Wine Time with Aaron the Wine Guy

Hello Prince Albert! As far as wine-producing countries go, Italy is by far the biggest producer for exportation and domestic consumption. With all that wine being made, there are thousands of wines and regions to discover. This week, we’re taking a look at one of the most famous DOC/DOCG wines and regions, Valpolicella. What is Valpolicella and why should you try it?

Valpolicella is the name for both the wine-producing region and wines which come from the northern area of Italy, East of Lake Garda and just North of the Adige River. The wine is a blend of several red grapes including Corvina, Rondinella, Corvinone and Molinara with some additions of Oseleta allowed. The principal wines of the region come in 5 quality levels or designations. The basic or general wine of the area is simply titled Valpolicella DOC and includes the entire region. Valpolicella Classico DOC is wine from the original designated area and is considered a slightly higher-quality wine than regular Valpolicella. The next quality level is called Valpolicella Ripasso DOC which is a good step-up from the regular wine for a bit more money. Finally, the two highest quality wines from this region are Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG and Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG which are both made using the “appasimento” or “passito” method of wine production.

Valpolicella DOC and Valpolicella Classico DOC are both similar-tasting wines with a simple fruit profile. These wines are meant to be consumed quickly and are not meant for bottle aging. Things get interesting with Valpolicella Ripasso DOC and Amarone della Valpolicella/Recioto della Valpolicella as the appasimento method is crucial to the flavors and style of the wines.

First, let’s discuss the appasimento method: grapes are hand-picked early in whole clusters while the acidity is quite high and left in aerated warehouses on racks to dry for up to 120 days. During this time, the grapes shrink and concentrate the sugars of the juice. Picking the grapes with higher acidity is important as once the wine is made, the resulting product could easily become syrupy or flabby. Extra acidity aids in balancing out the sugars in the juice/wine. The pressed juice from these dried grapes can contain up to 16 grams per litre of residual sugar! Once the juice is released, it is fermented like most other red wines but the higher sugar levels produce a wine that goes beyond 15% alcohol.

Amarone della Valpolicella can often contain residual sugars after fermentation which results in wines with dry to off-dry characteristics, even though the wine is at 15-16% alcohol. Once bottled and aged for at least 1 year in oak, Amarone is a full-bodied, fruity wine with flavors of dried fruit, licorice and spice. Recioto contains even more sugar and shares a similar flavor profile and is often considered a dessert wine. Amarone and Recioto can be quite expensive due to the rigorous standards and techniques used to create them but the rich, ripe flavors are usually worthwhile.

My advice for those wanting to try Valpolicella but not wanting to spend a lot of money is to take a look at the wines of Valpolicella Ripasso; this is because Valpolicella Ripasso is made by taking some of the unused skins from Amarone (a $60-$120 wine) and adding them back into regular Valpolicella wine. The maceration of these skins adds color, intensity/concentration, alcohol and more depth of flavor. It’s like getting a taste of an $80 bottle by spending $25-$30! The wines of Valpolicella Ripasso will not be as luxurious as the Amarone but with the more-affordable price point, you can enjoy them more often. They will pair well with steaks, cheeses and appetizers. 

I got my hands on a bottle of Amarone from Masi and the much simpler Valpolicella from Bolla. I recommend trying the general Valpolicella, the Ripasso, and if your wallet can handle it, Amarone is definitely a modern classic that should be tried. The prices of Amarone have started to skyrocket (especially older vintages) so grab some and try it now! I bought a bottle of the 2008 Masi Costasera Amarone for $35 about 15 years ago and today, the 2008 vintage sells for around $175! The 2008 is still hiding in my cellar as I decided to sacrifice my younger bottle for this review. Here are my wine picks of the week!      

Bolla Valpolicella Classico 2020: (DOC Valpolicella, Italy). Dry red, medium ruby color. The medium-intense scents coming from the glass are simple and fruity with red forest fruits, cherry, strawberry and hints of sweet soil. On the palate, the flavor profile is simple but well-balanced with medium-plus acidity and light body. As the wine is light, it is easy to drink and can be enjoyed by itself or with a light, salty snack. The flavors found in the wine are sour cherry, hard cherry candies and a quick flash of pepper spice right at the end of the mid-palate. Tannins are noticeable but nicely integrated to the point where they don’t taste bitter; instead, the tannins leave a pleasant coating on the tongue which means the wine will pair well with a light cigar like the Garcia y Vega cigarillo (a small cigar with a green/candela wrapper). The finish is medium-length with red fruits and light pepper spice. There isn’t a lot of depth with this wine but it is an enjoyable sipper. One of the downfalls of this wine is the price which is steadily climbing closer to $20 before tax. Personally, I feel like this wine should be $14. For this reason, I recommend spending the extra few dollars and getting the Valpolicella Ripasso. While this is still a nice wine, the price and absence of complexity drop the score. Try this one out with friends around the fire as an opening wine with light snacks. Good! $20, 12.5% ABV

Masi Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2015: (DOCG Amarone Classico, Italy). Off-dry red, deep purple color with a glossy sheen. This wine has a ripe, rich aroma of dried fruit, dark cherries, sweet cocoa, potting soil, California raisin, chocolate and hints of herbs. To the taste, the wine is full-bodied with a satisfying and round mouthfeel of smooth and silky ripe fruits. Medium-minus acidity with medium-plus tannins results in a wine that is pleasantly gentle but still has some grip to give that fuzzy feeling on the teeth and cheeks. The mid-palate is long and flavorful with intensely concentrated dried cherries and prunes, sweet licorice, earthy/cocoa and juicy raisins. Once the intense mid-palate starts to fade, the long finish kicks in with sweet, delicate spice, cocoa and chocolate. The flavor of sweet raisins sticks to the tongue and leaves a lasting, luxurious impression. This makes a great choice for Cabernet Sauvignon fans looking for something similar but different enough to make it interesting. Will pair well with grilled meats, charcuterie boards, savory cheeses and roasted nuts/dried fruits. I highly recommend pairing this Italian classic with a fine cigar like the Romeo y Julieta No. 2 (Cuban) which offers delicate cedar, spice and dried raisins or the Joya de Nicaragua Black (Nicaragua) which is full of rich cocoa/chocolate and black pepper spice notes. The wine is incredibly delicious but lacks complexity or developing flavors, thus bringing the score down slightly. Drink now or within 5 years. Very good! $70, 15% ABV.

Cheers and thanks for reading!