All things appassimento
The history of producing wine via what the Veronesi refer to as the appassimento process (drying the fruit for several months prior to vinification) dates back to Roman times. Until as recently as the Second World War however, that wine was known as Recioto della Valpolicella (or Soave) and invariably sweet! There is some evidence to suggest that experiments with drier styles have been carried out since the latter half of the nineteenth century, but Amarone was pretty much unheard of before the 1950s. Indeed until 1990 and the arrival of its own DOC, the wine was still referred to as Recioto Amarone della Valpolicella and considered in some quarters as an unwelcome aberration! It’s a similar story with Ripasso. Nowadays the term refers mainly to a wine which has been refermented on the lees of a recently racked Amarone; traditionally Recioto lees (much richer in sugars) were used to boost the substance and structure of wines made from freshly picked grapes which were then sold on locally as ‘half’ or ‘second’ Recioto.
Ripasso has only been recognized under DOC legislation for the last ten years (and was granted its own DOC as recently as 2010). Nowadays, such has been its stellar rise to fame, four out of ten bottles of red wine produced under the various DOC(G) disciplines of the Valpolicella region are labelled Ripasso. Given this astonishing commercial success, buying good Ripasso is quite a minefield; with everyone chasing a slice of the pie, quality can be very uneven. For a taste of the ‘original’ style, a diehard few (Monte Delora’s Sausto or Recchia’s Le Muraie, for example) still use Recioto lees, otherwise the safest bet is generally to go for a wine which has undergone a relatively short refermentation (e.g. Ca La Bionda’s Malavoglia or Speri) where the fruit wins out. Stefano Accordini, Begali, Guerrieri Rizzardi and the Cantina di Negrar are also very reliable. Wines that spend longer (two weeks and more) in contact with the lees often run the risk of drying out, and can start to taste raisiny and volatile.
Amarone too has come a long way in a short time. Many of the well-established houses, Allegrini, Bertani, Masi, Speri and Tedeschi produce textbook examples. Other names worth watching among the many smaller houses newer to the bottled wine scene, are La Brigaldara, Rubinelli Vajol, Le Salette, Scriani, Secondo Marco, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Terre di Leone, Venturini, Viviani and Zyme. Just recently I’ve been really impressed with the Villa Spinosa wines too – they have a notably authentic and distinctive character. Many of these firms produce a number of different cuvées: Masi for example make a number of single vineyard wines, which is a great opportunity to look at the individual characteristics that different sets of growing conditions give rise to. Cantina di Negrar’s Espressioni range of Amarone from each of the five individual communes of the Classico area is maybe the very best way of getting to grips with this fascinating subject: every wine is vinified in precisely the same way by the same winemaker. It really is the vineyard site that makes the difference therefore!
Though produced in much smaller quantities these days, the Recioto wines are more than just curiosities. Virtually every winery keeps the tradition alive even though sweet red wines might be difficult to sell. A slightly drier style known as Amandorlato (‘almond-like’) is worth hunting for – Masi and Le Ragose produce excellent examples (when conditions permit). However, Recioto di Soave is the wine that too often passes under the radar these days. It can be utterly delicious, and isn’t a sweet white wine so much easier to get your head around as well? Fruit is often exposed to the effect of noble rot during appassimento so there’s a unique ‘double concentration’ going on which means that the wines can have extraordinary depth of aroma and flavour. Again, these are not easy to find but worth seeking out: great examples are produced by Coffele, Gini, La Suavia and Nardello. I like the Pieropan version too (Le Colombare) which has more of a bittersweet character. A glass of passito wine is such a great way to round off a meal!