Tasting Classic Valpolicella Reds in Zurich
Driving back home from a Valpolicella wine tasting in Zurich, I had the opportunity to reflect on why it is that I enjoy a well-made Amarone – with their tendency to stratospheric alcohol, high extract, immense concentration and intensity – but that I generally do not enjoy “normal” red wines made in a similar style and with comparable qualities.
Surprisingly, it didn’t take very long before I came up with an answer: it’s because of the freshness of the wines from Valpolicella. That freshness brings much-needed balance to a wine of huge structure and concentration. Without it, a wine swiftly becomes flabby, less interesting and much harder to drink.
This, in itself, shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
The Wines of Valpolicella
The classic red wines of Valpolicella are made mostly with the three most important of the traditional varieties: Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. Minor varieties like Molinara are permitted up to a point, but cannot be a significant part of the blend. None of these grapes brings loads of colour to the table. Basic Valpolicella has been a light, fragrant red, redolent of cherries and with that delightful, slightly bitter finish that is so common in Italian reds, for quite a long time. When well-made, there is intensity – but the intensity is carried by the freshness. That freshness can swiftly become tartness with higher yields and poor winemaking; oxidation can also be a problem in the zone, robbing the wines of fruit.
But we aren’t actually talking about the lighter, simpler reds. When we are talking about power, we are discussing the wines known as Recioto, Ripasso and, most importantly today, the legendary Amarone.
A quick look at these three similar, yet distinct styles of wine:
Valpolicella Ripasso: after an Amarone has been fermented and drawn off its skins, fresh basic Valpolicella must is added to the unpressed grape skins left behind, fermented and left in contact with those skins for 15-20 days. This results in higher alcohol and extraction, as well as a bit more flavour – but also more bitter elements. By law, twice as much Ripasso can be made as Amarone was made originally from the skins. It is a very popular style because it is cheaper than Amarone, but still offers some of the power.
Amarone della Valpolicella: Amarone literally means “bitter”, but they seldom are actually bitter these days – except appetisingly so in the finish. But they are dry wines. The winemaking technique is to use fully-ripened but not over-ripe grapes, which are then dried (traditionally in the sun, but it is much, much more usual now to use well-regulated buildings to prevent mould) over three to four months. This simple act concentrates the sugars and the acids, while allowing the water to evaporate, reducing the overall quantity of resulting grape must significantly. Since they are fermented dry, the alcohol levels climb very high indeed, making it tempting to use higher yields or to harvest the grapes earlier in order to bring the sugar levels – and the alcohol – under control.
Recioto della Valpolicella: the sweet version of Amarone, with a grape-drying time of 100 to 200 days. Fermentation is stopped early to maintain the natural sweetness of the wine. These can be utterly gorgeous, but the style is, sadly, underappreciated these days. Sweet wines, alas, are not to everyone’s taste anymore. Sweet red wines suffer from this fashion even more than sweet whites.
Now a tasting like this doesn’t come along every day. The Consorzio Valpolicella (full name: Consorzio Per La Tutela Dei Vini Valpolicella) organised it with one of Europe’s most important wine magazines: the German-language publication called Vinum. Exhibitors presented only the classic red wines from the zone, meaning there were no wines made with non-traditional grapes or in non-traditional ways – no Cabernet Sauvignon or other “international” grape varieties, no monovarietal wines. Present at the tasting were 20 different producers, ranging in production volumes from 17 million bottles produced from 6500 hectares (yes, you read that correctly. Don’t worry, it is essentially a cooperative) down to just 2.4 hectares producing a scant 15 000 bottles. None of the really famous names were present – nor did they need to be. But what a superb opportunity to discover some smaller producers doing great work, and there were several of those! Here are four of my favourites from the tasting:
Cà Dei Maghi
Paolo Creazzi, winemaker and co-owner of this brand spanking new estate near Fumane was presenting some of his very first vintages – and they were compelling! The estate is quite small, at just over 4 hectares, and until its founding in 2009 had been selling grapes in bulk or bottling wines for use at the family restaurant. Paolo himself credits his approach to creating food-friendly wines as being a direct result of his experiences at the restaurant, having seen what people prefer to drink with their meals on a daily basis. The wines were very clean, with nice, clear style, but did not lose sight of their roots in the region.
- Valpolicella Ripasso DOCG 2011 – already six years old, but with lovely red fruit, coffee and spice, fine and elegant.
- Valpolicella DOC Classico Superiore 2012 – a month of grape drying for this wine, good concentration, fine acidity, plenty of cherry and a good finish.
- Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2011 – lots of red and some black fruit, plenty of spice. Showing its youth with very firm, fine tannin as well as clear signs of the big new wood barrels in which it aged, but the integration is very good already, concentration is excellent and the wine is quite vertical on the palate.
- Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2010 “Vigneto Sant’Urbano” – not an entirely surprising saint to choose for a wine, I suppose. This is the result of Paolo’s first vintage, and there is some lovely plummy fruit and a hint of sweet dried tomato. The residual sweetness is actually very clear, but the overall impression is of restraint; the fruit is not explosive. The finish is subtle and long, a really fine first effort.
Visit Cà Dei Maghi on the web.
Villa San Carlo
The ladies from this estate had a table directly across from Paolo, and their estate was founded just a year prior to his. Even with 22 hectares east of Verona, they maintain a strict selection of grapes and produce far fewer bottles of wine than what they are capable of managing. They were not to be outdone, showing up with five wines spanning six vintages.
- Valpolicella DOC 2015 – soft, light, fruity and with good intensity.
- Valpolicello Ripasso DOC Superiore 2013 – fantastic concentration and intense cherry and other red fruits, the wine still had good freshness and smooth tannin.
- Valpolicello Ripasso DOC Superiore 2009 – a pleasure to compare this to the 2013, it had plenty of youthful fruit, even better freshness complemented by spice, balance and a smooth finish.
- Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG 2010 – a very appetising touch of sundried tomato with balsamic notes, good concentration but still with a very vertical mouthfeel, plenty of freshness to pair with food – particularly remarkable at 16% alcohol, full of ripe fruit and great length.
- Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Riserva 2009 – why not a DOCG, you ask? That’s because Amarone, incredibly, didn’t have DOCG status until 2009. This was one of the few Riservas on offer at the tasting, and it was a true pleasure to taste. Plenty of cherry and blackberry, balsamic and cocoa, with a sweet finish. Immense concentration, fine, sweet, ripe tannin and a long, powerful finish. Very complex palate….and yet STILL elegant.
Visit Villa San Carlo on the web.
One of the few estates at the tasting coming from the “Classico” zone of Valpolicella, which is to say, in the traditional heart of the zone. With just seven hectares of vines near Negrar, the estate has been operating since 1955. The wines were restrained, mineral, very much terroir-driven, and marked by sweet, ripe fruit.
- Valpolicella DOC Classico Superiore 2014 “Sanperetto” – the wine is made without any dried grapes, and is light, elegant, restrained and delicately fruity.
- Valpolicella DOC Classico Superiore 2013 “Polega” – there is 40 days of grape drying here, and it shows. The colour is deeper, the flavours more intense. Tannin is better but remains very fine and ripe, the finish is much longer, the impression is also more taut, more intense. Very interesting wine!
- Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2012 “Punta di Villa” – very sweet red and black fruit and a broader mouthfeel and flavour profile. Tannins are well-structured and ripe, the finish is excellent. Minerality and acidity are in harmony, and both are very expressive. The highlight of the range they presented, in my opinion.
- Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2012 “Castel” – from the highest vineyards of the estate – 350 metres. Predominantly black fruits, and beautifully sweet. There is less freshness, but the intensity remains, the expression of the soil is very good, as is the length. Very different than the “Punta di Villa”, but quite clearly from the same stable.
Visit Mazzi on the web.
This estate has existed for a long time – 134 years, give or take. But they have produced their own wines only since 2003, since Camilla Rossi Chauvenet, the youngest daughter of a family dynasty extending back well over a century, turned her passion for and training in wine into the reality of a wine-producing enterprise. The results quite clearly speak for themselves, and the trip out to Zurich would have been worthwhile even if I had only been able to taste her wines.
There are 12 hectares of vines at this estate near Mezzane, east of Verona. Production is organic and has been certified as such since 2015. The quality of the wines is indisputable, the terroir influence is undeniable.
- Valpolicella DOC Superiore 2013 “Profasio” – clear balsamic notes and excellent red fruit, with understated spice complemented by superb minerality and freshness.
- Valpolicella Ripasso DOC 2014 “Marchesa Mariabella” – somewhat softer and with darker fruit, a little less acidity but more spicy depth, a little more power behind the mask.
- Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG 2012 – a glorious expression of the soils, with density and structure to spare. The wine is still very young, but already offers a complex nose and layers of sweet spices, red and black fruit, earth and herbs. Long and satisfying, with plenty of potential. The alcohol is completely in balance, which is no mean feat at 16.5% abv.
- Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG 2011 “Conte Gastone” – again, more plums and spicy depth, with a less-taut acidity. Somewhat broader on the palate, but still with excellent, ripe tannin and freshness. A very fine, grand wine with an excellent finish.
Visit Massimago on the web.
Of course, there were other very good producers. Some other names to look for:
Corte Scaletta – much lighter style, somewhat oxidised wines – but not negatively so. Very interesting and quite unique at the tasting.
Tamburino Sardo – very modern style, but also very well-made and interesting wines with superb fruit. Dangerously drinkable.