Posted by Matt on September 30, 2016
Valpolicella has long been one of the most popular wines of Italy. Not only does it come in a variety of styles, from light and fruity, to intense and concentrated, to delectably sweet; Valpolicella also lies right on a railroad line through the Alps, meaning the wine was able to easily tap into continental European trade routes, and soon after, global consumption.
This happy accident by no means undercuts the quality of the wines this region can acheive. While a good deal of entry-level Valpolicella is table wine, the true reputation lies in the small estates and family producers who take pride in producing not just one wine style, but four: Valpolicella, Recioto, Amarone, and Ripasso.
To those of you familiar with the region, the list above may seem slightly out of order, but don’t worry, there’s a method to the madness. Each of these wine styles created the following style, some as recently as the 20th century! But as with most regions, it all began with still wine...
Valpolicella - It’s rather simple, actually, Valpolicella is a blend of three grapes, usually Corvina, blended with varying quantities of Rondinella and Molinara. For the still wine, grapes are harvested, pressed, and vinified conventionally to produce a light, fruity wine for everyday drinking.
Recioto - For most of history, basically up until the Industrial Revolution, sweet was a hard flavor to come by. One of the few sources of sweetness was grapes, so dessert wines were extremely highly valued. Recioto della Valpolicella is made by drying ripe grapes on straw mats to concentrate the acids and sugars. When these grapes are pressed for the little juice that remains, the indigenous yeasts are unable to survive in the extreme conditions, fermenting to a relatively low level of alcohol (10-12%) before dying off, leaving residual sugar that is balanced by that vibrant acidity.
Amarone - Sometimes, when things went “wrong,” recioto wine would accidentally ferment to dryness for a number of reasons. Particularly warm conditions could enhance the activity of the yeasts, or lower than usual sugar levels, or introduction of foreign yeasts. These wines combine the intense acidity and tannin of recioto, without the softening element of the sugar. Though this was originally considered a fault, in the 1950s, as dry wines came into fashion and winemaking methods modernized, Amarone della Valpolicella became a prominent fixture in Italian wine.
Ripasso - The final step in the lineup, ripasso was a solution to the excess of skins, or pomace, left over after vinification of the amarone. With light-bodied and friendly Valpolicella and moody, rich Amarone, all that was missing was the middle ground. By macerating leftover Amarone skins in the Valpolicella wine, winemakers are able to add structure and complexity to these light, everyday wines for a more structured, nuanced palate.
As an alternative, the pomace could also be used for another Italian classic, grappa, but that’s for another day...
Want to try these wines for yourself? Join us tonight, September 30th from 6-8 PM as Michael from Bonhomie Wine Imports pours a lineup of Valpolicella wines from the awesome sustainable producer Azienda Agricola Viviani.