Valpolicella: Differentiating this Veneto Red from Amarone

In the last article, I discussed Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone. While most of the feedback that I received (and I love to get some feedback) was positive, apparently, there is still some confusion on differentiating Amarone from Valpolicella. Based on the name, such confusion is understandable. Although Amarone may be the superior wine, “simple” Valpolicella, however, is a wine worthy of its own discussion and understanding.

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Valpolicella, named after the local valley in the Veneto that the wine is from, has been made since at least Roman times. Pliny the Elder wrote about it in his travels. It has a long history of being the local wine of choice. It never was meant to be more than a simple food wine and over time, quality got more and more suspect. Yields of the vineyards were quite large and the wine was produced in large quantities. The reputation of this wine became poor and it was rarely consumed outside of the local area. Even today, there are large industrial producers making oceans of the stuff that is not worth the time or trouble for wine enthusiasts to drink. There are, however, some very good Valpolicellas. 

As I stated in the last column, Valpolicella and Amarone utilize the same grapes. That is Corvina Veronese, 40-70%; Rondinella, 20-40%; Molinara, 5-25%; Barbera, up to 15%; Negrara Trentina and/or Rossignola and/or Sangiovese, 15%; other local red varieties, up to 5%. The wines can be labeled as Classico, Superiore or Classico Superiore, the last two requiring 14 months of ageing before release.

The producers who have chosen to use lower yields in their vineyards have learned to make tasty and yet still reasonably priced Valpolicellas. Like many areas, these producers have experimented with using smaller oak barrels. Because the oak tends to dominate the wine, many producers have gone to older barrels.

Wines labeled as Valpolicella are simple wines with soft cherry flavors. They provide crisp acidity that can stand up to a plate of food, especially if there is tomato sauce. You may find that they are at their best served just slightly chilled. They should be consumed within a year or two of their release. The wines labeled as Classico or Superiore are required to have a bit higher alcohol levels which means the grapes must be allowed to get riper. The wines made in the Ripasso style often are darker in color. They have, in addition to the cherry flavor profile, dried cherries and red raspberries. Occasionally, you can detect a coffee quality to them also. These are more complex wines and can be drunk on release. If aged for 5 to 10 years they develop an exceptional complexity. They often provide some of the best values around in terms of a wine that will improve with a few years in the cellar.

In 1964 another trend emerged, or I should say, re-emerged. Masi, a producer of excellent wines revived an ancient winemaking tradition, which Masi called Ripasso. This means taking the fermented Valpolicella juice and re-fermenting it on the skins and lees left over from the Recioto della Valpolicella. As was discussed in the last article, this is a sweet wine in which the grapes are dried on straw mats before being made into wine.

Masi trademarked the name Ripasso in an effort to be the sole producers of it. Italians, however, love regulations and they love to flaunt not following them. Many producers came out with their own Ripasso wines anyway. In an effort to control quality, Masi agreed to let those producers who utilize the same quality procedures and production techniques that Masi did, to use the term. Yet, some producers found other ways to make their wines. They would make two blends and mix the wines. Others would let the Valpolicella pass thru the grape skins. You may also see the term Ripassa on a label in an effort to skirt the law. Some producers simply opted out of the DOC designation and used fantasy names for their wines.

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.