After a whirlwind trip to Valpolicella, in late November, I keep coming back to one thing. Every wine region likes to celebrate what sets it apart. And why not? Most can claim their own personality, based on terroir, wine styles or vineyard techniques.
Yet there’s no doubt in my mind that Valpolicella, in particular, is unique. A couple of our hosts made that comtant along the way. And I’m much inclined to agree.
It all starts, as it should, at harvest, and in the winery…
Valpolicella: It’s all about Appassimento
If you’ve ever been on a wine tour, you know the form. You walk your way through from the crush pad eventually to the cellar. Then there are all those jokes about looking at the bottling line. The reality is, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. ( Except for the behemoth at Yellowtail: two lines fill, seal, label and box 36,000 bottles an hour.)
In Valpolicella (in Verona), the best way to grasp the process is to go right to the top of the building. And that’s where—at least in the more traditional settings— everyone takes you.
There you’ll find the grape drying room—where Appassimento takes place. This drying process achieves three things:
• Reduces the water content
• Concentrates the juice (accentuates flavour)
• Maintains the sugars
The grapes that go through Apassimento lend more structure, body and colour to the finished wine.
Walking in is a heady experience. The aromas of the drying fruit, not so much raisin yet but more sweet grape, envelop you.
It is the heart and soul of all things Valpolicella.
About two thirds of the Valpolicella harvest undergoes drying. The grapes are finally pressed, in January, to make Amarone. The name “Amarone” means “The Bitter One.” Although, even if it does sport a savoury edge, Amarone is hardly “bitter.” The name comes from its drier style which contrasted with early drinkers preferences for sweeter wines.
As with so many things in life, Amarone’s discovery was happenstance, a mistake. Somebody misplaced a barrel while making Recioto. That’s the sweet, dessert wine of the region, which is made by arresting fermentation. By the time the missing barrel was found, the wine had fully fermented. But there remains some disagreement over just whose barrel it actually was.
Recioto and Amarone skins are also used to make Valpolicella ‘Ripasso’, which is re-fermented on the must. Ripasso is the process of ‘re-passing’ wine over grape skins and must to gain more body and colour. And most likely dates from the 18th or 19th century.
The vast majority of Valpolicella’s grapes are indigenous to the region—another point of difference. They include some 18 varieties, such as Corvina, Rondinella, Corvinone, Molinara and Negrara. Only four percent are ‘international’ such as Merlot or Cabernet.
Yet it’s that Appassimento tradition that distinguishes the region—as it has for centuries. In fact nobody could tell me when it originated. Although there’s evidence the practice dates from in Roman times. The indigenous varieties used in drying are chosen for their thick skins, that make them ideal for aging.
Evolution of Drying Techniques
The key is to get the grapes to dry without rotting, so you need plenty of air circulation. Ideally, the fruit will lose up to 60 percent of its moisture content over about three months.
The original way was to string them up. In time, drying racks using bamboo (river reeds) and wood were introduced. The curved shape of the reeds allowed for air to circulate beneath the bunches. These days most wineries use open weave plastic baskets, which are stackable and allow for lots to be kept separate with ease.
Others, such as the formidable cooperative Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, have massive humidity computer controlled storage areas. This co-op makes an impressive range from 700 ha. of member vineyards, producing about 40 varieties of grapes. The vineyard parcels and soil origins are all kept separate, with some 20 different ‘crus’ to manage. Three enormous spaces house thousands if not millions of baskets.
I’ll have more on the uniqueness that is Valpolicella in the weeks leading up to Vancouver International Wine Festival.