Far be it for me to anoint nobility, but if there’s a royal family of red wines it has to be Valpolicella. Led by the patriarch Amarane, this region in northeast Italy has some of the world’s most distinctive red wines as well as a rich history and culture of winemaking.
Winemaking in Valpolicella dates back to Roman times when the sweet wines of the region were renowned throughout the empire. From the Renaissance to the 19th century, Valpolicella wines were among the most prized in Europe. However in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries the quality of some Valpolicella wines suffered. The 20th century witnessed dramatic improvement in the quality of Valpolicella wines. Much credit for this advancement must be given to the Valpolicella Consortium that was founded in 1924 and includes the vine growers, wine makers and bottlers of the Valpolicella region. The consortium oversees and regulates almost every aspect of cultivation and winemaking and also helps with promotion.
Valpolicella achieved DOC status in 1968. In December 2009, the Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone sweet wine received their own separate DOCG status.
Today, Valpolicella wines are among the most popular in the world and this week the consortium and several member wineries visited Shanghai on their first official visit to China. This is very welcome news indeed because despite their international success, Valpolicella wines are still under-represented in China. Under the leadership of Olga Bussinello, one of Italy’s leading women of wine, the consortium is making China a priority.
The wines of Valpolicella are based on the red Corvina variety that provides body and structure. Other important contributors are Corvinone and Rondinella while a small percentage of other native varieties are also allowed.
See the word Classico on the label and it means the wine was made with grapes from the traditional steeply sloped part of the region. Superiore refers to wines made with riper fruit that have higher minimum alcohol requirements. To further understand the wines of Valpolicella you must understand their unique personalities; as this is what makes the wines truly inimitable and yes, even royal.
She’s young, beautiful, friendly and approachable; in other words a perfect princess. The basic Valpolicella wines are some of the nicest affordable wines and just as important they’re also among the most food friendly. The combination of bright fruit flavors and a nice clean finish makes them ideal companions to light appetizers, pizza and pastas. Classico and Superiore wines may also be paired with more substantial dishes. The freshness of Valpolicella DOC wines makes them particularly appropriate for Chinese family style meals where seafood and meats often adorn the table at the same time.
Boasting one of the wine world’s best price-quality ratios, Ripasso is clearly a prince of a wine. In developed markets like Germany, the UK and the US the popularity of this style of wine has grown exponentially. There’s also a special secret behind this wine’s success.
After the fermentation the basic Valpolicella red wine is put in casks with the leftover pommes of Amarone and Recioto wines for a period of time. This rediscovered ancient process imparts a deeper color, more tannins and greater complexity to the wine.
The result is a wine with a ruby red-garnet color, aromas of red fruits with notes of vanilla and a silky fine, velvety texture on the palate. This concentrated red is lovely with meat and cheese courses. In China, I love to pair it with Shanghai style red braised meats and hearty stews.
A king is a leader that doesn’t need to blow his own horn, everyone already knows he’s king. In the wine world, if you don’t know Amarone you don’t know wine.
To make this special wine, grapes are dried in a cool room with good aeration for several months until they are almost dry. The semi dried grapes offer very concentrated juice with abundant favors. Unlike sweet wines that may also use this process, with Amarone wines the fermentation process continues until the wine is dry. The wines feature an intense ruby red color, aromas and flavors of cherries, raisins and oak and a long smooth tannic finish. This substantial wine demands equally substantial fare, in Italy this may mean hearty slow-cook stews, game or pungent cheeses. In similar fashion, nice Chinese partners include northern style roasted meats and exotic regional meat dishes like donkey.
The elegant queen Recioto della Amarone keeps a lower profile than her king, but she’s his equal in every way. This sweet red wine is one of the wine world’s best kept secrets in part due to very small production. Like the dry Amarone, the queen is made from dried grapes left in grape-drying lofts for 100 to 200 days. The fermentation process is stopped to preserve the sugar percentage necessary to grant the typical sweet and structured style of this wine. On the palate Recioto offers abundant sweetness, wonderful fruit flavors with well-rounded tannins and a velvety texture. As with all the world’s great sweet wines, the finish is persistent and clean. At least 14% in alcohol this robustly flavored wine goes well with elegant pastries and stinky cheeses. Using this later pairing as an inspiration, I love to pair Recioto wines with the classic Shanghai dish, stinky tofu.
The goal of the Valpolicella Consortium’s visit this week is to build understanding and appreciation of their wines as well as introduce more wines to the market. Hopefully leading producers like Fidora, Sartori Rino, Castelnuovo del Garda, Villabella, Valpantena, Valentina Cubi and Salvaterra will soon have their wines in China. I’m confident this will happen. You can already find excellent Valpolicella wines in Shanghai.
The La Collina dei Ciliegi Amarone del Valpolicella DOCG is a behemoth of a wine that displays the best attributes of the region. I also recommend Quintarelli, Dal Fornio and Zonin.