Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
One of the best known Italian wines is Valpolicella.
The wine, in its many iterations -- Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore, Valpolicella Ripasso, Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella – is produced in the Western Veneto, in the province of Verona.
Unfortunately, in the 60s and 70s the Valpolicella that was imported in the US had a bad reputation because the wines were mostly very thin table wines, stylistically viewed as Italy’s answer to Beaujolais, Valpolicella had suffered as a result of ever-increasing yields and inconsistent quality.
Currently there is a reappearance of very high quality Valpolicella in the US market, mostly as Valpolicella Superiore for the less expensive bottles and Ripasso or Amarone for the higher priced ones.
Traditionally, the grapes are pergola-trained; the grape varieties used are Corvina Veronese, Corvinone, Rondinella and small amounts of Molinara, Croatina, Oseleta or Corbina. They are all Italian cultivars found mostly in the Veneto. Corvina is the predominant varietal in the blend, used for high quality and particularly in the aforementioned Amarone della Valpolicella and Valpolicella Ripasso. On warm, well-drained hill slopes, Corvina now produces wines with much more body than what was traditionally expected of Valpolicella.
Because Valpolicella wines have tended towards the lighter end, local winemakers are employing various techniques to achieve greater depth and complexity. The appassimento and ripasso methods have been so successful that both techniques now have dedicated DOC titles (DOCG in the case of the Appassimento Amarone).
To make an appassimento wine the grapes are dried for many days on mats or racks in a well-ventilated space prior to fermentation, during which time the natural sugars and flavors become concentrated to produce a deeper, much more powerful wine. The ripasso method is to “re-pass” (i.e. re-ferment) standard Valpolicella with the pomace i.e. the skins, pulp and seeds leftover from initial fermentation of appassimento grapes, creating a deeper, more character-laden result.
Germany is the larger importer of Valpolicella Classico and Valpolicella Superiore with Switzerland and Canada following close behind. The US is the largest importer of Valpolicella Ripasso wines together with Amarone della Valpolicella.
At a recent tasting, the Consorzio brought together some of the best Valpolicella Superiore, Amarone and Ripasso producers. Many were already imported in the US, but a few newer wineries were there looking for importers and/or distributors.
The oldest producer at the tasting, Casa Vinicola Sartori di Verona was founded in 1898. In the past, I had tasted a different Amarone from them called “Corte Bra” which I thought was nice but it was not as exceptional as the 2009 “I Saltari” I tasted in this tasting. This version of the Amarone is a blend of 60% Corvina, 10% Corvinone, 20% Rondinella, and 10% Croatina.
Casa Vinicola Bertani is one of the region’s most important and influential wine producers and perhaps the oldest Amarone creator; the winery was founded in 1857. The grape bunches are all carefully selected and hand-harvested from Bertani owned vineyards and then laid out to dry on cane mats. They were not represented at the tasting, but I have a rather short vertical of Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2005 in my cellar and I think it is one of the better Amarone to be found in the US. I had recently opened another 1995 bottle at home and it is now ready to drink; it has perhaps another 2 or 3 more years at peak. I had it accompanying a roast leg of lamb and it was absolutely scrumptious.
Another exceptional producer that was present at the tasting was Gerardo Cesari, who showed two ripasso (2013 Mara and 2012 Bosan) and a 2011 Amarone. I enjoyed both ripassos which I thought were exceptionally elegant and well balanced.
The Mara is a dry, medium to full bodied wine with cherry and dark fruit flavors enhanced by a touch of graphite and cedar and a velvety mouthfeel with a hint of spice. Considerably aromatic it would pair well with charcoal grilled steaks, but also with a well-lacquered duck or even a roasted goose.
The Bosan was an even better ripasso; a single vineyard, powerful, slightly sweet and sour, with a soft and velvety body with a predominantly sour cherry and black plum palate along with enjoyable hints of cocoa, tobacco and vanilla. Full bodied, it can be an excellent accompaniment to game, a grilled leg of lamb and very mature, rather oily cheeses. At the current retail price it scores high on a quality-to-price ratio.
Their Amarone Classico is a blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, hand-harvested, then dried on racks from harvest to the middle of January. It is Cesari’s most affordable and approachable Amarone. The dried grapes are gently pressed in mid-January and then undergo a slow, almost month-long fermentation on the skins. Each variety is vinified separately. Following fermentation, the wines are aged in a combination of French oak barriques and large Slavonian oak barrels for 12 months after which they are blended and then aged an additional 18 months in large oak barrels. The wine is aged for an additional 8 months in the bottle before release. As tasted, it is full-bodied and beautifully structured with aromas of black cherries and raisins. It has sweet notes of vanilla and oak while its velvety tannins provide depth. There are some spice and cedar notes on the lengthy finish.
Another interesting producer, fairly young as the winery was founded in 1974 by the Falezza family, was Tenute Falezza. The original vineyard was rather small, about 6 hectares, but recently the company acquired new vineyards; 3 hectares in Marcellise and 3 in Mezzane. At the tasting they showed a nice Valpolicella Superiore, a Ripasso, an Amarone and a Recioto.
The grape varieties planted are Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara, Croatina and Merlot. I did taste the Valpolicella Superiore but I thought that the Ripasso and the Amarone were much preferable. At the end of the tasting I returned to the table to taste the Recioto, and I’m very happy I have done that.
The 2013 Ripasso was a bit too young, but I could see the future potential of the wine. It is intensely ruby colored, but might darken with further aging. Black cherries and plums dominate the nose with hints of tobacco and spices at the long finish. Dry and velvety, it has a long, almost sweetish finish with sweet tannins. Would pair well with tomato-based meat sauces and heavy meat or game stews.
The Amarone was also very young. The palate was spicy with dried grapes and prunes balanced by almost structured tannins. In 5 more years it would probably be exceptional.
The Recioto was “sweet and sour” redolent of dry grapes, black cherries and intimations of sweet black fruit jam. It has hints of tobacco and sweet spices on the long finish.
These were the wines that I thought were exceptional. The others were extremely nice, but did not have the intense characteristics of the above mentioned ones.
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