Valpolicella – Discovering Diversity Part 2
Part 1 of this article was about the diversity found in Valpolicella; in grapes, styles, designations, terroirs, winegrowing, and philosophies.
This Part 2 features a dozen great examples of Valpolicella wines designed to illustrate these points. They are also arranged in pairs to compare and contrast. Such is the strength-in-depth within Valpolicella that on another day, this article could easily feature a completely different set of wines. However, all the wines chosen are excellent reference examples.
Part 2: The featured wines and producers
Click the map below to see the wineries chosen – they range across the entire region, so covering all the designations and styles made.
The first two wines are “Novello” or, if you will, “normale.” These are examples of Valpolicella that use fresh grapes and made to be drunk young and even serve lightly chilled. Both wines have moderate alcohol, fresh acidity, floral fragrance and sour cherry flavours. There’s no long maturation or use of wood with this style. It’s a simple, fresh wine that should nonetheless be engaging and satisfying.
1. Torre del Falasco (Cantina di Valpantena). Valpolicella Valpantena DOC, 2018. 12.5%
Corvina & Corvinone 75%, Rondinella 25%
This wine comes from the excellent co-operative that dominates the Valpantena DOC subzone. Established in 1958, it has 300 members, 750 hectares of vineyard and makes some 3.3 million bottles per year. It’s also an excellent source of olive oil. Torre del Falasco is their premium brand using the best selection of grapes, named after a local Robin Hood-like character. Their Valpolicella is given six months maturation in stainless steel.
This wine has plenty of juicy sour cherry fruit and some additional herbaceousness. Hence, it shows just how well-made Valpolicella can be, being both delicious and sharply priced. It’s drinking perfectly now and for the next year or so.
The Wine Society, £8.50
2. Zýmē. Valpolicella DOC, 2017. 12%
Corvina 40%, Corvinone 30%, Rondinella 25%, Oseleta 5%
Zýmē was set-up by Celestino Gaspari in 1999, the name meaning “yeast”. It now has 16 hectares but makes only a total of 30,000 bottles per year. Gaspari worked eleven years at superstar producer Quintarelli as is married to Guiseppe Quintarelli’s daughter. He has also consulted at a handful of other Valpolicella wineries. Consequently, all the wines are carefully crafted, with great attention to detail. Reverie, created in 2009, is matured for six months in stainless steel. With plenty of energy, the bright cherry fruit flavours are, somehow, wilder here. There is a little more tannin and also some herbaceous subtlety as it opens up in the glass. Drink now or over the next two years.
Both these excellent wines are a long way removed from the cheap Valpolicella’s still too often encountered. They prove that there’s high-quality wine at the inexpensive end of Valpolicella for those that care to look. Drink with simple tomato-based pasta dishes or with a plate of salami and charcuterie – that’s all you need for a feast.
The next pairing features Valpolicella Superiore. Valpolicella is a place where the designation Superiore still has real meaning. Yes, it should be a selection of riper grapes and hence a little more alcohol than the Novello. But also in law, this wine must age for at least 12 months – and consequently a more serious expression. These days, Ripasso wines can be Superiore too, but the wines here use only fresh grapes.
Expect more, though still moderate, alcohol. Acidity is lower, so the wine feels rounder in the mouth, and there’s more tannin for longevity, structure and balance. Expect a darker shade of ruby/garnet colour, aromas of violets, cherry and roses, a smoother mouthfeel and a longer length. Many examples use wood for maturation, but this can take many forms. Perhaps after the Novello wines, the more intense Superiore style comes as something of a shock. These are wines that are far more serious in intent, needing some bottle age to show at their best. However, as well as offering longevity, those tannins are beneficial for food, especially with tougher cuts of meat. Try mutton chops.
In this pairing, the Santi wine is a DOC from the far eastern part of Valpolicella, on the border with Soave, while the other is from Bertani’s Classico vineyard in the west.
3. Santi. Ventale, Valpolicella Superiore DOC, 2016. 13.5%
Corvina 80%, Corvinone 10%, Rondinella 10%
Santi was founded in 1843 and are now one of the wineries in the portfolio of Gruppo Italia Vini, so is now benefitting from renewed investment. There’s 70 hectares of vines and 1.2 million bottles made each year. Santi is in the east on the Soave border, in the lower Illasi Valley, a flatter and windier area. Indeed, Ventale, the name of the wine, means wind. Santi uses old 500-litre wooden casks for maturation. They are known for their research into the maturation effects of different woods. Hence this wine gets 18 months in a combination of woods (70% oak, 20% chestnut and 10% cherry), before a further four months in the bottle.
This wine still feels young and is a couple of years away from being fully ready, with still evident tannins making it a little edgy at this stage. There’s an attractive wild strawberry nose before black cherry and cassis flavours and a long, savoury finish — one for keeping.
4. Bertani, (Tenuta Novare). Ognisanti, Classico Superiore DOC, 2015. 13.5%
Corvina 80%, Rondinella 20%
Bertani is family-owned and headquartered in the Valpantena sub-zone. However, it has extensive holdings throughout the Valpolicella region, and their 200 hectares produce two million bottles per year. Established back in 1857, this famous winery is one of the claimants of creating the first Amarone. Meanwhile, Ognisanti is a single vineyard wine, from Tenuta Novare in the heart of Valpolicella Classico. Bertani bought this excellent property in 1957. At Bertani, the fresh grapes are macerated to extract the maximum colour and tannin, then fermented at only 20° C to preserve aroma and flavour. Maturation is for 18 months in French oak barriques, 25% of which are new. Finally, there are another six months in bottle before release.
Once again, this wine is yet to reach its peak. There’s intensity here; it’s dense in colour and body, violet-scented, brooding in the glass. Cassis and black cherry fruit, a mineral undertow and some coffee and cocoa on the long finish. Plenty of tannins here that need further time in bottle to soften. Will repay keeping or drink with food.
The next pair of wines represent a slight diversion, being “Supervenetians”. These are IGT wines, Rosso della Veronese, which do not conform to the DOC/DOCG rules for one reason or another. Just as happened in Tuscany, these wines appeared when producers were seeking to improve quality or innovate. Hence there are many examples these days. As the DOC rules have changed over time, some of these wines could now be allowed in the current DOC. However, those that have become icons have little need for such niceties. Here are two of the most famous. Both are game-changing wines, from the powerhouses of Allegrini and Masi, respectively.
5. Allegrini. La Grola IGT Rosso della Veronese, 2014. 14.5%
Corvina 90%, Oseleta 10%
The Allegrini family rank amongst Valpolicella’s royalty, having established themselves in Fumane, in the heart of Classico in 1854. They make an extensive range of wines, with some 900,000 bottles from their 105 hectares. Allegrini bought La Grola in 1979 and created what was then first single-vineyard Corvina. Back then, using 90% Corvina was far higher than today’s allowed maximum of 95% and, in any case, there is 10% of the rare Oseleta grape included in preference to Rondinella. So it’s an IGT. La Grola is high up, an exposed hill site in the Classico zone at 330 metres, with poor shallow soils. There is Syrah grown here too, which is sometimes included the blend, though not in this challenging 2014 vintage.
Even the La Grola map coordinates are on the label (45° 31′ 49.51″ N; 10° 49′ 49.25″ E). Maturation takes 18 months in old oak barriques, followed by two months blending and a further final ten months in bottle.
La Grola uses no dried grapes, yet there are such richness, complexity and deep-pile velvet mouthfeel one might say, “I can’t believe it’s not Ripasso”. Dark and dense, aromas of black cherry and white pepper. Black cherry fruit, hints of herbs and oranges, a flinty minerality, savoury undertow and exquisite silken balance. Not cheap, but worth every penny. A triumph.
Roberts and Speight, £20.99
6. Masi. CampoFiorin Appaxximento. IGT Rosso della Veronese, 2015. 13%
Corvina 70%, Rondinella 25%, Molinara 5%
Masi was founded in 1772 by the Boscaini family, another of Valpolicella’s royal families. Their 640 hectares means a whopping 4.2 million bottles per annum. Yet regardless of the cuvée, their high-quality standards never waver. Back in 1964, before Valpolicella was even a DOC, they created the first ripasso-style wine with CampoFiorin, using the lees of Amarone to induce a second fermentation. This wine became an icon and has led to a range of related wines.
Since the eighties, CampoFiorin has used 30% semi-dried grapes rather than Amarone pomace, in what Masi call Apaxximento. After the second fermentation, the wine ages for 18 months, with a third in new oak casks, the rest in 9,000-litre old Slavonian oak botti.
In the glass, the wine is an intense ruby red, with aromas of sour cherry and brown spices. The palate is rich and softly velvety, featuring dried red cherry and cranberry fruits with a hint of toast and coffee.
In short, CampoFiorin is a historic wine, a prototype for modern ripasso and one that can still slug it out with the very best examples. Terrific value too.
Meanwhile, DOC Ripasso is a modern designation, having been a DOC only since 2010. However, it has become a great success. As Amarone pomace is used to induce a second fermentation, these wines should be more alcoholic, with a denser structure and mouthcoating velvety glycerol. The best will also pick up the Amarone dried-fruit complexity. The Ripasso method can be used to beef up a poor Valpolicella or hide its faults, but the best examples ensure that the base Valpolicella wine is excellent in the first place.
How much time spent in ripasso depends on the winegrower. The minimum time for repassing is just three days, with many 15-20 days. Shorter periods are more likely to produce a turbocharged Valpolicella, while those left longer might be said to be Amarone-lite.
However, beware leaving the ripasso process for too long. Otherwise, the tannins from the pips and seeds in the pomace will produce too much bitterness and harsh wine.
Here are two Ripasso wines that represent the “half-way house” between Valpolicella and Amarone and yet are different from each other in age and style. Both are made by inspiring winegrowers that had no formal training when they started but have garnered many accolades since.
7. Corte Sant ‘Alda. Campi Magri, Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso DOC, 2015. 14%
Corvina 30%, Corvinone 50%, Rondinella 20%
Corte Sant’Alda was founded in 1986 by Marinella Camerani, a winegrower of vision and conviction. Her 19 hectares in eastern Valpolicella make 90,000 bottles of Demeter-certified biodynamic wine. Campi Magri is a single 4.2-hectare plot, where some of the vines are bush-trained, an unusual sight in this land of traditional Pergola and modern Guyot vine training systems. Campi Magri has about six days ripasso, so leans toward the turbo-Valpolicella end of the Ripasso spectrum. All the wines made here mature in old cherry wood, used because it is local and does not mark the wines with additional tannins or woody flavours. Campi Magri gets two years in those barrels. Also, the low-sulphur regime employed here means vibrant fruit.
The result is a wine of exceptional balance and precision, retaining the cranberry freshness of the base Valpolicella without adding too much dried-fruit character into the mix. Lean and agile, vibrant sour and black cherry fruit cut with forest-floor complexity. The long finish then offers some subtle spice and animal notes. A firm favourite!
Roberts and Speight, £26.99
8. Tomasso Bussola. TB, Valpolicella Superiore (Ripasso) DOC, 1999. 13.5%
Corvina & Corvinone 50%, Rondinella 40%, Molinara & “others” 10%
Tomasso Bussola started at his uncle’s farm in 1977. He took it over in the 1980s and built a new winery in 1992. The late Giuseppe Quinterelli thought him one of the outstanding winegrowers of his generation. This wine is now 20 years old and doesn’t say Ripasso on the label. However, this wine was made before the word ripasso was well known, and before the DOC.
Most of the base wine would have received the ripasso treatment, but a small amount was left to blend back afterwards, before 18 months maturation in new barriques.
It’s a wine said to have considerable longevity, so this was a chance to prove it. There are still some violet scents and black cherry fruit, though the wine has developed cedar, leather, raisins and balsamic notes. Much more an Amarone-lite in style, it’s admittedly now fading and past its peak. It’s become a little fragile and begins to oxidise in the glass after a few minutes. Time to drink up then, yet it’s still a satisfying experience.
Wine Auctioneer, £28.08
A DOCG since 2010, this is a wine that can age for decades, and some producers still have examples dating from the fifties and sixties. The minimum alcohol for Amarone is 14%, though steroidal versions have up to 17.5%! Amarone is always a powerful special occasion wine and often a “Vino di Meditazione.” However, excessive levels of alcohol tend to promote naked power at the expense of subtlety and nuance – it’s an increased risk in these days of climate change.
Amarone is a dry wine, yet residual sugar is allowed up to 12 g/l – again, those that are drier tend to be better balanced. The grapes for Amarone are hand-selected, being the best from the Valpolicella vineyards, and the usual time for drying the grapes is 90-120 days. Humidity control is allowed, but using heat to speed up the drying process is banned.
Finally, the minimum maturation for an Amarone is two years; or four years for the Riserva level. Amarone is a wine that can age over the decades, and some producers still have examples in great nick dating from the fifties and sixties. Food-wise, drink it after a meal as you would with Port, perhaps with cheeses and nuts. Or try it with big meats like rib-eye steak or venison.
Inevitably, Amarone is expensive. Cheaper versions will have made compromises somewhere, and those will show up in the glass. The two examples selected here make no compromises and are both stunning wines. The choice is yours.
9. Ca’ La Bionda. Ravazzòl, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG, 2012. 16%
Corvina 70%, Corvinone 20%, Rondinella & Molinara 10%
The Castellani family owns Ca’ la Bionda, which dates back to 1902. They make 150,000 bottles of wine per year and have 29 hectares in Classico. It includes the top of the limestone hill of Ravazzòl, with vines between 50 and 70 years old. With organic/biodynamic viticulture, a gravity-fed winery, and meticulous attention to grape drying, this is an Amarone worthy of the name. Maturation is usually for three years in just one single 3,000-litre French oak cask. A further eight months rest occurs in the bottle before release.
The result is complex, incredibly rich and mouthcoating, with masses of glycerol. Sour cherry, black cherry, blackberry fruit are all to the fore, but there’s also tobacco and a chocolate/cocoa note on an extremely long finish. Finely polished tannins add to the plush velvet texture, and there’s no apparent alcoholic heat to mar these sensations — a joyous experience. The old cliché about an iron fist in a velvet glove couldn’t be apter.
Bat & Bottle, £46.80
10. Valentina Cubi. Morar, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG, 2010. 16.5%
Corvina 70%, Corvinone 25%, Rondinella 5%
Valentina Cubi established her venture in 1969. Today she has 13 hectares around Fumane in the Classico zone. She farms organically/biodynamically, making just 40,000 bottles. Morar’s maturation takes 33 months in 3,000-litre oak casks followed by a “few years” in the bottle. Hence this 2010 is the current release. Cubi releases the wines when deemed ready, rather than in regular chronological order.
With the grape selection, Cubi is super-meticulous, using an artisanal technique called “Recie“, from which the word Recioto derives. The best parts of the bunch are the “ears”, with the most exposure to the sun. Only these are for Amarone, a time-consuming process now largely abandoned. However, the additional ripeness means that the grape drying time is relatively short at 90 days.
Morar is completely dry, with no hint of residual sugar. Cherry and violet-scented, the palate is reminiscent of kirsch, the cherry liqueur. A mouthful of red cherries with just a hint of warmth and spirit. Again, velvet-textured, mouth-coating glycerol and polished tannins. Great balance of fruit and alcohol from the acidity though – it’s a fresh, pure wine, not heavy or clingy. Cocoa powder on a persistent finish seals the deal. This wine needs a few minutes in the glass to show it’s subtlety and complexity – don’t rush!
Recioto is a dried-grape wine in a sweet style. Though the demand for sweet wines has fallen, it remains an Italian classic, awarded DOCG status in 2010. There’s more to Recioto than being the forerunner of Amarone!
Recioto’s grapes dry for 100-200 days. The juice must be capable of fermenting out to 14% alcohol if it were dry wine. Hence a typical recioto is 12-12.5% alcohol with around 50-90 g/l of residual sugar.
Curiously, the laws allow for a relatively rare speciality: a sweet sparkling version known as Recioto Spumante Dolce, made by relatively few and the only sparkling wine allowed under the Valpolicella laws.
Recioto is always a delicious treat and a classic dessert wine. Sweetness is moderate and balanced by acidity, so good examples are not cloying or sticky. It’s versatile too; choose from meringues, fresh fruit or blue cheese. Alternatively, go for chocolate or pastries. Pour over ice-cream!
11. Cantina Negrar. Recioto della Valpolicella Classico DOCG, 2015. 12.5%
Corvina, 70%, Corvinone 15%, Rondinella 15%
Cantina Negrar is one of Italy’s best co-operatives, founded in 1933. There are 600 hectares of vines, and in Classico alone, there are 230 growers and 4.6 million bottles made. Add in other appelations, and this rises to 7 million. Consequently, it has access to high-quality grapes and can produce large quantities of every Valpolicella wine style at sharp prices. Their Recioto is a good example where the grape drying lasts for 120 days.
This recioto is moderately sweet with 50 g/l residual sugar and very well balanced by acidity. Flavours of raspberry, black cherry, plums and prune all feature in a creamy mix. Consequently, it’s dangerously easy to drink and exceptionally well priced for the quality on offer.
Waitrose £15.99 (50cl)
12. Domìni Veneti (Cantina Negrar). Recioto della Valpolicella, Spumante Dolce DOCG, 2016. 12.5%
Corvina 60%, Corvinone 15%, Rondinella 15%. Oseleta, Pelara, Croatina, Dindarella & Spigamonte 10%
Cantina Negrar also makes this unusual yet delicious sparkling wine. Domìni Veneti is their top wine brand, introduced in 1983. These days a recioto spumante dolce is a rare treat, given bubbles by the Charmat method. Also, this example has the benefit of a melange of rare Veronese grapes that bring additional interest and complexity.
As a result, this wine is delicious bubbly fun and a delightful dessert pairing. Again, of moderate sweetness and balancing acidity, there’s delicious sour cherry, raspberry and cranberry fruit, and a little tannin too.
Try it on festive occasions like Christmas and New Year, when Sbrisolona, (a crunchy almond cake), or Panettone is on the menu.
Domìni Veneti, direct, £20.00