Wine Travel

Valpolicella Classico Region of Italy...

Ferrari parked outside the Medieval Gate of Verona that opens onto the Piazza Bra...

     The Valpolicella Region of northern Italy is a small part of the greater Veneto Region, which routinely produces more wine than any other region in Italy.  Even more than the better known region of Tuscany. The Veneto stretches all the way from its eastern edge along the northern Adriatic Sea westward to the shores of Lake Garda.  The exquisite city of Verona more or less marks the southern boundary of the Veneto Region.  The northern boundary is quite irregular (see map). 

     While voluminous in production, many of the wines emanating from the Veneto Region are of mediocre quality.  Red wines from the greater Veneto include Bardolino, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Valpolicella, Amarone and Breganze reds.  White varietals include Soave, Prosecco, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Lugana, Bianca ei Custoza and Breganze.  Here we will concentrate on what most critics will agree make up the best quality wines of the region; Valpolicella and Amarone.  Both these varietals emanate from within the Valpolicella Classico or Valpolicella Estesa (east) sub-regions.

   For more photos of places to see and things to do while exploring the region, turn to the next page...

    Even with Valpolicella and Amarone, the quality varies greatly.  Both are DOC wines, which under the Italian wine protocol means that they must conform to many rules and regulations about aging and what grapes go into the final blend before bottling (although not as many rules required as with a DOCG wine).  These rules require that Valpolicella include Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella grapes.

Map of the entire Veneto Region, showing the Valpolicella Regions in the center just north of Verona...

   The DOC rules also provide that Corvina grapes cannot exceed seventy percent of the final blend in a Valpolicella.  Since Corvina is the best grape of the three for wine making, this limitation has frustrated some producers, and they have gone on to produce their own wines with creative blends that cannot be marketed as Valpolicella.  Allegrini , one of the region’s foremost vintners, has taken this bold step.  For example, Allegrini produces a popular red wine named “La Grola,” a blend of 80 percent Corvina, with a dash of Syrah and Oseleta grapes.  As a consequence, it cannot be a DOC wine because is does not conform to the DOC guidelines. It’s akin to what some of the more innovative winemakers in Tuscany did when they revolted against their local rules and created the Super Tuscan wines.

    The final version of Valpolicella can run the gamut from a simple, weak, almost pink wine with bitter or sometimes overly sweet tones to a more supple, complex crimson wine that pairs well with many meats and traditional Italian dishes.  The fresh acidity of a good Valpolicella will help balance a rich creamy or buttery sauce.  The best of these wines feature flavors of ripe cherries and/or berries, sometimes mixed with forest tones, flowers or even tobacco.  Most all Valpolicellas do not come with inflated price tags, which makes the wines tempting for the budget minded, or those desirous of hosting large parties with lots of good Italian food and searching for a decent Italian wine for food paring while not breaking the bank.

     So, how does the consumer go about choosing a decent Valpolicella?  Obviously, tasting the wine would provide the best insight.  If that’s not possible, try going for one marked Superiore, which demarcation requires at least a year of aging and an alcohol content of at least 12%, as opposed to no aging and 11% alcohol from normal Valpolicella.  The wines marked “Classico” derive from the original Valpolicella area , roughly centered between the towns of Fumane, San Ambrogio, Negrar and Morano di Valpolicella.  With some notable exceptions, wines produced here have better quality than Valpolicellas produced in the expanded areas for the wine to the east of the Classico region. 

   Selecting a Valpolicella Ripasso provides another means to purchase a better quality wine.  The ripasso process requires the winemaker to pass the wine through a second fermentation process, which occurs while the wine is “repassed” in contact with the same grape dried grape skins that were used to make Amarone, considered the highest quality wine in the entire Veneto region.  Theses grape skins are very concentrated in sugar in that they have dried in cold storage to increase the alcohol  and phenolic content.  The process ordinarily takes 10-12 days for the secondary fermentation to occur.  Afterwards, the ripasso wine takes on more structure, lower acidity and becomes more balanced.  The Valpolicella Ripasso wines have often been referred to as “baby Amarone.”  While that may prove a bit of a stretch, these wines certainly tend to have much more complexity than the basic Valpolicellas.  Not surprisingly, they usually cost more. Some of the winemakers known for producing nice Valpolicella Ripasso include Bertani, Speri, David Sterza, Begali Lorenzo, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant Antonio, Pasqua and Tommasi.  Typically, even a better quality Ripasso rarely costs more than $30.00 per bottle.

    Amarone represents the undeniable star of this region, wine-wise.  Technically known as “Amarone from Valpolicella” due to the fact that it’s often made from the same types of grapes, the wine differs greatly from its weaker cousin.  A big supple red from a cool climate makes for somewhat of an anomaly.  To achieve this result, Amarone producers use only the best grapes for the blend, and leave these grapes on the vine a bit longer for more ripeness (ie, suger).  Then, after finally harvesting the grapes, they dry in cold storage for three to four months, which in turns allows the grapes to almost raisinate, intensifying their sweetness even more.  After crushing and fermentation, the wine is aged, sometimes as long as five years, before being bottled and released.

     Some of the best winemakers use some creativity in making Amarone by relying on a greater variety of grapes than when making Valpolicella.  While Corvina always constitutes the primary grape, some producers utilize other local grapes from the region to intensify their Amarone.  Some such examples of other grapes include Negrara, Oseleta and Rossignola.  Some makers abandon the use Molinara grapes altogether.  

    Amarone production presents the winemaker with a number of unique challenges.  First of all, the process requires a lot of grapes, because much of the water weight of the grapes dissipates during the drying process.  So it takes many more grapes to make a bottle of a bottle of Amarone than a bottle of Valpolicella.  Vineyard conditions can also cause problems.  Since the grapes remain on the vines longer, they become more susceptible to rain damage.  This can ruin an Amarone vintage, as the wet grapes can result in mold.  Lastly, the time involved in making and aging the wine requires more patience (and work!).

Sunset view of beautiful Verona, home of Romeo & Juliet and the largest city near the Valpolicella Classico Region...

  More good news about exploring the Valpolicella Classico region.  The visitor can actually stay in two amazing nearby venues while exploring the area. Either village of Garda or Bardolino, located on the eastern shore of lovely Lake Garda, make for easy access.  Both towns are chic and quaint at the same time.  Their locations right on the massive lake provide some stunning panoramas. 

     Bardolino has a wine celebration featuring local food and wine each year in October.  I stayed in Garda, and walked along the shore to reach the wine event in Bardolino; a beautiful, peaceful two mile walk each way.  Even though Lake Garda is a prime area for tourism, the cost of accommodations did not seem excessive.  The largest lake in Italy, Garda has a plethora of tourist related activities, such as sailing, fishing and touring the many charming lakeside towns by boat, hiking or car.  If you have the time, try visiting the lovely village of Sirmione, set on the tip of a peninsula that extends from the southern shore of the lake.  Arriving by ferry boat avoids the traffic jams and parking issues that sometimes occur on the narrow peninsula during tourist season.

     Verona provides another option as a base for touring the region.  I had never visited Verona before, and I must say it’s one of the most appealing  cities I have ever experienced.  Not just in Italy, but anywhere.  Although a city of some 250,000 inhabitants, it has a small town feel, and a tourist can explore most of it from a well situated hotel by foot.  It also features a hop-on, hop-off bus that will take you to all the major sights at your own pace.

    The old town area extends like a giant thumb surrounded by the roaring waters of the Adige River.  It offers some amazingly beautiful piazzas (notably Piazza Bra and Piazza Erbe), a Roman Amphitheater built in the first century and still in use, some exquisite church interiors, a pedestrian-only chic shopping street, and a hillside view from across the river to die for.  Verona also boasts some fine restaurants with creative food items, and at least two excellent wine shops that will help you ship any wines purchased back home. 

   As to those two wine shops, they include Corsini and Signovino.  Corsini, located near the ancient arena, features a fine little restaurant that mainly serves items intended to pair with wine.  They ship back to the United States, and for my shipment, allowed me to include some wines purchased elsewhere in the region, as well as three bottles I bought from the shop.  Signovino is located just outside the medieval gate that leads into the piazza Bra.  It’s a sprawling shop with an accommodating staff that also serves a variety of small plates. 

Up and coming winemaker at Spada Winery near the town of Fumane...

The little town of Fumane, at the heart of the Valpolicella Classico Region...

Having lunch with friends in the Piazza Bra, with the ancient Roman arena as a backdrop...

    Some of the better producers include Zenato, Bertani, Masi, Allegrini and Tommasi.  Well made Amarone proves very age worthy.  I attended the Wine Spectator Grand Wine Tasting two years ago in Las Vegas, and after tasting some of the finest wines in the world, my favorite of the night was Zenato’s high end Amarone.  My partner at the event felt the same way.  For the most similar American wine, I would compare a good Amarone to an excellent Petit Syrah. As with most things, with quality comes expense, and a good Amarone will often cost in excess of $50.00 per bottle, with some of the finest priced well above $100.00.  Some excellent Amarone vintages include 2007, 2009,and 2010, with the 2012 also showing quite well.

    There’s good news and bad news about visiting the Valpolicella Classico region.  First, the bad news: Driving there requires lots of turns.  I would highly suggest a good GPS system, as coming from Lake Garda as I did required about 40 turns for the relatively should trip of some 20 miles.  Even with a good dash mounted GPS guide, I probably had to make about five U turns to get back on the proper path.  The drive from Lake Garda inland is not particularly scenic for most of the way, as it passed through a lot of light industrial neighborhoods that, for me, seemed incongruous with my other Italian experiences.  Some of the larger wine producers have nice websites and impressive wineries, but when I tried to make a reservation, notably with Allegrini and Zenato, I found the sites non responsive.

    Now for the good news:  Once you reach the actual winemaking area, in my case the village of Fumane, the towns are small and rustic, and, predictably, surrounded by beautiful vineyards, which sometimes extend far up into the hills. 

    Exploring by auto outside of Fumane led to some wonderful surprises.  I noted a couple of winery signs and, on a rainy day, decided to drop in unannounced.  This tactic will often not yield positive results in Europe, as most wineries do not have tasting rooms open to the public without a reservation.  However, the staff at my first stop, Costa degla Ulivi, actually welcomed me with open arms after their initial surprise at my arrival. A chef even prepared me a delicious, reasonably priced lunch while I got to taste a full gamut of their wines.  A grand experience!  They also have a lovely bed and breakfast which would make a good place to stay for couples exploring the region. 

    After lunch, they guided me to another nearby local producer, Spada.  The winemaker greeted me warmly and proceeded to give me a brief tour of the premises before setting me up to taste his wines.  A young man in his thirties, he seems to be an up-and-coming winemaker in the region, and is currently seeking to find a distributer so he can export his wines to the good old USA.  Both these wineries were located just outside Fumane. 

  If the winemaker succeeds in making a fine Amarone, the results can prove outstanding.  Quality Amarone traditionally has more body, more complexity and a greater alcoholic content than Valpolicella.  A good Amarone will have a powerful bouquet and could typically include flavors of ripe red fruits, figs, dark chocolate, leather, spices and earthen notes.  It pairs well with hard cheeses, roasted meats and tomato sauces, especially tomato based meat sauce.