The most famous wine region in the North East of Italy, and one of the country’s most important regions, both for quality and quantity wine production, Valpolicella boasts a rich heritage; the name comes from a mixture of Latin and Greek and broadly translates to ‘the valley of many cellars’. This is the part of Italy where rolling, warm plains give way to climbing Alpine valleys, and the culture and background of the people from Mediterranean to Germanic/Slavic. The beautiful and culture-rich city of Verona is the centre of trade in the regions, and the vines all sit to the north of the city, as the rolling hills make their slow progress up towards the Italian Alps.
Stylistically, standard red Valpolicella is the Italian answer to Beaujolais. Soft, light, low alcohol and most enjoyable when young and fresh, this is the wine for a Tuesday evening with take-away pizza, and some producers even recommend the wine be served slightly chilled. The classic tasting note for a Valpolicella usually involves bright, tangy red fruit notes, sometimes building to blueberry, and finishing with a distinctive sour cherry note, with brisk acid and soft, light tannins. That being said, there are more serious examples from this region, building in concentration and power as they attempt to reach the levels seen in Valpolicella’s highest quality wines; Ripasso, Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella. 3 grape varieties are allowed in the standard Valpolicella blend; Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Corvina is seen as the best of the three, and the highest quality wines usually have a higher percentage of this grape- some producers have even completely done away with the other two. Rondinella gained popularity with growers due to its abundant yields, but the grapes lack much flavour. Molinara mainly brings acid to the final wine, so is not really a variety to be had on its own.
The Valpolicella region gained DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) status in the late 1960s, which was a reward for the hard work and good wines coming from the region. You would think this would solidify the prestige and quality in the region; however it unfortunately did the exact opposite. The region was expanded to include the more fertile, but lower quality plains regions, and many opportunistic large-scale wineries saw this quality status as their meal ticket, and labelled sub-standard, mass-produced and pretty unenjoyable table wine as top-end Valpolicella DOC. Obviously, global sales took a serious downwards turn once this occurred, and it took many decades before people were willing to trust the region once more. It wasn’t until the early 90s with the discovery by the rest of the world of the intense and hauntingly lingering Amarone that re-ignited interest in the region. Amarone, once known as ‘faulty wine’, has been made locally for over a century, however it took the care and attention of a handful of quality-conscious producers to bring it to global fame. The 3 most revered styles from this region all come from the same basic principle- the grapes used in the basic Valpolicella struggle for flavour and depth because of their thin skins, so the grapes are dried on mats in humidity controlled rooms (to prevent the development of Botrytis fungus) to decrease water content and increase acid, sugar, flavour and tannins. With Recioto styles, the wine is left sweet and rich, usually with a small amount of oxidised aromas.
Amarone starts exactly the same, however specialised yeasts are used to ferment the wine to full dryness, creating a wine with incredibly intense weight and intensity, helped along by the minimum 14% alcohol content. These styles must consist of a minimum 45-95% Corvina grape, 5-50% Rondinella, with the poorest quality grape Molinara totally forbidden. The final style of wine you often see from this region is Valpolicella Ripasso, which is made by adding the used Amarone skins to the regular Valpolicella in tank while it ferments. This again adds alcohol, power and weight to the basic Valpolicella style, and today is one of the most popular styles of wine made in Italy, with over 25 million bottles sold in 2013.
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