There are many wines out there that have suffered the slings and arrows of overplanting and overproduction and come out nobler in the end. Italy’s Veneto region is home to two such wines. Both Soave (white) and Valpolicella (red) were bottled and shipped in mass quantities to the United States in the 1970s, eliciting shudder-worthy memories of avocado green leisure suits, fondue parties and rust-colored furniture. Robert Parker, the controversial wine critic, once went as far as to call Valpolicella “insipid industrial garbage.” Tell us what you really think, Bob! But that was then and this is now—and Valpolicella, while still a light-bodied, aromatic, simple red that Parker probably still hates, deserves a second chance. Besides, Pliny the Elder raved about the stuff, and he was Italian and wrote a bunch of famous things, so I’m siding with him.
Sandwiched between the foothills of the Alps and Lake Garda, just west of the ancient town of Verona made famous by Romeo and Juliet, is the “valley of cellars” from which the name Valpolicella is derived. The valley is a series of north-south ridges that look like the fingers on an open hand. The grapes most commonly blended into Valpolicella (affectionately known as Valpo to its friends) are Corvina (40-70 percent), Rondinella (20-40 percent), and Molinara (5-20 percent). The Corvina vines share their terroir with cherry trees, so it is no wonder that Valpo’s bouquet and palate speak of the deliciously sweet-and-sour stone fruit. Rondinella adds body, and Molinara adds acidity, but the latter grape’s high propensity for oxidation, coupled with its low color extract, has caused a decline in favor and planting among Venetian producers. Many modern Valpo producers just omit the Molinara, entirely. But, no matter the exact percentages of the blend, the result is always juicy fruit, a velvety mouth-feel and silky tannins. Plus, there are hints of licorice. Add stainless steel fermentation and Valpolicella makes mouths as happy as a pack of cherry Twizzlers. Pair it with pizza and you’ll wonder how you’ve lived without it.
Looking for a little more muscle? Enter Valpolicella Ripasso. Made from the same grapes as basic Valpolicella, Ripassos get a flavor and alcohol turbo-boost from a second passage through the skins left over from the fermentation of Recioto and Amarone. These sweet and dry (respectively) trophy wines of the Veneto involve drying the grapes on straw mats for three to four months before vinifying them. Recioto and Amarone fetch top dollar and top recognition among wine lovers who use them to meditate over things like stinky cheese and star-crossed love. More complex and structured than ordinary Valpolicella, but less intense and expensive than Amarone, Ripassos still deserve meditation time, though less on the order of taleggio with Catherine and Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights) and more on the order of robiola with Rose and Jack (Titanic). And, with dark chocolate and raisins on the palate, you’re reminded of another favorite movie theater snack, but with alcohol and possibly fewer calories.
Sergio Esposito, owner of Italian Wine Merchants and a former boss of mine, jokes that the wines of Valpolicella used to stink—“seriously stink, like feet.” But, regardless of whether you choose the fresh and fruity classic or the rich and meaty Ripasso, Valpolicella is a wine changed. We’ve all had our embarrassing decades, but isn’t it nice when they are forgiven and forgotten and you get another chance?