John B. Reyna
Teakwood Tavern's guide to Valpolicella, Ripasso, Amarone, & Recioto wines—tastiness at every bottle
Updated: Jun 30, 2021
We’re traveling to Verona, Italy, in this post to discuss the wines of Valpolicella. I’m positive you’ve heard of Verona before . . .
Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
—William Shakespeare, Act 1, Prologue, Romeo & Juliet
Whether this passage reminds you of skimming CliffNotes before 9th grade English class or young Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio falling in love, we hope you’ll stick around to learn about the amazing red wines of Verona, in particular the wines of Valpolicella. I promise that will be the last Shakespeare quote. Let’s get back to wine. There’s a lot to unpack with Valpolicella so we recommend to go wisely and slowly. Those who rush stumble and fall.
Ok, I couldn’t resist one more Romeo & Juliet quote. But it’s a fitting quote for Valpolicella, which is confusing. Well, that is until you read this blog post!
If you’d rather watch Shen and I present the following information instead of reading, then please check out this video and subscribe to our Youtube channel, Teakwood Tavern:
Verona is both a province and a city located in Veneto, Italy. Veneto is a region located in northeast Italy. The city of Verona is the capital of the province of Verona.
© Tenuta Sant’ Antonio Famiglia Castagnedi
Valpolicella zone and subzones
The overall Valpolicella DOC extends roughly 16 miles from west to east and about 8 miles from north to south. The zone includes a complex system of valleys that flow from Monti Lessini in the north down to the plains in the south. From west to east, the valleys are: Fumane, Marano, Negrar, Quinzano, Avesa, Valpantena, Squaranto, Marcellise, Mezzane, Illasi, and Traminga.
©Valpolicella Consorzio Tutela Veni
The historical production area of Valpolicella DOC Classico is comprised of the Fumane, Marano, and Negrar valleys as well as the townships of Sant’Ambrogio and San Pietro in Cariano.
Classico region © Brigaldara
Within the broader Valpolicella DOC is another area that was given its own denomination, Valpolicella DOC Valpantena. Valpantena lies east of Classico and directly north of the city of Verona. Its wines are generally distinguished by a greater freshness and elegance, but also great longevity.
Verona is located in the far west of Veneto. Overall, Valpolicella’s climate is continental, but it does vary depending on the location of the vineyards. In the north, cool Alpine winds are prevalent. In the west, Lake Garda provides a warming effect that creates a Mediterranean microclimate.
Since there are valleys, it only makes sense that there are mountains. The soil types vary depending on the altitude, which ranges between valley floors at 200 feet above sea level and mountain ranges around 2,100 feet. The hills are comprised of igneous rock (e.g., volcanic) and sedimentary rock (e.g., marl and chalk).
Chalk © Geology.com
Marl © Geologyscience.com
If you want to drink wines produced from native grapes, then you should seek out Valpolicella wines. Approximately 97% of grapes grown in the greater Valpolicella area are indigenous varieties. Corvina, Rondinella, and Corvinone are the three major varietals, which together comprise about 94% of all plantings in the area.
Corvina’s moniker is the Queen of Valpolicella. An apt nickname since Corvina accounts for 60% of all plantings. Corvina, with its dark skin, provides aroma, tannins, structure, and acidity to the Valpolicella blend.
Corvinone provides many of the same qualities to wines as Corvina. The grapes themselves are physically larger than Corvina grapes. Interestingly, and confusingly, Corvina is not genetically related to Corvinone.
What Rondinella lacks in aromatics, it makes up in acidity and tannin. It too is a dark grape.
After the big three varietals, you’ll also find small plantings of Molinara, Oseleta, and Croatina.
Italian law dictates what percentage of certain grapes can make up a Valpolicella blend. There are a few key rules to remember.
Corvina must make up between a minimum of 45% and maximum of 95% of the Valpolicella blend. There must be a minimum of 5% and a maximum of 30% of Rondinella in the blend.
Well, the laws changed recently and authorized Corvinone in the same 45% minimum and 95% maximum as Corvina. The same 5–30% rule for Rondinella applies when Corvinone is swapped in lieu of Corvina.
© Tenuta Sant’ Antonio Famiglia Castagnedi
In Italian, the word for the process of drying grapes is appassimento (aka passsito method). Grapes that were harvested between September and October dry out (raisin) until January or February. Traditionally, grape bunches were poured into racks made of water reeds or bamboo and stacked on top of each other in attics. Now, many wineries stack grapes in boxes made of plastic or wood. There is great care given to ensuring minimal handling of the grapes. Any damage to the grapes can result in rot or mold. Some wineries leave windows open to assist with the drying process. Other wineries store the grapes in special drying rooms equipped with A/C and humidity controls.
During appassimento, grapes can lose between 30-40% of their weight. Concentrated flavors and high sugar content are the byproducts of appassimento. According to Jancis Robinson, appassimento metabolizes the acids in the grape itself and polymerizes the tannins in the skin. I’m not sure what that means exactly. But Jancis is the boss, and it sounds cool.
Appassimento is performed more in Valpolicella than elsewhere in Italy. Three of the four styles of Vapolicella involve the process of appassimento in some manner.
Styles of Valpolicella
Now that you’ve mastered blends and learned about appassimento, it’s time to learn about styles of Valpolicella. Yes, you read that correctly, there's still more to learn about Valpolicella.
Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush stumble and fall.
There are four distinct styles of Valpolicella. All four are made from the same blends that I discussed above. The four styles of Valpoilicella are as follows: Valpolicella DOC; Valpolicella Ripasso DOC; Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG; and Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG.
These are your basic Valpolicella wines. But not basic in taste. It is the only style that doesn't involve appassimento in some form.
We love these wines. Big sour-cherry flavor with sprightly acidity. Generally, there is no oak aging, and the wines are medium bodied. The wines are approachable in their youth, and many can handle a chill. Jancis Robinson has compared these wines to Beaujolais, and I see the resemblance.
These wines are super affordable for the quality. You should hop on the Valpolicella train before the prices increase. It’s especially important to buy now since the commercial success of Amarone, which we discuss below, has reduced average production of this style of Valpolicella in almost half between 2005 and 2013. The shortage of grapes being produced in this style will also send prices up.
Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG
I purposely jumped from Valpolicella DOC to Recioto della Valpolicella because the latter is a sweet wine. If you master Recioto, then Amarone and Ripasso are easier to remember and distinguish.
Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG is a historic sweet wine that is made using appassimento. Sweet wine has been made using the appassimento method dating back to the Romans. Yet, Recioto della Valpolicella didn't earn its DOCG status in 2009. Sadly, this historic wine is produced less frequently. That’s partly because sweet wines are a hard sell, but also because Amarone and Ripasso have stolen the show.
If you’re at a quality Italian restaurant, take a look at their dessert wine list. If they sell Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG, grab a glass. Or split a 375ml bottle amongst friends. These sweet wines burst with powerful red fruit flavors and high alcohol. If you’ve ever wanted a full-bodied dessert wine with tannins, seek out a bottle of Recioto!
Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG
Of all the wines we are exploring, this is likely the one that you are most familiar. It’s a staple on most higher end Italian restaurants as well as steakhouses.
Now take everything you read about Recioto della Valpolicella, and let’s apply it to Amarone della Valpolicella. In general, the grape growing and the appassimento methods mirror each other. The big difference between Recioto and Amarone is that, for the latter, the grape juice is fermented to complete dryness or off-dryness.
If you’re into Italian wine, it might surprise you that Amarone is not a traditional Italian wine. It was not commercially produced until the 1960s. Before then, Amarone was considered a flawed Recioto since it was a completely dry wine. Amarone della Valpolicella earned its DOCG status in 2010.
Wineries go through serious painstaking efforts when producing Amarone. Usually, the best whole bunches are selected from more mature vines. Since appassimento results in massive water loss, making Amarone requires more grapes than a typical wine. Wineries often age Amarone onsite for many years before releasing to the public for retail. All of these efforts are why Amarone comes with sticker shock.
These wines are full bodied with high alcohol. The tannins are generally medium to high. The wines are cherished for flavors of concentrated red berry and baking spices.
Valpolicella Ripasso DOC
We saved Valpolicella Ripasso for last because Ripasso is a lovechild of Valpolicella DOC (i.e., basic production) and Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG. To understand the beauty of Ripasso is to appreciate what both Valpolicella DOC and Amarone bring to the blend.
Ripasso is produced by running Valpolicella over Amarone skins. Winemakers drain Amarone off the skins slightly before fermentation finishes. The Amarone skins, which are not pressed, are added to a vat of completely fermented Valpolicella. Yeasts, which are present on the skins, ferment the remaining sugar on the Amarone skins. That’s why it’s important to pull the skins before fermentation is complete. This extra fermentation aids the Amarone skins in providing flavor, color, and tannins to the normal Valpolicella wine.
The resulting wines are medium to full bodied with flavors and aromas of stewed red and black fruits. Tannins are medium to high and the acidity from the Valpolicella is still present. These impeccable wines are often called Baby Amarones because of the use of Amarone skins. They also cost a fraction of Amarone so they are worth exploring before making the splurge into Amarone.
And that’s it for the four wine styles. Phew, I need a drink. Or maybe four.
Brigaldara Valpolicella DOC 2018
This bottle is everything I love about Valpolicella DOC. On the nose, bright strawberry and cranberry burst along with violet and lilac. On the palate, red fruits were still at the forefront but balanced with anise, eucalyptus, and black pepper. Acidity was medium plus and tannin was medium. The abv came in at 13.5%, and the body was medium. The finish was in the low 20s (number of seconds desirable flavors remain in your mouth after swallowing). This is a delightful wine that can be drank alone or paired with food. The fresh fruit flavors, high acidity, and medium tannin combine to form an easy drinking wine for all occasions. It’s both elegant and unpretentious. At $19, buy a case and drink often. No need to age.
Lenotti “Le Crosare” Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Classico Superiore 2015
This Ripasso packs a punch and reminds you that you’re not drinking normal Valpolicella. It still retains the acidity from the Valpolicella base, but the Amarone skins provide high tannin, high alcohol (14.5% ABV), and a full body. Aromas of smoke, chocolate, blackberry, and jalapeño are present. Flavors of red cherry, leather, mint, tobacco, and mushroom dance on the palate. Tertiary flavors are already present in this 2015 vintage, but there’s still plenty of aging potential to lay this wine down for a few more years. The finish was in the mid-twenties. At $32, this is a great introduction into the apassimento method. Again, Ripassos are a great value when compared to the price tag that Amarone charges.
Tenuta Sant’ Antonio Selezione Antonio Castagnedi Amarone della Valpolicella 2015
Compared to the Valpolicella and Ripasso, this Amarone had the darkest color—a deep, opaque ruby. On the nose, we found aromas of mushroom, violet, nutmeg, fig, and chocolate. On the palate, there were lovely flavors of black plum, coffee, wet leaves, and cedar. Acidity was medium plus, and the ABV was 15%. The tannins were high and the overall body was full. Shen’s immediate reaction to this wine was to call it chewy, not in a bad way. Just a different sensation on the palate. The finish was in the high twenties. If you love big, red wines with tertiary flavors, this would be a dream wine for you. At $50, this is a splurge wine to buy when making a hearty meal at home. You’ll likely pay quite a markup at a restaurant so we recommend buying Amarone at retail and determining whether you enjoy this style. It’s delicious and unique, but the cost is no joke. Still, this is a quality wine and a treat to drink for the right occasion.
Recchia “La Guardia” Recioto Della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2015
This wine was incredible. It was full bodied with a 13.5% ABV. Aromas of fig, raisin, leather, and wet leaves leaped from the glass. The wine bursted with flavors of strawberry rhubarb pie, fig, tobacco, and dates. Acidity was racing. The finish was in the low 30s. We will buy this bottle again if we see it.
I realize this is a lot of information to digest, but Valpolicella is worth learning about. You'll find great wines throughout all four styles, which is not something that many wine regions can boast.
While we enjoy all four styles, we really appreciate the elegance and approachability of Valpolicella DOC. This table wine might not receive the accolades of Amarone or Ripasso, but your wallet and senses will thank you. So grab yourself a bottle and enjoy! And when the time is right, explore the other three styles.
Sending unburdened love from which I don't sink,
P.S. If you made it this far, you earned this bonus: