Until I studied wine, Valpolicella used to represent as it does to most lay wine drinkers a soft, seductive, easy-to-drink wine, much like the name itself. And it was only after I returned to the beautiful hilly area of Valpolicella a few weeks ago that I realised just how incredibly complex and robust this wine can be. The best examples have a knack for ageing for many years too.
So there I was in beautiful Verona, having been flown out by the association of Amarone producers to taste their latest releases from the 2008 vintage, which apparently, was rather a trying one because it rained a lot during the growing season. The organisers neglected to mention that it would be absolutely freezing in Verona at the time of year, so tasting and spitting out almost 70 muscular reds before lunch turned out to be quite an ordeal. Worse still, the tasting had been organised within the unheated stone-walled chambers of the Verona City Hall, and several of the producers also complained about the cold. Apparently, it didnt show their wines in the best light.
Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be re-acquainted with big producers like Montresor, Sartori and Bertani, all of whom have exported their wines to India. I can tell you though that after a few hours of tastings these big wines, my mouth and teeth were an unsightly black, and all I wanted was a beer somewhere warm.
Amarone is widely regarded as one of Italys greatest styles of wine. It is made in a very particular way: the harvested grapes are left to dry on trays in special temperature and humidity-controlled drying rooms until about 30 per cent of their weight (in water) has evaporated (usually this takes about four months).
These dried grapes are then crushed and the juice fermented. Because a lot of water has evaporated from the grapes, the juice is very concentrated and high in sugar. High sugars usually translate to higher alcohol in the wine. So, Amarone, as a style is often 14 per cent or higher in alcohol (I tasted some as high as 17 per cent) and is also often slightly sweet.
The word amarone refers to the wines slightly bitter taste (the Italian word amaro means bitter) compared to some of the other styles of Valpolicella, which can be velvety and fruity. Amarone is an unmistakable wine: intense dark red in colour, with notes of cherry, red currant, chocolate and spices. I often find underlying dried plum or raisin notes in the wines too. It has a full body, matched by an equally full, robust taste. It is not surprising that these wines have an ability to age for decades, although in the opinion of many producers I spoke to, the ideal drinking window for Amarone is between eight and 15 years of production.
I used to be perplexed about the labelling of wines from Valpolicella. What, for instance, was the meaning of a complex term like Valpolicella Superiore, Classico or Ripasso? The term Classico means that the wine comes from the best (or classic) areas of the region. Superiore signifies that the wine has had a minimum of 12 months ageing in oak barrels and has a minimum of 12 per cent alcohol. Furthermore, if the wines have been fermented with the leftover skins of the dried grapes from Amarone production, the term Ripasso appears on the label. The resulting finished wine is slightly higher in alcohol than regular Valpolicella Superiore, and usually has a deeper colour, more tannins and slightly bitter flavours.
Three memorable wines from my trip are below:
Novaia Valpolicella Ripasso 2008
Novaia is an impressive producer and this wine (Classico Superiore Ripasso) is incredibly well balanced and restrained with red floral notes, spice and red fruit. It has good acidity too and silky tannins.
Monte del Frá Scarnocchio 2005
It has hints of spice, plums and raisins with fresh cherry and chocolate/ mocha notes. Good acidity and firm, tight tannins promising at least 10 years in the bottle.
Zeni Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2007
A robust wine, its full-bodied, rich, velvety and juicy. Good red fruit with hints of berry jam and chocolate. A producer to watch out for.
Valpolicella, or the ‘pearl of Verona’ is an important wine-producing region in Verona, Italy. Winemaking has taken place in the region since 750BC. The red wine produced in this region is called Valpolicella and two of the most prominent wine styles produced in the area are Recioto and Amarone.