On Thursday of this week we will host Carolee Williams of Eagle Rock Distributing as she presents six wines from the inspirational Small Vineyards Imports. Small Vineyards represents small family owned estates in the Mediterranean region of Italy and Spain. Their mission statement on the homepage of enjoysmall.com conveys a hope to preserve an industry that is endangered by the modern era. One of our wines that evening will be the Giusseppi Lonardi Ripasso Valpolicella. On June 6th of last year we blogged about Ripasso Valpolicella so rather than redoubling those efforts here we will take a step back and learn now about Valpolicella in general.
Valpolicella is actually a family of several different versions of the same wine. The basic version was created in 1968 when Valpolicella received its DOC, the legal delimited geographical definition for the specific historical wine that is made there. I say this type of wine originates at that time because it was in 1968 that the Valpolicella region was greatly expanded for commercial reasons and the basic version became that which was made in the newly annexed Po River fertile plain. That region was predominantly planted in Molinara grapes which is only the third best grape in Valpolicella. It is that version of the wine that predominated in chain stores at low prices for about twenty years.
Prior to 1968 Valpolicella was created from grapes that were largely farmed on hillside vineyards in the Veneto province of northern Italy. That wine actually has very deep roots with written records of Valpolicella going back to the twelfth century. The earliest wine records for the region extend back to the sixth century AD but they don't specify exactly what that wine was. It is believed, though, that winemaking in the area originated with the ancient Greeks and some records of Greek winemaking depict the process of adding the fresh wine to older dried grape skins to add more depth to the young juice which is how Ripasso and Amarone are made today. The name "Valpolicella" also, while somewhat etymologically uncertain, could have Latin and Greek roots meaning "valley of the cellars".
Basic Valpolicella is comparable to Beaujolais. It is light and fragrant, fruit-driven, and released to the market just weeks after harvest, like Nouveau Beaujolais. Also like Beaujolais, this wine may properly be served chilled (55 degrees). The predominant flavor is sour cherry with a little licorice in the background and a finish that is slightly bitter.
Valpolicella Classico is one step up in quality from the basic version. The three historic grapes of Valpolicella include: Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, and Molinara. The standard blend is 40-70% Corvina, 20-40% Rondinella, and 5-20% Molinara. In modern times four other grapes including Barbera and Sangiovese have been added and they may make up to 15% of the blend. Valpolicella Classico sports a stronger bouquet and flavor than the lesser version but still is entirely made in steel tanks.
The 1980s proved to be a cathartic turning point in modern Valpolicella history when market prices for grapes were so low the Classico version almost disappeared. The better producers decided, in order to save the product, they would market their brand name in larger letters on the label with the Valpolicella wine name placed below and in small print. It was also at that time that Masi, one of the better producers, created the Ripasso style of Valpolicella and the great Amarones of Valpolicella were re-marketed worldwide with a stature appropriate for the product. Sales of Amarone tripled and the label change has continued to this day with the Masi Bonacosta Valpolicella Classico presently in the store as an example. 40% of all Valpolicella sales are now Classico.
Valpolicella Classico Superiore is one step above Classico and it is aged in oak for one year and may be somewhat ripasso in style so as not to let the oak mask the dominance of the fruit. That wine is more structured and slightly higher in alcohol.
We will stop here and leave Amarone for another day. If you like Italian wine please join us Thursday for our Small Vineyards tasting and if you like this blog please become a "follower" so I will get something back for my efforts.