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.

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.

Valpolicella

Verdant green vineyards leading up a hill in Valpolicella

Vineyards in Valpolicella – by Paul Arps

The history of making wine in this area, like much of Italy, is as old as time immemorial. There are indications that it was a known viticultural area during the time of the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans. The name “Valpolicella” first pops up in a 12th-century charter that unites two valleys and is believed to be a combining of the Latin and Greek for “Valley of Cellars.” Thanks to its strategic position between Venice and northern Europe, it has long been an area of trade and commerce related to wine.

Nowadays, it is dubbed the “pearl of Verona” and is one of Italy’s most important wine areas.  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

An infographic explaining the blend of grape varieties for Valpolicella

The blend – by Consorzio Valpolicella

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 varieties. The blend is never more than three varieties.

Try all the wines of Valpolicella

The entrance of Zenato Winery in Valpolicella

The entrance – by Zenato Winery

Take a tour of the valley and enjoy these unique wines with a personalized tour at Zenato. A family-run winery, Zenato is considered one of the top wineries in the area and makes many award-winning wines.

Their flagship labels are Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG and “Ripassa” Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Superiore; however, their range features all four Valpolicella appellations. Zenato also produces Amarone Riserva Sergio Zenato, but only during excellent vintages from a selection of the best Corvina, Rondinella, and Oseleta grapes from the oldest vineyards in their Costalunga Estate.

Zenato’s “Ripassa” is unique thanks to a long-lost tradition of passing the Valpolicella must over the still-warm marcs of the dried berries used to make Amarone that Sergio Zenato, the winery’s founder, rediscovered in the 1990s. Their blend is 85% Corvina, 10% Rondinella, and 5% Oseleta, a very rare, hyper-local, red wine variety. Their Ripassa label aged in oak barrels for 18 months to round out the structure and texture.

Zenato’s slogan is the “Soul of Lugana and the Heart of Vapolicella”. In Lugana, on the Venetian shore of Lake Garda, lies the ancient soul of Zenato. Two faces: one white, one red, both fine examples of quality wines that are created with passion for the territory and its history, respect for the passage of time and a family tradition. This has guided them in working only with native grape varieties and exploring local winemaking techniques. The winery is led by Sergio’s two children, Nadia and Alberto, who have harnessed their father’s energy and passion to grow Zenato into a world-class leader of Valpolicella wines with a presence in sixty countries around the world.

Valpolicella DOC

Grape clusters, Zenato, Veneto.

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 for this wine, which is usually on the market the following spring after harvest and generally has a lower alcohol content than the other wines from the region. It is a young wine, customarily harvested in mid-September, ferments in steel for 7-10 days and rarely ages in wood. With its distinct cherry and rose scents it pairs 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

A landscape of the vineyards at Zenato winery

Valpolicella vineyars, Zenato, Zeneto.

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 wine, changing its structure, texture, and flavour.

For Valpolicella Ripasso, the pomace from Amarone wine mixes with Valpolicella wine that has been ageing in steel tanks since being pressed after harvest. It is a unique fermentation and ageing process. The Valpolicella wine, instead of being bottled, is aged, usually in tanks, until the grapes to make Amarone have sufficiently withered. This is usually at the beginning of the next year, approximately three months later. The withered grapes are then pressed to make Amarone della Valpolicella. The Valpolicella wine is then “passed” over the pomace of the Amarone for 7-10 days before being transferred to barrels for ageing.

The ripasso method adds alcohol, body, polyphenols, flavours and aromas. 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. The final wine has the freshness of Valpolicella and the richness of Amarone.

Amarone della Valpolicella

Ripasso, Zenato, Veneto.

Probably the most known wine from this region, Amarone is distinct for how unusual it is. A dry red wine made from withered grapes, which is a practice that is rare outside of sweet wines. 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.

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.

Although it may seem like a complicated process, it is actually quite simple. After the grapes are harvested in the fall, they are sorted into crates and stored in a fruttaio to dry out. The length of time for appassimento varies from year to year, but generally, the grapes will be ready in January or February of the following year. The withered grapes are then pressed and the must is left to ferment on the lees (grape skins) for 15-20 days. This long maceration adds flavour, body, and colour.  After this, the wine is racked into barrels and left to age for a minimum of 2 years or a minimum of 4 years to be considered a ‘Riserva’ label. The pomace from this must is mixed with the aged Valpolicella wine to make Valpolicella Ripasso.

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

The top of a grape cluster hangs from a stack of wooden drying racks

The top of a grape cluster hanging from the drying racks – by Zenato Winery

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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