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Fruity, food-friendly and perfect for summer drinking, Valpolicella is enjoying a renaissance, with quality higher than ever before. Margaret Rand heads to Verona to find out more
Iremember a dinner in the Veneto region of Italy last autumn. The antipasti arrived – lots of tomatoey things, anchovyish things, olivey things, balsamic oniony things. There were probably around 20-odd different and difficult flavours, so I was surprised to see red wine being poured. Instinctively, I would have gone for a white – something with acidity but not too much actual flavour. But we were in Valpolicella land, and so there was no question. The host’s simple, basic Valpol was poured.
And it was a delight. Bright cherry fruit, plenty of acidity, freshness and aroma, and not too much weight: it mixed with the olives and the anchovies like old friends – a superb match.
A lot of Londoners have forgotten about Valpolicella, and summer is the perfect time to rediscover it. Think how well it would suit a barbecue, with all those marinades and sauces; or salami and chorizo on a picnic. It’s light and aromatic when that’s what you want, but it has a richer sibling, called Ripasso, for high days and holidays, and another sibling – Amarone – which is very grand indeed. And all taste, in their different ways, of cherries.
Since it’s an Italian wine we’re talking about, these are not sweet dessert cherries: they’re brisk, acidic and dark, with a refreshingly bitter twist on the finish. The grapes that produce these flavours (Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella are the main ones) are grown on the hills north of Verona. To drive into the hills after a hot summer’s day in the city is fantastically refreshing. Motoring around the five valleys that comprise the ‘Classico’ heart of the region is a delight. Now and again you’ll come across a Palladian villa, or be surprised by church bells from a medieval campanile, or, at harvest time, you may find yourself following a truck loaded with purple grapes, all bloomy and glistening. Then you should stop somewhere with a courtyard, and fireflies in the trees, and order dinner – with antipasti.
This might be the time to tackle an Amarone. This is the biggest of all Valpolicellas, made from grapes picked at the normal time and left to dry indoors on racks until after Christmas, when they are pressed and fermented. They’ve shrivelled a bit by then, the flavours are more concentrated, the alcohol is higher, the texture sleek and silky, the cherry notes more those of cherry pie.
These are serious wines by any standards, and they’re now hugely fashionable in Italy, so prices can be high. A good Amarone from a top producer is a wine to linger over at the end of the day. With 16% alcohol or more, they’re too substantial for lunch, but with some slow-cooked meat and some mashed potato or polenta, they have a feeling of complete rightness.
Alternatively, if you prefer something less full-bodied, you might try some Ripasso with your main course of game or beef. Ripasso is Valpolicella with extra power. Meaning ‘revision’, it is made by refermenting five-month-old Valpolicella on the grape skins left at the end of the Amarone-making process, resulting in extra depth and oomph. The flavour of cherries is riper and richer, the tannins a little more substantial.
What Valpolicella of any sort should never be is heavy or jammy; it should always be fresh. It likes acidity in food and strong flavours; it’s assertive and has a personality. Good Valpolicella has subtlety. There are one or two new producers who specialise in making bodybuilder Valpol, but that’s not what it’s about, and most producers prefer to age their wines in old wood rather than new, and big vats rather than small barriques.
There have been arguments over such matters – about how best to grow the vines and to dry the grapes for Amarone – and the effect of all this debate is a greater precision in the glass and a greater understanding of Valpolicella’s heritage. Quality is higher now than it’s ever been. Bring on the antipasti!
2009 Domini Veneti, Valpolicella Classico
A juicy, beautifully balanced wine. Lots of bright cherry fruit and spice. Majestic
2008 Tommasi, Ripasso
Beautiful deep cherry fruit, savoury and spicy; very ripe, powerful and concentrated wine. Davy’s
2007 Cecilia Beretta, Terre di Cariano, Valpolicella Classico Superiore
Lovely precision and focus and elegant cherry fruit; combines concentration and lightness. Corney & Barrow
2006 Allegrini, Amarone
A superb example of Amarone, this is all spices and flowers, very concentrated and fresh. Majestic
This feature was published in the summer 2011 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.