CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I had the pleasure of spending a couple of weeks in Italy recently, and I have quite a few fun experiences to recount, including a trip to northern Italy's Valpolicella region.
After three days of feasting, sightseeing and navigating the waterways of Venice, my crew of intrepid wineaux (that's the plural of wino) set off for the Veneto in our rented Auto Europe van. Though our stomachs were distended, our spirits were hungry for more.
It is only an hour and a half along the A-4 autostrada to our first stop of the day in the tiny village of Fumane di Valpolicella, where we were to spend an interesting half-day with the folks from Allegrini.
I have written about my affection for Palazzo Della Torre -- one of Allegrini's Valpolicella red wines that is made in the ripasso method. Valpolicella is made from corvina, rondinalla and molinara grapes, all of which produce light- to medium-bodied red wines that can be very pleasant quaffs.
Valpolicella becomes something more, though, when the grapes are planted in select vineyard sites and when a process called ripasso is employed during wine making. First though, it is necessary to tell you about Amarone, which is like ripasso's bigger brother.
Amarone is produced from the same Valpolicella blend, but instead of taking the grapes from the vineyard to the crusher, the little buggers are put in buildings and on trays and allowed to shrivel up and dry out like raisins. This exercise increases the sugar content so that the resulting wine is a powerful, dark and very alcoholic brute that is then aged in wood for a couple of years before it is bottled.
To make a ripasso, new Valpolicella wine is refermented by combining it with the pomace (the solid remains of the grapes after pressing) from the Amarone, and sometimes with the addition of dried grapes. The resulting ripasso wine is considerably darker and fuller-bodied than Valpolicella, but not as powerful as Amarone. The well-respected Valpolicella producer Masi invented the ripasso process in the early 1960s.
So, I was excited to be at Allegrini, where my favorite ripasso (Palazzo Della Torre) is produced. And, after visiting the vineyards and tasting through the entire Allegrini portfolio, as well as sampling the vinous wares of many other producers, I had an epiphany: Valpolicella is one of the most underrated wine appellations not only in Italy, but in the world.
I know that is a pretty bold statement and certainly will elicit some scorn from those who view the Veneto as a second-tier appellation, but the proof is in the palate, and mine was blown away by the quality and diversity of the wines -- red and white.
But back to my visit at Allegrini.
The patriarch of the clan -- the late Giovanni Allegrini -- was among the most influential voices in the emergence of Valpolicella as a premium appellation. Much to the chagrin of the majority of producers back in the 1960s and '70s, he began to employ viticultural practices such as limiting the quantity of production, planting on hillsides and planting the proper varietals on specific vineyard sites. Until that time, producers were content with planting in the valleys and getting the maximum production to market where quantity counted more than quality.