In a region known for its white wines, Valpolicella makes some of the best red wines in the world. Home to four appellations, these wines are distinguished more in the style of their making than the grapes that make the wine. That is because all four styles are made from the same blend of native grapes.
In a region most renown for its sensuous bottles of finely fizzy Prosecco, Valpolicella stands out like a red-coloured thumb. Laying just east of Lake Garda in the province of Verona, the hilly territory of Valpolicella is the tiny home of some great red wines.
The history of making wine in this area, like much of Italy, is as old as time immemorial. Valpolicella, an industrial area of the mid-20th century due to marble quarries, has long been a strategically positioned valley. Lying northeast of the economically important ports of Venice and to the south of the now non-existent border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Valpolicella played an essential role in commerce. It is this very economic dependence that instigated locals to start planting more and more vines. If ever trade was down due to political plight, they could rely on their production of wine.
Today the valley boasts of four appellations: Valpolicella DOC, Valpolicella Ripasso DOC, Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG and Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG. All of which enjoy international fame. The unique thing about these four wines is that they are made from the same blend of grapes.
Four styles, one blend
The two most important native varieties are Corvina and Rondinella. Under the rules of the appellation, all four of these wines must be made from the same blend of these two varieties. The inclusion of other varieties is limited. The blend must include 45-95% Corvina (up to 50% can be Corvinone, another local variety), 5-30% Rondinella and up to 25% approved other variety. The blend is never more than three varieties, and often the third grape is Molinaro, another native vine.
Try all the wines of Valpolicella
Take a tour of the valley and enjoy these unique wines with a personalized tour to Zenato. A family-run winery, Zenato is considered one of the top wineries in the area and makes many award-winning wines.
The lightest, easiest going of the bunch, Valpolicella DOC opens the gates to this valley. A favourite of Ernest Hemingway, he once said it is, “light, dry, red wine… as friendly as the house of your brother.” An apt description of this wine, usually on the market by the following spring after harvest, its alcohol content usually hovers around 11%. It is a young wine, customarily harvested mid-September, it ferments in steel for 7-10 days and never ages in wood. With its distinct cherry and rose scents that pair well with most food. It is fresh and lively with a velvety mouthfeel that is widely appreciated.
Winemakers can also make Valpolicella Superiore DOC, another label if they age the wine for one year and the sugar-free extract is at least 20g/L, and the alcohol content is equal to or higher than 12%.
Valpolicella Ripasso DOC
This is a unique wine, made with a process that was close to extinction and underwent a revival in the mid-20th century. Ripasso, which means re-passed in English, is a simple process where the pomace (residual yeasts and sugars in the must) is ‘repassed’ through the must for secondary fermentation.
For Valpolicella Ripasso, the pomace from the Amarone wine mixes with Valpolicella must that had been ageing in steel tanks. This ageing process begins after the first 7-10 days of fermentation and then it rests until February when the grapes for Amarone are pressed and fermented. It has the freshness of Valpolicella and the richness of Amarone.
The ripasso method adds alcohol, body, polyphenols, flavours and aromas to the must. It makes the wine more structured and complex. The wine ages for a minimum of one year in barrel, but the usual practice is for 2-3 years.
Amarone della Valpolicella
Probably the most known wine from this region, Amarone is distinct for how unusual it is. A dry red wine, winemakers, use withered grapes, a practice that is rare outside of sweet wines. This process of withering is called appassimento, a system of natural air-drying. Traditionally the grape clusters would be left to shrivel on straw mats in rooms where the humidity was naturally lower to avoid mildew and other fungi from forming. These rooms are called fruttaio and are still used today, just with a lot more technology to ensure proper temperature control and moisture levels.
The method of drying grapes on straw mats is widespread throughout the history of wine in Europe, but turning the withered grapes into dry red wines is not. The withered grapes are pressed and left to ferment for 35-50 days before being racked. The pomace from this must is mixed with the aged must of Valpolicella to make Valpolicella Ripasso. The racked Amarone must ages in barrels for a minimum of 2 years and a minimum of 4 years to be considered a ‘Riserva’ label.
Amarone della Valpolicella is full-bodied and a beautiful garnet red colour. The dried grapes give off scents of black cherry, prune, chocolate and spices as well as a complex, round and long-lasting texture. The ageing of the grapes increases the amount of glycerine released, naturally smoothing out the wine and making it fantastic for pairing with heavier dishes, such as meat dishes.
Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG
This is the wine where it all began. Recioto della Valpolicella is a sweet red wine made from the same withered grapes as Amarone, but is bottled earlier leaving a higher sugar content in the wine. In fact, many locals say that Amarone was accidentally discovered when a few winemakers left their recioto to ferment for too long and it became very dry. The history of Recioto reaches far back into the valley when sweet foods were very rare. The sugars present in the dried grapes were much sweeter than most people were accustomed to (or could even afford) and Recioto became highly prized amongst the ancient elite.
Not very much had changed in 2000 years. Recioto della Valpolicella is still expensive and still cherished. Only the tops of the dried grape bunches are used, which are called recie (ears), giving the name to this wine. But it also gives it its price point. The quantity of wine that winemakers are able to make is limited to select grape clusters that have the right formation for drying, and then from the dried clusters, only the crown is used.
As a sweet wine it is unique in colour, complexity and structure. It is a deep, almost opaque, ruby red with a hint of acidity that rounds out the jammy black cherry scents. Obviously, fantastic paired with desserts, but surprisingly comfortable with savoury dishes as well. Drink this with blue cheese and enjoy as your tongue does a little dance!
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