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Vines & Vittles: Sipping Valpolicella is a tasteful experience

By John Brown

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.

We visited one of Allegrini's single vineyard sites, La Grola, situated on a hillside overlooking the Valpolicella plain. La Grola is planted to corvine, which is known to be the best red grape of the Valpolicella region. Later, we tasted the entire Allegrini portfolio at the actual medieval palace -- Palazzo Della Torre.

This incredible palazzo, constructed in the 1300s, is a treasure trove of antiquity and has some pretty startling stonework, including fireplaces constructed to look like lions and other beasts. Our tasting room had one of those fireplaces, and I couldn't help but think how scary they must have been to the kids living in the place way back then.

While we tasted several excellent white wines, the stars were the red wines. Prices range from a low of about $12 for the Valpolicella Classico, and $22 for the Palazzo Della Torre, to up to $80 for the single vineyard La Poja, and $40 to $50 for the Amarone wines. Most are blends of the Valpolicella varietals with La Poja made entirely with corvina and planted in the La Grola vineyard.

Some notes:

Valpolicella Classico: Deliciously fruity light- to medium-bodied wine that would be excellent with antipasti or grilled Italian sausage.

Palazzo Della Torre: Medium- to full-bodied -- almost like a zinfandel -- with black cherry and toasty oak flavors. This would be a hit with double-cut pork chops stuffed with herbed goat cheese, pan-seared and oven-baked with a soy-honey glaze.

La Grola: Full-bodied and long-lived, this wine demonstrates that Valpolicella can be a serious wine. Ripe and rich with blackberry and cola flavors, this would pair nicely with a grilled bone-in rib-eye.

La Poja: Slightly more elegant than the La Grola, the La Poja is a 100 percent corvina aged in new French oak for more than 20 months. It has licorice and plum flavors and is one you will want to lay down for a few years. Try this with a butterflied veal chop that has been marinated in red wine, garlic and rosemary.

Villa Giona: A blend of 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent merlot, and 10 percent syrah, this wine shows how well Bordeaux varietals take to the soils of Valpolicella. Aged for about 18 months in French oak, Villa Giona has aromas of tea and leather and flavors of ripe cherries. Marry it with oven-roasted pork tenderloin that has been rubbed with kosher salt, coarse black pepper and fennel seeds.

Amarone: Ripe, but not overripe, this Amarone is full of sweet and sour cherry flavors. Very intense, but not raisiny as some Amarones can be, this wine would be a lovely accompaniment to a sweet (dolce) gorgonzola with roasted walnuts. Great by a roaring fire around a campsite or at the fireplace during winter.

For more on the art and craft of wine, visit John Brown's Vines & Vittles blog at thegazz.com.


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