On the Cusp of Evolution: Amarone and Valpolicella
BY ERIC GUIDO | APRIL 14, 2022
You just came home after a long day of work with dinner on your mind while heading down to the cellar to grab the perfect bottle for the evening. As you peruse the shelves, you find yourself arriving at your collection of wines from Valpolicella. For a moment, you pause and think, will the entry-level Valpolicella be a bit too simple and fruity for our meal? What exactly should I expect from that Valpolicella Superiore? Is this Ripasso too rich, like a baby Amarone? Speaking of Amarone–Oh no, that definitely won’t work. And then you move on, and that Valpolicella section continues to grow dusty. Have you experienced this? I know I have.
This is the perception of the red wines from Valpolicella. Producers have been aware of it for some time. The work that’s been done over the course of many years is really starting to show in the wines. Today, there is a much larger selection of Amarone that falls into a savory category, with pronounced minerality and acidity, as well as much lower residual sugar and alcohol. However, for every one of these balanced efforts, there is still an ocean of slick and syrupy wines that are much better left for the cheese course, or even the occasional cigar for that matter. In addition, it takes time to convince an experienced wine drinker that it’s okay to bring an Amarone to the dinner table. How do you undo decades of marketing centered around your top wine being one of meditation and hedonistic pleasure best saved for the dessert course?
The Marcellise Valley from the vineyards of Marion.
A Valpolicella Paradigm Shift
This complex issue has gotten many of the producers of Valpolicella thinking of ways that they can bring consumers back to their region and prove that they can produce world-class wines for modern palates.
The first big step has been the introduction of the IGT Veronese category; instead of relying on international varieties, looking at what can be accomplished with the native varieties of the region. The traditional blend of Valpolicella DOC wines contains a mix (from 45% to 95% of the blend) of Corvina, or the larger-berried Corvinone (5% to 30% of the blend), Rondinella, and up to 10% (but not obligatory of Molinara, Croatina, Negrara and/or Dindarella. However, many producers have realized that the most important and characterful grapes from this mix are Corvina and Corvinone, and that, especially in the case of Corvina, they are fully capable of producing excellent mono-varietal wines. Even from the perspective of Amarone, producers like Allegrini, Brigaldara, Ca' La Bionda, Marion and Tommasi have pushed their use of these two varieties to the maximum allowed by regulations. With each vintage, the number of varietal Corvinas that can be found through Valpolicella, labeled as IGT, grows bigger. The best part is that most producers are creating these wines without the use of appassimento (air-drying of the grapes to reduce water and increase sugar and concentration), and instead relying on the quality of the fruit and the terroir that it comes from. A great example of this is the La Grola vineyard, a cliff-like peak that levels off as a plateau at about 300 meters and overlooks Lake Garda in the easternmost part of the Valpolicella Classica region. This well-ventilated site was planted in 1979 in poor soils with high limestone content. The old Corvina vines that reside there now aren’t used for an Amarone; they instead fuel Allegrini’s IGT La Poja. This brings to light another important trend in Valpolicella, and that’s the realization of the importance of Crus. The only unfortunate factor to consider in this new trend is the lack of oversight and setting of higher standards that would come with creating an official DOC that would allow for varietal Corvina or Corvinone. While the extremely open-ended IGT category allows producers to experiment freely, it also doesn't guarantee any level of quality. Sadly, there seems to be no unified push from the producers in Valpolicella to make this happen.
Grapes for Recioto naturally air-drying at the Quintarelli winery.
The second way that Valpolicella producers are working to shine a new light on the region mixes the respect of the traditional blending of grapes, while creating a wine of more importance. This is being accomplished through the category of Valpolicella Superiore, and from what I’ve tasted, it’s something to be excited about. The DOC regulations leave this as a very open-ended category in the region, which requires the same blend of grapes as Amarone, and cites that the fruit should be coming from the “best locations” (not quite a legitimate parameter), that alcohol should reach at least 12%, and that the wine must be refined in the winery for at least one year before release. What it doesn’t say is that they require appassimento; and while many producers use appassimento to bolster their Valpolicella Superiore, there’s a growing movement toward depending solely on the source and the fruit it can produce. One of the leaders in this new trend are brothers Alessandro and Nicola Castellani of Ca' La Bionda. On my recent visit to the region, I couldn’t help but notice their names coming up over and over again in conversations. The inspiration behind their wines comes from Burgundy and Barolo, which you understand the moment you taste them.
One of the most interesting experiences from my trip happened to be a current-release 2010 Valpolicella Classico Superiore that had spent ten years maturing in a 30-hectoliter oak cask, and that was remarkably fresh yet deep and balanced. This wine also hails from a single-vineyard, or Cru, named Casalvegri, where the vines grow in rocky clay and limestone soils between 150 to 300 meters in elevation. There was a time when the best fruit of this vineyard was selected for the house Amarone, but today, it all goes into their portfolio of Valpolicella Superiore. Roccolo Grassi, one of the masters of Valpolicella Superiore, is another winemaker who has just released a new Cru expression from his new Valfresca vineyard - it seems as if I can actually taste the calcareous soils while sipping this wine.
The combination of less reliance on appassimento and Ripasso throughout the region, along with seeking out of unique crus, and using the best fruit to create dry reds of power and importance, is the recipe that Valpolicella is betting on to win back their share of wine lovers from around the world. Having said that, these are the wines that will get you in the door and reintroduce you to the best producers of the region and their styles; yet what waits beyond is the evolution I spoke of before within the categories of Ripasso, Amarone, and even in some cases, Recioto. While in Valpolicella, I visited and interviewed no less than twenty producers, and nearly all of them, with only a few exceptions, spoke in detail about their desire to produce an Amarone that can be brought to the dinner table.
The barrel aging cellar of Roccolo Grassi.
There are three key factors in making this a possibility: lower alcohol, lower sugar and higher acidity. Granted, lower alcohol in an Amarone still means 15%-16%; but let's be honest, these are the same numbers that we are seeing in many regions around the world, and those wines are still widely accepted. In the end, it’s all about balance. An Amarone can have a perception of sweetness while being completely dry, a trick of the mind that acidity can play on your palate. In the same token, an Amarone can be perceived as only mildly sweet, like Dal Forno’s 1997 Amarone, while topping out at seven grams per liter of residual sugar and 17% alcohol. In an attempt to help demystify this to some degree, I made sure to make mention of some of the details in the notes of this article, as well as describing when a style is more savory than sweet. In the end, there are many high-scoring Amarones in the notes that follow. I absolutely would bring these to the dinner table.
As for Ripasso, which is a Valpolicella that is passed over the sugar-rich pulp of an Amarone crush and allowed to go through a secondary fermentation, the category is still important, but difficult to navigate. It seems as if the Ripasso category is suffering the most, as winemakers look hard at the style of their Amarone and the quality of their Valpolicella. While I do find a lot to like in the better versions, what Ripasso often lacks is identity. These baby Amarones have the draw of being more savory and approachable in style without sacrificing depth, yet often the result is less characterful and lacking drive. Even amongst some of the best producers of the region, the Ripasso falls behind.
Vines in the new Trappola vineyard of Tommaso Bussola, some as old as ninety years.
The Lay of the Land
Through it all, I think it’s also paramount to point out that I’ve yet to make any distinction of quality between the Classico region and that of the central and eastern valleys of Valpolicella that border Soave, and there’s a very good reason.
Lovers of Italian wine have been trained to think that the Classico portion of a region, which is the original growing area that made the category popular prior to expansion, produces a higher-quality wine than the areas surrounding it. However, this is not true in Valpolicella. Here, the expressions are simply different, just as the terroir is drastically different, yet the quality is just as high. In fact, you’ll find that producers in the Classico valleys are more ready to dismiss the flatlands within their own area before any other part of Valpolicella.
The original cellar of Zyme, built into a natural cave.
The many valleys of Valpolicella, from west to east, start in the Classica zone, which is heavily influenced by its close proximity and warming currants from Lake Garda and contains mostly poor soils, initially of volcanic origin, as well as glacial deposits near the valley floor. The valley of Fumane is the coolest location with steep elevations and rocky stratified limestone. From its highest peaks, you can look west to the Marano valley, which benefits from the cooling effects of the Lessini Mountains to the north with soils of basaltic rock, and then Negrar, with its clay loam soils and even stronger currants from the same mountains to the north. These three valleys are where you’ll find most of the historic producers of the region.
Moving east, we arrive in the Valpantena valley, along with its own DOC, and rising from almost directly north of Verona. Elevations increase quickly here, as the valley climbs toward the Lessini Mountains, and nighttime temperatures sink drastically. This is where we find the Case Vecchie vineyard of Brigaldara with its turbulent temperature swings. As we move further east into the Valpolicella DOC, we come to the valleys of Marcellise, Mezzane, Illasi and Tramigna, where soils become far more diverse from location to location, more alluvial in the plains, yet rockier and with a mix of minerals at higher elevations. Producers farthest east will often use the flatlands to produce Soave, as the two appellations overlap, while taking advantage of the rugged terrain of their mountain vineyards for Valpolicella and Amarone. This is also where we find some of the region’s top producers, such as Marion, Rocolo Grassi and Romano Dal Forno. The reality is that the wide plains of Illasi look so different from the hills of Classico to the west that it’s hard to imagine that they are even part of the same region of Italy.
Looking out across the Valley of Fumane toward Lark Garda from San Giorgio.
But Wait, There’s More…
Within these notes, you’ll find a number of excellent wines from Maculan in Breganze, a small town in the province of Vicenza, northeast of Verona. Maculan is a producer to keep on your radar, especially for lovers of red Bordeaux blends and dessert wines. They are also the only producer in the region with an international presence. Breganze has a hilly terrain, volcanic soils and a strong confluence of cooling effects from the mountainous north and warming currents from the south and Adriatic Sea. The success the Maculan family has had for three generations now is worth noting.
Veneto Vintage Chart
I am pleased to announce that we now have a detailed vintage chart for the Veneto that goes back to 2000. This is something that we have wanted to create for a long time here at Vinous. It was a primary focus while tasting with producers on my recent travels throughout the region. I have included detailed notes in this report on many older wines I tasted while researching the vintage chart. You can find the new vintage chart here. For the sake of completion for this article, I’ve included my rundown of the 2020 vintage below.
Producers in Amarone often chose to release much later than required, providing a diverse mix of vintages to chose from upon release.
A First Look at 2020
The 2020 vintage was very difficult in the Veneto, yet success was found by estates that invested their time in the vineyards to produce elegant Valpolicellas and Soaves with deep fruit profiles and the acidity to balance. The season got off to an early start with bud break in the beginning of April; however, cooler temperatures through the rest of the spring slowed growth. July was warm and dry, followed by an especially rainy and exceedingly warm month of August. Conditions improved in the fall with warm days and cool nights through the second half of September, which allowed the later-ripening varieties time to achieve physiological ripeness. All of that said, through a mix of violent storms, hail, warm and humid conditions, work in the vineyards and strict selection was necessary to achieve success. We will have to wait and see how the appassimento wines show as they begin to be released.
The wines in this article were tasted both in Valpolicella between Consorzio and producer visits, as well as in our offices in New York City in January 2022.
© 2022, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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