Valpolicella. Hands up if you’ve heard of it? If you’re a wine buff, you might already know a thing or two about the Italian wine-making region. If not, sit back and let us take you on a guided tour. While Tuscany and Piedmont grab the headlines, Valpolicella is a hidden gem just East of Lake Garda, Verona. We should know – we’ve handpicked wines from there ourselves.
So, what makes Valpolicella such a viticultural veteran?
(Bonus game: try saying that last sentence after a few glasses).
1. Valpolicella is the ‘pearl of Verona’
We think Valpolicella’s name is incredibly fitting. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, it comes from a mixture of Latin and Greek which translates as ‘the valley of many cellars’.
It’s also known as the ‘pearl of Verona’, with wine production hidden away in the region’s foothills, just north of the Adige River, and is a shining example of everything the country has to offer. Valpolicellians have been stomping grapes since the days of ancient Greece and the red wine only seems to get better with age.
2. It’s cool, continental and perfect for growing grapes
Valpolicella’s climate is critical to the success of its wine. The Alps to the north and sloping valleys to the south shelter the region against the intensity of the Mediterranean summer.
Prevailing winds create micro-climates of sorts throughout the region. While it’s not a hard and fast rule, wines produced on the higher ground tend to be more balanced and richer in alcohol than wines from the valley bottom, which are less distinctive.
3. Chianti is king, but Valpolicella is in line for the throne
Even if you’re not familiar with Italian wine, you’ll probably know Chianti. It’s the country’s second most prolific DOP wine producer (behind Prosecco). But limiting yourself to one variety is no way to experience the world.
Valpolicella has recently cracked the top ten and for good reason. The region is producing some incredible red wines and, while Chianti remains on top, its tart and spicy flavour isn’t to everyone’s taste.
4. Subregions and the Amarone families
Like many wine-producing regions, Valpolicella isn’t reliant on one source of vinspiration. Three unique territories make up the terriority, each with their own distinct methods:
- Valpolicella Classico. Valpolicella’s traditional wine-growing region. The wines produced here are warm and full of character.
- Valpantena. Wines made here are softer and fresher and tend to keep their flavour for longer.
- Eastern Valpolicella. Similar to Valpolicella Classico in style, but fruitier and with more herbaceous hints.
Wine is thicker than water
Family is everything. The region is home to many prestigious producers who have handed their craft down through the generations:
The Amarone family producers:
- Guerrieri Rizzardi
- Tenuta Sant’Antonio
These families signed a manifesto calling for voluntary higher production standards and created a hologram sticker to identify their wines.
Other top producers
5. The three main grape varieties
The flavours, acidity and tannic qualities of Valpolicella owe their presence to three main indigenous grape varieties:
- Corvina – makes up 45%-90% of the grapes grown in Valpolicella’s vineyards (a law all wine-makers must stick to).
- Rondinella – makes up 5%-30% of a vineyard.
- Molinara – no longer a compulsory addition, but one that many wine-makers blend into the final product.
6. Valpolicella Classico dominates the market
Valpolicella Classico – as the name suggests – was the original wine produced in the region. It remains the most popular Valpolicella today and is produced in the largest quantities. Light-bodied, cherry-flavoured and low in alcohol (11-12% ABV), Valpolicella Classico is the perfect summer wine.
7. Drying grapes
The practice of drying wine grapes goes back to the Roman times. In Valpolicella, they dry grapes on mats (bamboo wood or plastic), in special, aerated rooms for several months. This way, the grapes lose water and concentrate flavours, hence the dried fruits characteristic taste.
The percentage of water loss depends on the style of wine – the lowest being Valpolicella Classico Superiore and the highest being Recioto. For example, at the vineyard in Piccoli they dry the grapes for four months when making their Recioto, causing them to shrivel to less than half of their original size and weight.
Amarone’s high alcohol levels are a by-product of this process and, when done correctly, the dried grapes can greatly enhance the flavour of the wine. More expensive versions of Valpolicella get the oak-aging treatment before sale.
8. Amarone is Italy’s finest
A lot of wines claim to be the finest in a certain category, but Amarone della Valpolicella actually lives up to its title (which is why we travelled all the way to the Piccoli winery to try a bottle).
Amarone, like other bold, high-alcohol Italian wines (think Barolo) is revered in the country for its long-lasting quality. It has enough structure and richness to mature in the bottle for five or ten years, though there’s no harm in opening it early. Expect strong, concentrated flavours of dried figs, cherry, chocolate, parmesan, savoury and liquorice that balance well with the boozy content.
9. Valpolicella Ripasso: a baby Amarone
In the past, only the rich could afford Recioto. Farmers discovered they could enhance basic Valpolicella by adding it to skins leftover from the Recioto fermentation. As the skins contain residual sugar, the wine ferments again, making ripasso a double-fermented wine. Although it contains a similar flavour profile as Amarone, it’s less concentrated and sophisticated, which makes it a cheaper alternative.
10. Food pairing
Valpolicella’s slightly tannic, acidic flavours make it the ideal companion to foods such as steak, mushroom and aged cheese. Here’s a quick pairing guide:
|Valpolicella Classico||Pizza, pasta, meats, veg|
|Valpolicella Superiore||Burgers, cooked chicken, fresh cheese|
|Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso||Steak, mushrooms, risotto|
|Amarone della Valpolicella||Braised meat, aged cheese|
|Recioto della Valpolicella (sweet wine)||Dark chocolate|
Victory for Valpolicella
Have you tried Valpolicella before? What did you think of it? Share your experiences in the comments below.