Valpolicella seems to have fallen off the face of the earth.
Not literally, of course. The vines are still growing there in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy, and the bottles are still being filled and shipped. Yet this once ubiquitous wine now seems kind of absent.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, even American children knew of Valpolicella.
Commercials for one of the biggest brands, Bolla, played regularly on radio and television, and the euphony of the phrase was as catchy as Orson Welles declaring that Paul Masson would sell no wine before its time.
Well, you don’t see much interest in Paul Masson, either, nowadays. And come to think of it, TV commercials for wine are pretty rare, too. But the shifting marketing strategies of big brands are less interesting to me than what has become of Valpolicella.
The answer is staring at anyone who happens to be looking at a high-end Italian wine list. It is Amarone, more formally known as Amarone della Valpolicella, a wine that has become wildly popular since the 1980s.
Both wines originate in the same region of the Veneto, north of Verona, and are made from the same grapes: primarily corvina, with some rondinella and corvinone. Molinara and a few other grapes are also permitted in smaller quantities.
The production of Amarone, as is evident by the formal name, is interwoven with Valpolicella. Traditionally, a small percentage of grapes in the region are dried after harvest until they became sweet and concentrated. They are then fermented into a sweet wine, Recioto della Valpolicella. The concentration of sugar in the dried grapes produces high alcohol levels in which yeast cannot survive — generally dying before fermentation is complete — leaving a sweet, unctuous wine.
Occasionally, though, the Recioto ferments until it is dry. This is Amarone, a powerful wine with alcohol levels that can surpass 16 percent. Even though it is considered dry, it can leave a profoundly sweet impression.
The popularity of Amarone has been widely documented. At Italian seafood temples like Marea in Midtown Manhattan, you can see diners relishing this heavy red wine with ethereal raw-fish dishes. To each their own, I suppose.
The powerful wake of Amarone has given rise to a new style of Valpolicella, known as Ripasso. Valpolicella itself tends to be light- to medium-bodied wine, fragrant but not opulent. The popularity of Amarone led to efforts to add muscle to Valpolicella, by employing Amarone-like techniques to its production.
In order to make Ripasso, grape skins left over from Amarone production or dried grapes are added to Valpolicella. The resulting maceration adds body, tannins, alcohol and intensity to the wine.
With the natural inclination to assume that more is better, it is tempting to think that Valpolicella Ripasso, with more flavor, intensity and body, is better than ordinary Valpolicella. Many people feel that way, and Ripassos can be fine wines. But I have always preferred the freshness and easy drinkability of plain old Valpolicella, which, like Beaujolais, has historically been a wine you could knock back without fear of heaviness, headache or hangover.
Nonetheless, the popularity of Ripasso has made itself felt. In the last 10 years, production of ordinary Valpolicella has declined to 18 million bottles a year, from 41 million, according to the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella, a trade association.
“Nowadays, the trend is to use most of the vintage Valpolicella to produce Ripasso,” Olga Bussinello, director of the consortium, wrote in an email.
Keeping all this in mind, the wine panel recently tasted 20 bottles of Valpolicella from recent vintages. Our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch, did his best to select only ordinary Valpolicellas for the tasting, but it’s not always easy to differentiate Valpolicella from Valpolicella Ripasso. The wine now has its own official designation, Ripasso della Valpolicella, but it is not always used.
For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Justin Timsit, who just recently left his post as wine director at Gramercy Tavern. Our second guest called in sick at the last minute. So, though we prefer a foursome, we tackled this tasting as a trio.
For our part, we all thought Bernie did pretty well in his selections. Of the 20 bottles, only one stood out as not a classic Valpolicella. This bottle, the 2012 Bussola Classico Superiore TB, was syrupy and 15.5 percent alcohol, as against the others, which ranged from 11.5 to 13.5 percent, more Amarone than Ripasso. Otherwise, we were impressed. As the production of these ordinary Valpolicellas has declined, the quality has risen.
“That’s a wine that takes me to that place,” Justin said, speaking of the Veneto region. “I appreciated their freshness and energy.”
Some of the wines seemed modern and highly polished, which made them less distinctive. But the best were quintessential Italian reds, balancing the flavors of sweet cherry fruit with a tart, earthy quality and a welcome bitterness that refreshed. These wines seemed light, almost delicate, yet they had a linear intensity, offering a progression of evolving sensations from first taste through last impression that lingered well after swallowing.
Those that we did not like so well seemed tarted up, not with the flavors of new oak barrels — as is so often the case in historic wine regions — but with richness, Ripasso-style, that thickened the texture. The lightness and linearity were lost. The richness seemed shapeless, arriving but not progressing.
Our all-around favorite was the 2016 Valpolicella Rio Albo from Ca’ Rugate, which was both sweet and savory, with depth, length and complexity. At $16, it was also our best value. Seven of our top 10, in fact, were under $20, indicating that the many Valpolicellas are good values.
The Ca’ Rugate was a simple Valpolicella rather than a Valpolicella Classico, a geographical indication. The Classicos come from the heart of the historic Valpolicella region, which is generally considered to have better potential than simple Valpolicella, which usually comes from areas into which the appellation expanded in the mid-20th century. That may be so, but five of our top 10 were simple Valpolicellas, which suggests that conscientious farming and careful production may currently be more important than location.
Our No. 3 wine, too, was a simple Valpolicella, the savory, floral 2015 Ca’ Fiui from Corte Sant’Alda, as was No. 7, the earthy, agile 2015 Acinum.
Our No. 2 bottle, the spicy, lively 2016 Il Buono from Le Albare, was a Valpolicella Classico. So was No. 4, the textbook sweet and bitter 2015 Secondo Marco and No. 6, the juicy 2013 Saseti from Monte Dall’Ora. And our No. 5 bottle, the smoky, spicy 2014 Marchesi Fumanelli, was a Valpolicella Classico Superiore, a category that must meet an aging requirement of at least one year.
What is the future of this easygoing wine? It’s hard to say. If you see any Valpolicellas on good Italian wine lists these days, they tend to be either Ripassos or very expensive wines from cult producers like Romano Dal Forno or Giuseppe Quintarelli. Wines like the bottles we tasted are rare in restaurants, though they are still on retail shelves.
The Valpolicella consortium acknowledges that Ripasso is the driving force in sales from this region of the Veneto. But trade association officials say they are taking steps to preserve what they call ordinary Valpolicella. By 2018, producers will be limited to making twice as much Ripasso as they make Amarone, and they will only be able to use Valpolicella Superiore wines. This, they hope, will ensure that some grapes are left over for Valpolicella as it has always been.
★★★ CA’ RUGATE VALPOLICELLA RIO ALBO 2016 $16
Deep, long, complex and savory, with flavors of tart cherry and earth. (Massanois, New York)
★★½ LE ALBARE VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO IL BUONO 2016 $15
Fruity, round and spicy, with lively acidity and staying power. (Summit Selections, Staten Island, N.Y.)
★★½ CORTE SANT’ALDA VALPOLICELLA CA’ FIUI 2015 $21
Peppery and floral, with savory flavors and a welcome bitter touch. (PortoVino, Buffalo)
★★½ SECONDO MARCO VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO 2015 $18
Rich yet tart, with a textbook combination of sweet and bitter flavors. (Winebow/Leonardo LoCascio Selections, New York)
★★½ MARCHESI FUMANELLI VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO SUPERIORE 2014 $25
Subtle yet lively, with smoky, spicy flavors of tart cherries and licorice. (Pasternak Wines, Harrison, N.Y.)
★★½ MONTE DALL’ORA VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO SASETI 2013 $30
Soft and juicy, with savory flavors of red fruits. (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York)
★★ ACINUM VALPOLICELLA 2015 $15
Lithe, agile and balanced, with simple but pleasing flavors of earthy red fruits. (Vias Imports, New York)
★★ TEDESCHI VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO LUCCHINE 2015 $15
Straightforward yet lively, with flavors of tart, savory red fruits. (Dreyfus, Ashby & Co., New York)
★★ ZENI VALPOLICELLA 2015 $13
Spicy and peppery, with flavors of red fruits and licorice. (Monsieur Touton Selection, New York)
★★ BRIGALDARA VALPOLICELLA 2015 $15
Earthy, meaty and rustic, with rich flavors of bright red fruits. (Vinifera Imports, Ronkonkoma, N.Y.)
What the Stars Mean Ratings, up to four stars, reflect the panel’s reaction to the wines, which were tasted with names and vintages concealed. The wines represent a selection generally available in good retail shops and restaurants and on the internet. Prices are those paid in the New York region. Tasting coordinator: Bernard Kirsch
Recipe Pairing: Striped Bass with Fresh Figs
Without getting Proustian about this, there are dishes that persist. Late last fall, the main course at a pinot noir dinner at Bar Boulud, one of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants, was striped bass with fresh figs. A showstopper, the whole wild striped bass was swaddled in fresh fig leaves and stuffed with fresh black figs in a red-wine sauce. Not only was it unusual — I had never had fish with fresh figs before — but it was delectable. The brooding sauce bathed the velvet figs, and the earthy depth of the sauce made the already succulent fish a fine partner for some priceless bottles of red. For the Valpolicella pairing, I did not tackle a whole 10-pound fish, nor did I have the fig leaves. I winged it without a written recipe, and assembled a close copy that made an excellent match to those Valpolicellas. FLORENCE FABRICANT
Follow NYT Food on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.