Friday, January 24, 2014

V is for Valpolicella, or: the blind leading the bl --


Or, "ancora imparo," as Michelangelo is said to have claimed when he was well up in his eighties. "I am still learning." I have no proof that he actually said such a wonderful thing, except via the jewelry and doo-dads catalogs that sell necklaces imprinted with this slogan, which claim he said it and therefore wouldn't you like to wear it around your neck, stamped on sterling silver.

Or, speaking of the blind leading the blind, "in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Said Erasmus. All of this leading to a question, commonly repeated in wine books written for beginners: is it a place or a grape? Valpolicella, in this instance. And, in the world of wine, when can you be sure that you have at least progressed to half-blindness?

Valpolicella is a place, which I know because I have a wine encyclopedia open in front of me at the Vs and because I have continued my sporadic armchair voyaging in the deestricts of Italy, thereby encountering one or two other books which tell me the same thing. However, when the nice young wine wholesale sales rep in the store pointed out one of his company's products to me, taking it off the shelf and telling me that this is a new kind of super-Tuscan, he told me it was a blend made from cabernet, merlot, and valpolicella grapes. Plus I'm almost sure he told me the same wine was a super-Venetian the last time I saw him.

One hesitates to correct people, first because it's rude and usually unnecessary (they rarely care), and second because, in the world of wine, one can never be sure also that the person one is talking to might not, in fact, himself be the one-eyed king. Italian wines especially are tricky in this regard -- they especially tend to shift out of focus, you might say. After all, montepulciano, as pretty a word as valpolicella, is both a grape and a place.

But I do think the nice young sales rep is mistaken about this one. A sidebar in the World Atlas of Wine helpfully notes that it's easy to remember V is for Valpolicella, the Veneto, and Venice. This means that we are far from Tuscany, just for a start. The Veneto is the region around the city of Venice, and Valpolicella is a district within the Veneto, west of Venice near the city of Verona (another V!) whose wines are called therefore "Valpolicella." We also happen to be near Padua here, ancient birthplace of the Roman historian Livy, setting of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and artistic paradise, although what city in Italy is not an artistic paradise? -- come for the Giotto frescoes at the Arena Chapel, stay for Donatello's Gattamelata, which in 1453 was the first life-size man-on-horseback bronze statue to be cast since antiquity. And as for things to see and do in nearby Venice -- good grief -- .

Anyway the grapes used for Valpolicella are mostly corvina, molinara, and rondinella, a few of those obscure varieties which grow only in Italy and make Italian wine so interesting. Perhaps that was what the young sales rep meant by the "valpolicella" grape.

But my goodness, who can blame him if he was a bit confused? Valpolicellas have that effect, even if we know in the big picture it's a wine named for its place. But let's count them all.

  • There's a simple, straightforward Valpolicella, "light, fragrant, and fruity," according to the New Wine Lover's Companion. I've tasted it and I can agree to that. In fact, if you are accustomed to heavy, chocolate-and-barbecued-blueberries California red wines, you might be startled at a Valpolicella's thinness.
  • Then there is Valpolicella superiore, slightly higher in alcohol content and aged for at least a year. Valpolicella classico comes from an interior zone of Valpolicella, boasting better, "more steeply terraced vineyards" that catch more sunlight. In the Veneto, after all, we are talking about northeastern Italy, near Slovenia and Austria, where, as in other northern viticultural climes, sunshine and ripening are a problem.
  • Then we move on to more letter V confusions. Scanning your liquor aisle shelves, you may come across a wine called Recioto della Valpolicella, and one called Amarone della Valpolicella. The first, recioto, is a wine made from Valpolicella's usual grapes after they have been dried to a concentrated sweetness first, producing a sweet wine;
  • -- the second, amarone, is that same recioto wine, this time fully fermented, thanks to the Valpolicella region's natural yeasts, to complete dryness (amarone means bitter -- see the article on the Veneto in Wine, by Andre Domine, 2003).


We should pause here and take note that in fact other wines can be made by the recioto method, the method of only pressing the grapes and making wine from them after they have dried -- off the vine -- to sweet raisins first. There can be "recioto" soaves and recioto proseccos. Recioto, according to Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible, comes from a colloquial Italian word meaning "ears," and refers to little side-bunches of grapes that can stick out like ears from a main bunch, capturing more sunlight for themselves and ripening more. They are used for recioto wines, or else the entire bunch is, if all of it is ripe enough. And throughout Italy, sweet wines are made from ripe, dried grapes, whether the bunches ever developed little "ears" or not. This method is called appassimento, and the generic term for the wines passito.



  • Shall we move on? There is yet another style of Valpolicella called ripasso, but it is difficult to track down because for some reason, Italian law forbids the word to be used on labels. A ripasso is a Valpolicella wine made and fermented as usual -- neither recioto nor amarone -- and then put in casks still holding the sludge of yeasts and grapeskins from a previous batch either of recioto or amarone. Two or three weeks' sitting on this sludge, the lees, gives what would have been that "light and fragrant" Valpolicella more complexity, tannins, and deeper color. Since you can't hunt your liquor store shelves for the word ripasso, the Herbsts of The New Wine Lover's Companion offer three producers of it, to begin with: "Boscaini's Le Canne, Masi's Campo Fiorin, and Santi's Castello." Be aware that the Companion was published in 1995 and again in 2003, so this information may not be as accurate as it was.


There. We've studied our Vs. When we venture west, to the Piedmont, we will study our Bs, even though we can't forget there's a B here in the Veneto, too (Bardolino). It's a place. Surely.

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