Valpolicella is arguably the most famous red wine to come out of the Veneto wine region in north-eastern Italy. This typically mid-bodied, fruit-driven wine is equally enjoyable at room temperature or slightly chilled on a warm summer afternoon. The defining character of a quality Valpolicella is its fragrant, tangy cherry aroma, which has led it to be regarded by many as the Italian answer to Beaujolais. This comparison isn’t just one of style, though: in the past few decades Valpolicella has suffered from the same reputation management issues as its French equivalent, the result of ever-increasing yields and the resultant fluctuations in quality.
© Ilares Riolfi
The Valpolicella production area ballooned in the late 1960s when it was granted DOC status, resulting in a dramatic see-saw of quality and quantity which lasted for approximately 40 years. The prices fetched by Valpolicella wines reached their nadir in the 1970s and 1980s, when the low price paid per kilo of grapes led more quality-focused producers, particularly in the finer Valpolicella Classico and Valpantena zones, to abandon their vines altogether. This increased the percentage of Valpolicella which came from the poorer sites, and the downward spiral continued, only to be halted by a sudden spike of interest in Amarone della Valpolicella during the 1990s.
The grapes used to make Valpolicella are Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Corvina is generally regarded as the finest of the three, and is certainly the most traditional. Rondinella proved popular in the 1960s and 1970s because of its generous yields, while pale, over-acidic, oxidation-prone Molinara has declined dramatically since its early surge. Corvina remains the grape of choice for higher-quality Valpolicella, and particularly Amarone della Valpolicella, Recioto della Valpolicella and Valpolicella Ripasso. On warmer, well-drained slopes, Corvina produces wines with more body than is traditionally expected of Valpolicella, which explains the huge quality differential between regular Valpolicella from the plains and Amarone from the hills of the traditional classico zone.
The Valpolicella viticultural area spans a considerable chunk of western Veneto, stretching north into the hills above Verona for approximately ten miles, and east to west for more than twice that distance, linking Soave with Bardolino. The finest terroir is to be found in the north of the classico zone, around the villages of Fumane, Marano and Negrar. The hamlet of Gargagnago is also home to some of the region’s finest vines, although it is better known as the spiritual home of Garganega, the white grape behind the white wines of Soave and Gambellara. The hills here rise more than 2000ft (610m) into the fresh sub-alpine air, creating a patchwork of aspects facing in every direction and making the most of the northern Italian sunshine.
Because standard Valpolicella wines have traditionally tended towards the lighter end of the spectrum, local winemakers have employed various techniques to achieve greater depth and complexity in their cuvees. The passito and ripasso methods have been so successful that both techniques now have dedicated DOC titles (DOCG in the case of the passito Amarone and Recioto wines). For a passito wine the grapes are dried out for weeks or even months prior to fermentation, during which time their natural sugars and flavors become sufficiently concentrated to produce deeper, more alcoholic wines. The ripasso method is to 're-pass' (re-ferment) the passito grapes with standard Valpolicella wine, creating a deeper, more character-laden result. The style was given its own independent DOC title, Valpolicella Ripasso, in 2007.