorus Senator, sixth-century advisor to Ostrogoth kings, and Andrea Bacci, sixteenth-century author of the epic seven-volume wine guide De naturali vinorum historia, rhapsodized glints just as brightly now as it did back then. And today imbibers have even more styles from which to chose.

In fact, for all its fame, Amarone is a relative newcomer, produced commercially for the first time in the 1950s and an accidental offshoot of the centuries-old sweet style that’s now officially designated Recioto di Valpolicella DOCG.

"The history of wine is the history of sweet wine," offers Fabio Mencarelli and Pietro Tonutti, editors of the historical-scientific tome Sweet, Reinforced and Fortified Wines: Grape Biochemistry, Technology and Vinification. Per local legend, left to ferment too long, a neglected batch of Recioto traded its residual sugar for slate-y savouriness, tannin-driven complexity, and higher alcohol to become, technically, a recioto scappato and colloquially, an amarone, or bitter wine, which was then added to the Valpolicella lineup.

A traditional-style Amarone hovers near 14 percent alcohol, a truer interpretation of both grape and culture than the beefier 17-percenters that often incorporate non-indigenous grapes in order to satisfy international tastes: "It’s impossible to use Valpolicella grapes to get that color and sweetness," says Tenute SalvaTerra’s Paolo Fontana of those big, inky wines. "We want a product that is more drinkable, more typical. Our goal is to create an Amarone cru." To get there, SalvaTerra also turns to rarely used native grape varieties such as Oseleta, which was saved from extinction in the 1970s and allowed in top wines since 2002.

There’s a crucial Valpolicellan touch at play in the adage "Drying is the Veronese signature," explains Marion Winery’s Stefano Campedelli of the zone’s famed dehydrated grapes. He also points to second-use Slovenian oak barrels as the kind of wood best suited to a genuine take on Valpolicella terroir. Appassimento, or partial drying, takes place under precise conditions in well-ventilated rooms known as fruttaie, in which whole grape bunches are either arranged in single layers in stacked bins or hung in dazzling purple-blue sheets that tumble from ceiling to floor.

An appropriate environment is key. Even a hint of the botrytis, or noble rot, prized in French Sauternes and Hungarian Tokaji, will spoil the fresh, elegantly austere mix of sour cherry, pine, and sharper spices like clove and black pepper that is Valpolicella’s fame. "Amarone wine, one of the most prized wines in the world, is the first wine in which the drying is a controlled process. [Dehydration] changes the grape at the biochemical level, and involves specialist vine management, postharvest technology and production processes, which are different from the typical wine-making procedure," explain Mencarelli and Tonutti.

Even a hint of the botrytis ... will spoil the fresh, elegantly austere mix of sour cherry, pine, and sharper spices like clove and black pepper that is Valpolicella’s fame.

Cherry and olive trees, still a presence here, dominated the landscape until just a few decades ago: fruit from the former was once more profitable than wine. That changed with Amarone’s rising fame. Today’s Valpolicella zone—a fingerlike series of 11 valleys flowing south from the Lessini Prealps, calcareous ridges rising between them, that begins near the Adige river—stretches eastward to end only where white wine-producing Soave begins (winemakers near the border often have vineyards in both areas and produce examples of both appellations). In these soils that vary from limestone to basalt to red and brown clay, the native cherry-scented Corvina is queen, closely followed by darker-skinned, acidic Corvinone, then Rondinella and Molinara, in rough quality order, along with lesser-known grapes like the small-berried Oseleta and a handful of international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

A combination of those grapes, always with Corvina, is the base of all four styles. Valpolicella DOC, a peppery, minty, fresh cherry counterpart to Amarone and Recioto, is the appellation’s most basic wine and the only one made with non-dried grapes, though it too may include a percentage of dried ones. In 2007, a way to add heft in both body and flavor to simple Valpolicella came into its own: by stirring in must from the year’s Amarone or Recioto production then putting that mix through a second fermentation. Valpolicella Ripasso DOC, the final style, is heartier and more complex than the basic, yet daintier than Amarone (which is sometimes simply blended in at up to 15 percent in lieu of refermentation).

From the freshest Valpolicella, hinting at the flavors brought forth when those grapes are dried, to winemaking feats that yield hearty elegance and typicity, here are some of the zone’s most representative wines, to be opened from appetizer to dessert and after.

Producer: Marion
Wine: Valpolicella Superiore, 2011
Retail: $28

First-generation winemaker Stefano Campedelli founded Marion Winery just twenty years ago, in Valpolicella East (the lands added to the Classico zone in 1968 to create Italy’s official Valpolicella designation), but his Valpolicella roots are strong. The son of a wine broker, Campedelli fell in with oenologist Celestino Gaspari who trained with the area’s famed Giuseppe Quintarelli, then he consulted with Gaspari to make his Marion wines on a cypress- and vineyard-filled 15th-century estate once owned by the noble Marioni family. With a hearty, nuanced, and decidedly Valpolicellan elegance, Campedelli’s adherence to the area’s tradition is both faithful and thoughtful. In a playful nod to the area’s storied use of​ appassimento​, all Marion wines are made with a varying percentage of dried grapes, including the basic Valpolicella.

The "Superiore" on the label means the wine inside is aged for one year before bottling, deepening those fresh fruit flavors. The portion of dried grapes (50 percent Corvina, 25 percent Corvinone, and 25 percent Rondinella) adds an earthiness to the style’s signature sour cherry and eucalyptus brightness, along with allspice, tobacco, and cedar notes.

Producer: Tenute SalvaTerra
Wine: Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore, 2012
Retail: $16

Located squarely in Classico territory, on the 16th-century estate of Villa Giona in San Pietro in Cariano, Tenute SalvaTerra is a mix of passion and practicality. The winemaking Furia family, bolstered by a small group of investors who keep to the business end of things, makes wines beholden to both place and year. The emphasis on vintage and vineyards (surrounded by olive trees and cypress) and inclusion of indigenous grapes beyond Corvina and Corvinone makes for complex wines with a minty, rhubarb-y coolness​ and​ well-balanced tannins and acidity.

Flavors like red currant and a piney-ness verging on rosemary are the hallmarks of this richly tannic and acidic Ripasso Superiore, as is a lively, long-lasting finish. Made of fresh, non-dried grapes (65 percent Corvina, 10 percent Corvinone, 20 percent Rondinella, 5 percent indigenous varieties like Oseleta), this wine was​ ripassato​ (re-passed) over the dry-grape skins used for 2012’s Amarone, then aged for several more months before being bottled.

Producer: Santa Sofia
Wine: Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore, 2012
Retail: $18

Nobleman Marcantonio Serego’s Villa Santa Sofia—the Santa Sofia winery—makes Valpolicella that is fresh and peppery with iron-like streaks of minerality. Some of its cellars are located in a former church built by monks in the early 14th century (which served as the Villa’s chapel more than 250 years later) and house large Slovenian oak casks of Amarone and Ripasso. Other Santa Sofia wines come of age in cellars that run beneath the Villa itself, in rooms which once housed Serego’s wine as well. Elegant and tannic from basic to Amarone, Santa Sofia Valpolicellas are perfect companions for local dishes of​ grilled​ polenta or bigoli pasta and wild boar ragu.

A lean, savory mouthful with spiced, herbal baked fruit notes, this Ripasso was made with f​resh grapes (70 percent Corvina, 25 percent Rondinella, 5 percent Molinara)​ from​ the Classico territories of Negrar, Fumane, San Pietro in Cariano, and Marano,​ then​ refermented with grape skins held​ from​ the year’s Amarone and Recioto production. Aged for an additional​ six​ months in bottle,​ this wine shows light notes of seared meat and tobacco.

Producer: AdaliaWine: Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore, 2013
Retail: $22

Another relative newcomer, Adalia’s vineyards—which share turf with orchards of olive trees and Durone cherry trees plus untended forest—are small, just five hectares, on the chalk- and limestone-rich hills of Valpolicella East’s Valle di Mezzane. The land tells of Adalia’s winemaking philosophy: multi-variety agriculture in harmony with wild land and a light human touch​. These lighter-bodied Valpolicellas are made from grapes harvested by hand, then fermented with indigenous yeasts.

The brilliant cherry-red stain gives this Ripasso's secret away: red plums, spearmint, and cloves notes round out this big, bright, and surprisingly fruity wine. It's made the regular Ripasso way, but with far less Corvina than most: f​resh grapes (30 percent Corvina, 40 percent Corvina Grossa, 20 percent Rondinella, 10 percent Molinara) fermented in stainless steel, then refermented with the year’s Amarone grape skins.

Producer: Zenato
Wine: Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, 2010
Retail: $58

This second-generation-run winery is in Valpolicella Classico’s Sant'Ambrogio zone, comprised of 35 hectares planted with Corvina, Rondinella, and Oseleta grapevines, which are picked by hand come harvest time. With magazine and book recognition like Gambero Rosso's​ Tre Bicchieri​ award and inclusion as a​ vino dell'eccellenza​ in Le Guide de L'Espresso's Vini d'Italia 2016, Zenato's wines are rich, accessible expressions of traditional Valpolicella.

Falling just shy of a deep, opaque ruby color, this Amarone offers both fruit (prune, candied sour cherry) and heft (those tannins!) thanks to grapes (80 percent Corvina, 10 percent Rondinella, 10 percent Oseleta) that have been left to dry for up to four months. It's a simple, satisfying expression of this great wine style, and one in which the high percentage of Corvina and the addition of Oseleta can be tasted (and seen). Amarone from the Classico area is said to have a tannic quality similar to Barolo and Barbaresco: Zenato proves that true, while keeping to Valpolicella's fruitness.

Producer: Valentina Cubi
Wine: Recioto della Valpolicella Classico, Meliloto, 2003
Retail: $52 (500ml)

Valentina Cubi has been making her own rules since her husband, a consulting oenologist, bought a few acres of vineyard land steps from Lake Garda, then took too long to work it. Dismayed at seeing the land neglected while her husband worked long hours elsewhere, Cubi set out to teach herself to tend Valpolicella vineyards and make Valpolicella wine, with special emphasis on the indigenous Corvina grape. She​ turned​ the vineyards organic, allotting part of today’s 13 hectares to olive groves, too, and embraced integrated farming methods like composting and cover crops—decisions that​ have earned her a reputation as both rebel and pure Vapolicella winemaker.

A wine that manages to likewise be sweet and austere, the Meliloto is made from grapes (70 percent Corvina, 25 percent Corvinone, 5 percent Rondinella) harvested by hand in the Fumane and San Pietro in Cariano areas, dried for up to four months, then left to ferment slowly on the skins for months as well, without temperature control whenever possible.


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