When we think of Northeast Italy, we cannot forget Trentino, Alto Adige, and the Friuli regions—known predominantly for light, fruit forward, easy drinking white wines, typically for early consumption. There’s a broad range of international varieties produced. Specifically in Trentino and Alto Adige, which share geographic, cultural, and political ties to Germany and Austria, we find many varieties that grow in those countries as well. In Friuli, the aptly named Friulano is a dominant white wine grape, of course I believe most of our brain’s will veer toward Pinot Grigio grown in Grave di Friuli DOC. And don’t forget about the red wine grape Schiave. Pop Quiz: Where are more prestigious white wines produced and what is the dominant grape responsible for these higher quality wines? (You can find the answer below this post.)
For a general overview of Northern Italy, please see Wine Region Overview: Northern Italy.
Today, however, I want to zero in on Veneto: specifically, Valpolicella because there’s something going on in there that, even in my Level 3 I kept getting confused. And, unfortunately that confusion came back to me in my Diploma Studies. I want to take the time to dive into the definitions of basic Valpolicella, passito/appassimento, recioto, Amarone, and ripasso and (hopefully) solidify that understanding with a conjunctive tasting.
Turning to my copy of Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, including their Origins and Flavours (Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, José Vouillamoz) and the Oxford Companion to Wine (Fourth Edition; Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding), I’ve used these texts as my guides to the definition of key terms to understanding the region and varieties produced. Consolidated and repurposed here:
Definitions to know
Corvina—“Bright, fresh, cherry-scented red encountered most often in Valpolicella and Bardolino”
Viticultural Characteristics—late budding, mid to late ripening; good resistance to winter cold; vigorous, but often fails to bear fruit on the first few buds (thus typically in either pergola or high on guyot system); thick skins particularly suited to drying (as in the production of Amarone and Recioto)
Wine profile—is blended in the Veneto with Rondinella and Molinara to produce Valpolicella, including Amarone and Recioto styles (ranging from 40 to 80% of the blend), and Bardolino (33 to 65%) but is generally considered to be the superior component in such blends.
Varietal wines or those that are Corvina-dominant are marked by a bright sour-cherry flavor, fresh acid and occasionally a note of bitter almonds. Wines are light bodied if yields are high, tannins light to medium.
Corvinone—“A dark-skinned variety with fresh acidity that contributes to Veneto blends”
Viticultural Characteristics—late ripening, vigorous, loose bunches, large berries, suitable to drying
Wine Profile: In Valpolicella, Corvinone may be substituted for up to 50% of the 40 to 80% Corvina required/allowed in the blends for straight Valpolicella DOC as well as for Amarone and Recioto DOCGs and may form part of the blend for Bardolino and Bardolino Superiore DOCG, adding increased tannin structure. Main challenge: bunches ripen unevenly, therefore several passes of hand-picked harvesting required. Generally not made as a varietal wine.
Rondinella—“Lesser blending partner in reds such as Valpolicella and Bardolino”
Vineyard Characteristics—high yields, mid to late ripening, resistant to most fungal diseases
Wine Profile—Its capacity to produce high yields was once highly regarded by growers/producers (of all styles) of Valpolicella in the past. Its other “endearing characteristic:” its resistance to fungal diseases, which is an advantage in the drying process used in the production of Amarone and Recioto (which used to take place in a non-temperature-controlled environment, leaving grapes susceptible to rot/mildew/etc). However, it is not as highly regarded or as flavorful as main blending partner, Corvina.
Molinara—“Now plays distinctly third fiddle to Corvina Veronese and Rondinella in wines such as Valpolicella”
Vineyard Characteristics—mid to late ripening, good resistance to fungal disease, quite vigorous
Wine Profile—generally pale in color, high in acid, prone to oxidation, therefore only plays a minor role in blends such as Valpolicella and Bardolino where DOC rules permit maximum 10% in the blends (in practice, it’s a good deal less)
Valpolicella—Although the Valpolicella zone is large and varied, in general soils are more calcareous and temperatures lower in the north and on the hillsides (i.e.: the Classico area), while soils on the plains are heavier and deeper, temperatures higher. The majority of quality-focused growers plant vines on the hillsides only.
Interesting Factoid: The name Valpolicella is derived from a mixture of Latin and Greek, translating to “the valley of many cellars.” Corvina has historically been regarded as the best grape of Valpolicella. Interesting Description: Youthful wines resemble a good Beaujolais in that they can be enjoyed chilled and have, at their best, a delicious sour-cherry character. Fuller wines come from better sites on the hills as do the Recioto and Amarone wines made from dried grapes.
Passito—Italian term for dried-grape wine
[In Italy, back in the day,] it was relatively common for wines to be made from grapes dried on the vine cut off from the flow of sap by having their stems twisted. This is the “presumable ancestor” of today’s Recioto and Amarone wines.
Recioto—a distinctive category of northeast Italian dried grape wines.
Interesting Factoid: The word derives from the Italian for ear, orecchio, because the wine was originally produced only from the ripest grapes in the bunch, form the upper lobes, or ears, although selected whole bunches have long been substituted. The most common forms of Recioto are sweet red Recioto della Valpolicella (the rare version, just FYI, is the sweet Recioto di Soave made primarily from the Garganega white wine grape). It is produced from 45-95% Corvina, up to half of which may be replaced by Corvinone, and 5 to 30% Rondinella, with up to 25% international varieties authorized in the province of Verona.
The Process: Grapes are raisined during late autumn and winter following harvest in special drying rooms equipped with air conditioning and humidity control to avoid development of botrytis (which can lead to premature oxidation—though it’s noted that some embrace the complexity that botrytis can bring to the wines and in such cases dry the grapes under ‘more natural’ conditions).
The Result: The wine is decisively sweet, as the grapes need by law to be dried until at least December 1 following harvest. It represents some of Italy’s finest sweet wine, but due to sluggish decreased demand and the mediocre quality associated with some expressions (produced from the lesser sites within the region), the number of producers willing to sacrifice time and labor (production costs) to produce these wines is in decline. Valpolicella producers now favor the much more lucrative Amarone.
Amarone—powerful, red dried grape wine in the DOC Valpolicella. The wine is made of the same grape varieties as Valpolicella: 45-95% Corvina, 50% Rondinella, up to 50% Corvinone in place of Corvina and may also contain up to 15% of any red variety authorized in the province of Verona.
Literally, Amarone is a recioto scapata. Translation: a recioto that has escaped and fermented to full dryness when the intention was to produce a sweet wine. The yeast, already struggling with the high sugar content in the must “should” stop working because of rising alcohol levels and before all the sugar had been converted. Stylistically, Recioto della Valpolicella and Amarone are similar, but the latter must be dry with no more than 12g/L RS and at least 14% ABV (but often more). The bitter (amaro) aftertaste is a testament to its name. NOTE: Amarone is a style and its name must be followed by ‘della Valpoicella’ on the label.
An historical note for perspective: In the late 1980s, many of the vineyards on the hills in the Classico zone of Valpolicella were abandoned, as viticulture there became less and less profitable. Only those growers on the plains, where yields were several times higher, were able to make money. Consequently, grapes from these lesser sites made most Valpolicella, and these were the wines that shaped (one might say tarnished) the image of the wine.
But hillside viticulture was saved by the production of Amarone, a wine with ‘virtually no tradition’ and once considered a “faulty” Recioto that had fermented to complete dryness.
Ripasso—Italian term literally meaning ‘repassed,’ for the technique of adding extra flavor and alcohol to Valpolicella by refermenting the young wine on the unpressed skins of Amarone wines after these dried grape wines have finished their fermentation in the spring and racked off. Regularly aged in new barriques to add a sweet note of vanilla (some wines maintain residual sweetness). By law, the volume of Ripasso obtained by this method may be double that of the Amarone that has been racked off before, while 15% of Amarone may also be added to improve its quality.
Allegrini Valpolicella Superiore 2018
Appearance: pale ruby
Aroma: medium intensity—red cherry, raspberry, pomegranate, earth (fresh), strawberry, hint of toasted wood
Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, medium (fine but chalky) tannins, medium body, medium alcohol, medium flavor intensity, confirming the aromas
Finish is medium
Conclusion: I conclude that this wine is of good quality. There’s a high enough acidity that keeps the fresh fruit flavors forward on the palate; the tannins, though chalky, are fine-grained enough not to overwhelm the palate, providing a good, balanced texture. This is important, as the fruits are very subtle, delicate and, in fact, lack in overall intensity both on the nose and on the palate. I did get a hint of toasted wood both on the nose and in the palate, again very subtle/delicate so as not to overwhelm the fruit and indicating at least a bit of complexity in the winemaking process. And so for the good overall balance and that note of complexity, the wine is certainly better than just acceptable. However, for the lack of overall intensity and a finish that falls at a medium length, I cannot rate the wine any higher than good.
Potential for Aging: I do not think that this wine has the potential to age in bottle. I think what this wine does well is provide a light, fresh expression that is intended for early consumption. The fruits are already so delicate, and I fear they will only fade with time, leading to an unbalanced wine.
Campagnola Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2015
Appearance: medium ruby
Aroma: medium (+) intensity—chocolate, prune, fig, vanilla, stewed black cherries, blackberry and blueberry compote, over ripe wild strawberries, dried and fresh violets, dried tobacco leaf
Palate: technically dry (but I’ll put an honest note in here that I do feel just the lingering kiss of some RS—on an exam, this call would be dry though); medium (+) acid, high alcohol, medium (+) tannins (course, mature), medium (+) body, medium (+) flavor intensity—confirming the above, adding a hint of vegetal (bitterness like arugula) and a hint of molasses in the back-breath
Finish is medium (+) in length
Conclusion: This is a very good wine that shows a good balance between primary, secondary, and even tertiary characteristics. There is a high enough acid that carries through the length of the tasting and allows some fresh primaries to pervade through—namely the over ripe wild strawberry, the fresh violets, as well as some that have moved on to a more cooked/stewed form (blackberries, blueberries, black cherry). There is some evolution to this wine, as noted by the cooked forms of the fruits as well as some dried fruits (fig, prune). The addition of oak aromas/flavors, namely of chocolate and vanilla, enhance the voluptuousness of these evolved fruits and add decadence to the tasting and is thus perfectly balanced. Clearly, with the inclusion of secondary and tertiary characteristics, this is a complex wine that underwent extended maceration, barrel aging and may have even seen some time in bottle before release/consumption. Though the alcohol is high, this is again well-balanced with the evolved fruit components, adding to that aforementioned decadence. The wine did fall short of long for me at a medium (+) and I was left with a lingering warmth of alcohol—not completely unpleasant, but left searching for those fruit components and thus did not rate the wine as outstanding, but it is of very good quality.
Potential for Aging: I think we are just now starting to see hints at how this wine can evolve with time and do think that it is suitable for extended aging. Certainly the structural components are all present—acid, alcohol, tannin, intensity of fruit flavor. And those fruits are in a state that they can continue to develop further, adding to the complexity and, as I said, decadence of the wine.
Zenato Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Superiore 2015
Appearance: medium ruby
Aroma: medium intensity—red cherry, strawberry, oak wood, raspberry, rhubarb, boysenberry, hint chocolate and vanilla, sweet tobacco, hint nutmeg
Palate: dry, medium (+) acid, medium (+) tannins (soft, mature), high alcohol, medium (+) body, medium (+) flavor intensity—confirming the above and adding a hint of raisin, almond skin, toast/smoke, dried tobacco and noting that the palate has less overt/obvious red fruit notes when compared to the nose
Finish is medium (+) in length.
Conclusion: This is a very good wine, though I struggled with the nose of this wine as it was at first very closed off, and thus I rated it as a medium intensity. It did open up after some time and the palate was a solid medium (+) and thus I am giving it a mark for intensity. It showed more fresh red fruits for me on the nose than on the palate; on the palate I got more secondary and even tertiary notes showcasing complexity in the wine style produced. On the palate, the combination of fresh and dried fruits were well balanced by the notes from what I assume is extended time in oak barrel. The tannins are medium (+) bordering on high, but they are soft and well-integrated into the wine. Similarly, the high alcohol works well with this wine—adding a sense of voluptuousness to even the dried fruit flavors here. Any less alcohol, and the wine would be too thin. The finish did fall shy of long for me at a medium (+) length and so, despite intensity, complexity, and balance, I could not rate the wine as outstanding, but very good in quality.
Potential for Aging: I do think that this wine is suitable for extended aging. As noted, it is already starting to show some development, and I think with time, the nature of the fruits are such that they will develop further and add complexity to the wine. Further, structurally, the acid, tannin, alcohol, and overall intensity of the wine will lend to longevity.
What are some of your Italian trouble spots? Any tips/tricks or outside resources you’ve used to help your understanding? Let me know in the comments or contact me directly.
PS: The acceptable answers to the Pop Quiz question above—Collio DOC and Collio Orientalie del Friuli DOC, where there are sloped vineyards with optimal aspects and well-draining soils made of marl and principal wines are often single varietal expressions of Friulano, Ribolla Gialla (that latter particularly suited to the environment) as well as a few international varieties ( Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc). Personally, I would also accept Colli Orientali del Firuli Picolit and Ramandolo, the DOCGs responsible for sweet wine production made from dried grapes. You could also talk about Soave Classico DOC and Soave Superiore DOCG—hilly “classical” zone of the Soave region, both have their own restricted yield requirements and aging protocols for the principal grape Garganega.
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