Known for its hillside vineyards, marble outcroppings, olive trees, cherry orchards, ancient villages and castles, the Valpolicella region of Italy is located north of the romantic city of Verona and east of Lake Garda.
Although the deep history of making wines can be traced back to antiquity, the modern movement in the area began in the 1980s when a new provocative style of Amarone – a rich, seductively sweet full-bodied red wine made from grapes that are partially dried before their juice is extracted – put the region on the wine map to stay.
Legend has it that Amarone got its name from the Vajo Amaron Vineyard, which poet Dante Alighieri’s son, Pietro, purchased near the historic hamlet Gargagnago in 1353. It is the same estate where Dante is said to have written his masterpiece “Divine Comedy.”
After centuries of working with the grapes in the region, in 1968 the sweeter style of wine was officially recognized by Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) as Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone. But it wasn’t until 1991 that the drier, more full-bodied style became recognized in the Amarone della Valpolicella DOC.
The core grape grown in the region is Corvina, which is known for its dark color and intensive flavors. The other main grape varieties used to make Amarone and the sweeter version of Recioto are Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara.
To build the flavor profiles, the distinctive character of the region comes from a grape-drying process that separates it from all other wine-producing zones in the world. These techniques are very similar to that used by the Romans, who would either hang clusters or dry them on mats to preserve the natural sweetness of the fruit before making the wines.
Most of the top wines are made with fruit grown from the Amarone della Valpolicella Classico zone, a section of small hillside vineyards surrounding the villages of Marano, Negrar, Sant’Ambrogio and San Pietro in Cariano. These higher elevation sites feature drier climate, poor soil and lower yields, which result in a more intensive sugar concentration and flavors.
Once picked, the fruit is dried on large bamboo mats in well-ventilated attics, chambers or special lodges for up to four months. During the drying process, the grapes lose 30 to 40 percent of their weight. As the grapes start to raisin, the flavors become more concentrated and cause the natural development of Botrytis cinerea (“noble rot”) to spread through each cluster and further enhance the sweetness of the grapes.
When Bolla wines exported the first Amarones to the United Sates in the 1950s, the popular style to make was Amarone’s sweeter counterpart, Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone, which typically contains a large amount of residual sugar. For that reason, the flavor profiles were generally more austere, ranging from dried fruit to port-like characteristics. Some of the wines were inky, oxidized, and generally needed to be aged to soften. As a result, classic Amarone remained a mystery to American consumers largely until the 1980s.
In 1983, the flavor profiles started to change for the better thanks to the introduction of Saccharomyces uvarum, a special yeast strain used to shorten the fermentation process and the amount of oxidation in the wines. This yeast was discovered by Masi Agricola, a popular producer of Amarone near the village of Gargagnago. As the use of the yeast continued to increase, the flavor profiles became much more user-friendly with more emphasis put on showcasing fresh fruit flavors and layers of spice, richness, and complexity.
Today, you can find Amarone wines in fine retail shops and top Italian restaurants in the United States. In addition to Bolla and Masi, other notable import brands include Allegrini, Bertani, Tedeschi, Domani Veneti, Montressor, Santi, Tomassi, Speri, Santa Sophia and Zenato.
Typical retail prices for fine Amarones range between $30 to $70, which are steals when you consider the amount of time and effort required to dry the grapes and age the wine before the finished product before release.
The other notable style of the region is Ripasso, a red table wine made with partially dried grapes or pomace from the grapes used to make Amarone or Recioto (dessert-style wine). Many of these more traditional styles are labeled as Valpolicella Superiore, which require one year in wood and a minimum of 12 percent alcohol. Other styles of these food-friendly red wines are made in Valpolicella Valpantena, a smaller zone east of Verona.
Grape Expectations: Valpolicella
Whites: Since producers in Valpolicella are more focused on producing Amarone and Ripasso wines, there are very few white grapes grown in the region. Instead, the popular white wines are mainly from the nearby Soave region.
Reds: Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara are the main grapes used to make Amarone and Recioto wines. Other grapes used to make red table wines, sweet wines, and sparkling spumante-style wines include: Barbera, Sangiovese and special regional varietals like Rossignola, Negara, Bigolona and Oseleta. Experimental plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and other international varietals can be found in Valpolicella as well.
Taste Sensations: Valpolicella
Red Wines: The finest Amarones are full-bodied, silky smooth and loaded with aromas of fresh fruit, vanilla, licorice and tobacco. On the palate, the flavors are complex and concentrated with pronounced notes of cherry, berry, plum, cinnamon, clove, cocoa, and black pepper. The sweet tannins, developed by the residual sugar left over from the drying process, help create additional layers to the depth, richness, supple texture, and ultimately longevity for the finished wines.
In contrast, the bigger bodied, more intense styles—typically range from 15 to 16 percent alcohol—often require a little time in a decanter, fine stemware, or a combination of both. But once open, these powerful wines offer fragrant aromas of fresh violets, mint, dried fruits, licorice, vanilla, tobacco, and earth; persistent flavors of ripe blackberry, dark cherry, dense plum and chocolate; chewy tannins; and layers of spice.
Food Pairings: Valpolicella
With naturally sweet tannins, Amarones match extremely well with strong cheeses like Pecorino, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Gorgonzola dolce; rich flavorful entrees like risotto with wild mushrooms, seared duck breast, roasted wild game, lamb shank, and braised short ribs; as well as chocolate cake with fresh berries served at the end of the meal. With the Valpolicella Superiore red wines, fine pairings include: grilled vegetables, eggplant parmesan, pasta with tangy sauce, roast chicken, gourmet sausage, and grilled red meats.