The Wines of Valpolicella

A view over the Ugolini vineyard in the Valpolicella wine region
A view over the Ugolini vineyard in the Valpolicella wine region. Jim Cook/Getty Images

Valpolicella is a well-known wine-producing region in the province of Verona, between the foothills of the Alps and Lake Garda (Lago di Garda) in the northern Italian Veneto region. 

Red wines labeled as "Valpolicella" are typically made from the Corvina Veronese (40-70%), Rondinella (20-40%) and Molinara (5-20%) grape varieties. The vintner can also add up to 15% complementary varieties, which include Rossignola, Negrara, Trentina, Barbera and Sangiovese.

Many other styles of wine are also produced in this area, including a sweet dessert wine called recioto and Amarone, a rich, full-bodied wine made from partially-dried grapes.

Most basic Valpolicellas are light table wines similar to Beaujolais nouveau, and in fact -- deservedly or not -- they share the same reputation as not-very-serious wines.

According to a friend of mine who manages a wine shop in New Jersey, most foreign consumers don't think much of Valpolicella -- they see it as a light, fruity red wine with little character or finesse. The problem is serious enough that some of the wineries have taken to printing their names in large letters and doing their best to hide the word "Valpolicella."

It's a pity, because there's quite a bit to this wine, and it can be delightful.  As a general characteristic the wines tend to have lively to powerful bouquets, be full on the palate with good fruit, velvety, and have a pleasing aftertaste.

They also tend to be less tannic than wines from the Tuscany or Piemonte regions.

Getting down to specifics:

  • Valpolicella Classico is what most foreigners think of when they think Valpolicella. It is a light, everyday drinking wine, generally fermented in steel, kept in tanks, and then bottled in the spring. It tends to have a lively bouquet, with floral notes and hints of cherry or berry fruits - this is definitely an aromatic wine. On the palate it is light, fruity, and with a pleasant touch of acidity that leaves a clean finish. Not much in the way of tannins. It should be served with first courses -- pasta with meat-based sauces and soups, or vegetable-based entrees.
     
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore is a very different animal from the above. Though made from the same grapes it is aged in wood for at least a year; it emerges more structured and interesting, and in some cases reaches great heights. The wood can be either large botti, or smaller barriques, which some producers use to add tannins to the wine. There is a certain amount of controversy regarding this point, because Valpolicella has a distinctive floral-fruity bouquet that is in part overshadowed by the vanilla notes added by barriques. Therefore, the more traditional wineries won't use them. Instead, to add tannins to the wine they pass it over the skins and seeds left over from the fermentation of Reicioto (more on that below). The tannins gained are light and tend to be well-rounded, while the skins surrender more aromatics to the bouquet, and add intriguing complexities to the wine on the palate. This technique, which is unique to Valpolicella, is called Ripassa, and can give wondrous results. Though Valpolicella Classico Superiore can be drunk throughout a meal, it will go best with more involved entrees, for example roasts or stews.
     
  • Recioto della Valpolicella is one of Italy's greatest and oddest wines. It's made from red grapes harvested and then set to dry on racks until late fall, when evaporation has concentrated their sugars considerably and a variety of metabolic changes have taken place (Mr. Allegrini, one of the best producers, notes that fructose is concentrated with respect to glucose, and that malic acid is consumed, which helps to ensure that the acidity of the wine will be balanced). After fermentation, the wine is aged in casks or barriques and then bottled. Sounds simple, but what emerges is a "seduction wine"(I'm quoting from a thick Italian wine guide here), a purple-red, inky-dark gift of the Gods with stewed cherries on the nose, mixed with spices and hints of licorice. On the palate, Reicioto is sweet, with wonderful fruit flavors and well rounded tannins that give it a velvety texture. The finish is persistent and clean. Oh yes -- Reicioto is also strong, at least 14% alcohol. It goes well with elegant pastries, and some suggest Gorgonzola Dolce as well.
     
  • Recioto Amarone is the dry version of Reicioto. The nose is astonishingly complex: Warm, vinious, with stewed cherries, licorice, hot bricks and a host of other things. In short, captivating and marvelous. On the palate, the wine is lush with intense fruit flavors and bitter undertones (amaro means bitter), and is, well, the Italian word is avvolgente ("enveloping") -- it's like being hugged. The tannins are velvety, and the finish amazingly persistent. Again, it's a strong wine. And again, there are two schools of production: Those who use barriques, and those who don't. The wines of the former have some toasted vanilla overtones in the bouquet, with perhaps a hint of spices, while those of the latter have a wider range of fruit scents. To be honest, I like them both. In terms of serving, Amarone goes well with complex and involved meat dishes, and even more so with cheeses. Especially aged ones, and I was told to try it with Gorgonzola Piccante, which rather resembles Roquefort.
     

There are many different producers. Among the best are: Quintarelli, Bertani, Masi, Tommasi, Zenato, Tedeschi, Tommaso Bussola, Lorenzo Begali, Allegrini, Igino Accordini, Sartori, Nicolis, Degani, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Monte Cariano, and Santa Sofia, to name a few.

As a final note, you might be wondering about yields in the vineyard. For basic Valpolicella Classico, the allowable yield is 120 quintals per hectare (about 5 metric tons per acre), with a yield into wine of 70%. This is high, and it comes as no surprise that producers who push the yields to the allowable limit make quaffing wine. The better producers have lower yields for their Valpolicella Classico, on the order of 70 quintals per hectare, and proportionately lower yields for Valpolicella Classico Superiore. For Recioto and Amarone, the yields drop to 40 quintals per hectare (about 1.5 tons per acre). In the case of both, the weight of grapes is further reduced by evaporation, so very little is made of either. Paradise should be enjoyed in small sips, after all.