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!
At the height of their popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, Soave and Valpolicella were viewed as simply cheap and cheerful wines, a reputation founded on widely available ‘generic’ examples bought and sold on price alone and produced by the cooperatives and larger negoziante houses that dominated production at the time. Ironically this was also the period that saw the emergence of Pieropan and Quintarelli – today’s role models for the many smaller growers determined to set the record straight and present Soave and Valpolicella in a different light. An integral part of their strategy has been the focus on highlighting wines from the finest vineyards as a way of demonstrating the area’s true potential.
Pieropan’s Calvarino had its first bottling in 1971 and has gone on to redefine what Soave is all about. While much of today’s Soave favours the Garganega grape, Calvarino makes use of the maximum 30 per cent of Trebbiano di Soave the law allows in the blend and is fermented and aged in cement tanks only. Other unoaked styles of Soave which champion scintillating freshness and ‘purity’ also include Trebbiano di Soave – Coffele’s Ca Visco and Nardello’s Vigna Turbian – but a substantial number are pure varietals, such as Suavia’s Monte Carbonara, i Stefanini’s Monte Fico and Fornaro’s Capitel del Tenda. All use a period of extended lees contact for greater richness and substance, which partly explains one of their more surprising features, the fact that these wines are capable of not only lasting but even developing in bottle for a decade or more, when their beautifully defined fruit aromas and flavours take on preserved and candied notes without compromising that essential freshness and verve. Equally ageworthy are the more traditional wood-matured versions of Soave: before cement and then stainless steel was introduced into the area (less than one hundred years ago) the wines were routinely fermented in barrels. A few that maintain this tradition are rightly recognized as icons: Gini’s Salvarenza, Pieropan’s La Rocca and Inama’s two versions of Soave from vineyards on the renowned Foscarino hillside. On the whole botte is preferred to barrique these days. While all the above wines are produced in the Classico area, wonderful wood-aged Soave from the wider DOC area includes Roccolo Grassi’s La Broia or Corte Giacobbe’s Runcata (fermented and matured in acacia barrels).
A slightly longer tradition of single vineyard bottlings exists in Valpolicella (Masi for example record first bottling their ‘cru’ Amarone Camplongo di Torbe in 1958). Amarone aside, most of the single vineyard bottlings encountered on today’s market belong to the Superiore category. The highly flexible framework for production which stipulates little more than a minimum ageing period, a minimum alcohol content and lower yields than the vino d’annata style, allows winemakers free rein to express themselves. Some prefer to work with grapes that have undergone a shortened version of the appassimento process (Speri’s Monte Sant’Urbano, Mirko Sella’s Le Alene and the Cantina di Negrar’s Veriago are all made from 100 per cent semi-dried grapes), a mix of fresh and dried fruit (Masi’s Monte Piazzo) or entirely freshly-harvested, often later-picked grapes (Monte Dall’Ora’s Camporenzo or Corte Sant’Alda’s Mithas). Most spend at least 12 months in wood. Though this denomination is less familiar and much less widely available than either Vino d’Annata or Ripasso, some of the very finest red wines in the Veronese fall within this category. It has the added advantage of being much more of a food friendly wine than Amarone and can age beautifully. On the whole Superiore is a vastly more reliable wine than Ripasso, which is in grave danger of becoming as over-stretched as those cheap and cheerful wines from several decades ago, largely because of its recent runaway success. My tip: Valpolicella Superiore is the Veronese red to watch for the future! And on that bombshell …
Next time: Ripasso, Amarone and Recioto – wines derived from the appassimento process.
As many growers in the viticultural Veronese will tell you, it’s the wines made from freshly picked fruit that will tell you the most about the area’s unique growing conditions. So it’s time to turn aside from the appassimento frenzy for a moment and consider what’s been happening recently with good old Soave and Valpolicella. Remember them?
The news couldn’t be much better. The warmer summers of the last 20 or so years have led to a succession of early vintages when bringing in a fully-ripe crop of fruit has no longer been the worry it once was. Franco Allegrini for example argues that 2003 was the only vintage since the turn of the millennium in which a harvest did not achieve full phenolic ripeness. Soave and Valpolicella have been transformed as a result.
While a lot of simple Soave DOC is still a price-fighting line for many supermarkets, look a little further beyond these negoziante and co-operative sourced wines, and you’ll see growers like Marco Mosconi, Agostino Vicentini and Tenuta Sant’Antonio (all around Colognola ai Colli) producing delightfully drinkable examples with real style. Further over to the east around Ronca on the slopes of Monte Calvarina, the vineyards are sited on volcanic, basalt-based soils where a number of smaller houses – Franchetto, Corte Giacobbe, Corte Moschina, Sandro De Bruno, Fattori and Gianni Tessari – are forging a new sense of identity for the area with a series of impressively fresh, mineral-toned wines. Lying in between these two areas is Classico, where again, the wines have never been better. Widely available examples of the simple Classico DOC from the big guns – Ca Rugate, Gini, Inama, Pieropan, etc – are as reliable as ever, while some of the smaller, for now lesser-known, estates such as Coffele, Balestri Valda and Le Battistelle for example, are making wines of stunning purity and balance. Best of all is the fact that at this introductory level the wines are ridiculously underpriced for the quality they offer.
Valpolicella is also undergoing a serious makeover. The eastern part of the area (overlapping with Soave) is the source of some lovely, fresh, juicy reds brimming over with red cherry and hedgerow fruit flavours: Marco Mosconi’s Montecurto, Corte Sant’Alda’s Ca Fiui, Ca Rugate’s Rio Albo, Graziano Pra’s Morandina and Marion’s Borgo Marcellise are all fine examples. In Classico, famous names like Allegrini, Masi, Speri and Tedeschi, for example, make highly approachable versions of the simple Classico DOC which do not want for tipicita but here too newer styles are emerging which focus on conveying a real sense of place in an authentic and sometimes uncompromising manner. The Vaona family at Novaia in the Marano valley and Rubinelli Vajol in nearby San Pietro in Cariano are producing vini d’annata (the youthful wine from the most recent vintage) in a pale, aromatic, incisively fresh style which is brilliant with all manner of foods. Meanwhile examples from Villa Spinosa, Lorenzo and Cristoforo Aldrighetti or Secondo Marco (who gives his simple Classico a short period of ageing in botte) offer a fearless interpretation of the new tipicita in a more hardcore style. If a fuller, riper wine is more your thing, then look for the simple Classico from Accordini, Ca Nicolis or Begali. Uniting these varying approaches is a determination to uncover the subtle nuances that distinguish the different growing areas: Viva la differenza!
Next time: the ‘ageworthy and aspirational’ reds and whites of the two denominations
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at different styles of wine produced under the various Soave and Valpolicella denominations. But first, a little background in terms of geography, growing conditions and grape varieties to set the scene. The two areas overlap and are each divided into three distinct subareas. From the west Valpolicella Classico takes in five different communes between Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella and Negrar where, at the valley’s eastern edge, the simple Valpolicella DOC area begins. It surrounds the smaller area of Valpantena (which has its own DOC) and extends as far as Montecchia di Crosara, near the town of Soave. The valleys of Mezzane, Illasi and Tramigna are therefore ‘common ground’ as the Soave territory begins at Mezzane, extending eastwards as far as the ridge which separates the Val d’Alpone from the Val di Chiampo and the neighbouring province of Vicenza. It contains the Classico zone north of the twin towns of Soave itself and Monteforte d’Alpone and also includes the rarely seen DOC of Soave Colli Scaligeri – broadly speaking the hillier areas beyond Classico. The overall territory for Soave and Valpolicella lies just north of Verona, indeed some of the suburbs extend into the lower-lying Valpolicella vineyards.
The vineyards occupy the lower slopes of the ridges and valleys which fan out downwards from the high karst table of Lessinia to meet the northern bank of the river Adige as it runs through the city heading east. Most of the valleys are aligned from north to south, which creates near perfect growing conditions at altitudes between around 100 to 600 metres above sea level. Soils are mainly limestone- and clay-based though pockets of volcanic-based tufa are also found in Valpolicella. In Soave, the eastern boundary of the denomination is formed of a high ridge connecting several volcanic peaks (Calvarina, Crocetta and Duello): dark, basalt-based soils dominate as far as Soave Classico on the opposite slopes of the Val d’Alpone where both main soil types (limestone- and basalt-based) intermingle.
The training system is mainly the classic local pergola (around 80% of the vineyards in both areas). Once maligned as a source of over-production, pergola is currently undergoing a revival, largely owing to the effects of climate change. The overhanging leaf canopy serves to protect the ripening fruit from scorching in summer temperatures which have climbed ever higher over the last couple of decades. This has been accompanied by a more sensible approach towards containing yields; nonetheless some of the more influential personalities (such as Dal Forno in Valpolicella and Anselmi in Soave) continue to insist that Guyot produces better quality fruit.
Grape varieties are almost entirely local (and rarely seen elsewhere). In Valpolicella, Corvina is the most widely-planted and most-prized variety. Its aromas are subtle yet expansive – a mix of cherry and hedgerow fruits (blackberry, damson and sloe) with a telltale twist of black pepper; the palate is medium-bodied with brisk acid and light but fine tannins. Corvina-based wines show excellent ageing potential and remarkably fine balance – locals regard the variety as their Pinot Noir. Corvinone plays a lesser role and needs careful management to contain yields, and the right growing conditions (working best at higher altitudes) to arrive at good quality fruit. A more robust and tannic wine than Corvina, it has interesting tobacco- and herb-like aromas. Rondinella is more of a faithful retainer, reliably productive but rarely distinguished. The recent tendency to produce deeper-coloured and more structured wines, has seen the rise of rare local varieties like Oseleta, a grape with a notably low liquid to solid ratio (it’s all skin and pips) which nonetheless can add colour and plentiful tannins. Sadly though, its arrival has hastened the decline of Molinara which, though pale-coloured, produces wines with surprising fragrance and delightful, salty and minerally flavours.
In Soave Garganega dominates, covering almost 90 per cent of the vineyard area. Like Corvina the variety gives wines with a broad aromatic profile: floral-toned orchard fruits (apple, apricot and pear particularly) with notes of mandarin zest and preserved lemon. The palate has good, often zesty, acidity and is ripely textured with intriguing saline and mineral flavours. The other mainstay of Soave is Trebbiano di Soave (aka Verdicchio) and its presence at up to 30 per cent of the total can make a real difference. Some of the best examples include a relatively high proportion. e.g. Pieropan’s Calvarino where the variety’s steely acidity and zingy, green freshness really lifts the blend.
Coming up next week: I examine the ‘simpler’ styles of Soave and Valpolicella and recommend some of the finest examples.
When I migrated from New Zealand to Canada in the 1960s at the age of 19, both my country of departure and the one I arrived in had embryonic modern wine industries. Much New Zealand wine at that time was fortified, and much of what was not should have been. The same was true of Ontario, where I settled down. Both regions were heavily dependent on hybrid varieties: Müller-Thurgau and Baco Noir in New Zealand, Baco Noir, Maréchal Foch, and Vidal in Ontario – as well as Concord, a native grape that turned out to be brilliant for grape juice and jelly.
At 19, I had already been interested in wine for several years – thanks to a sympathetic wine merchant who agreed that having to wait until I was 21 to taste it was ridiculous. I tasted as widely as I could, and by the time I was 17 I had become the wine steward (now I would be called the sommelier, I suppose) in one of Auckland’s few licensed restaurants, Tiffany’s. I read the likes of André Simon on wine generally and Julian Jeffs on Sherry – and I’m very happy to join him as a Classic Wine Library author, 50 years later!
I also built a small private cellar of about 20 bottles, mainly Australian Shirazes and Cabernets (Australia was ahead in planting Vitis vinifera) and a few friends and I drank them all in the weeks before I left for Canada. We drank my two best bottles, Château La Tour Carnet 1953, with chicken and fries at another Auckland restaurant, Lutèce.
In Canada I began to drink more European wines because the range of imports was much greater than it had been in New Zealand. I did discover a few drinkable Canadian wines made from Baco Noir and Maréchal Foch, but the Canadian offerings in the 1960s were very dreary. Later, during the 1980s, I lived in the Niagara Peninsula – then and still Canada’s largest viticultural region. This was a period of rapid change because in the 1970s hybrid varieties had begun to give way to Vitis vinifera and licences were finally being issued to new wineries – none had been issued between 1927 and 1975.
If a week is a long time in politics, a decade can be a short time in the wine business, and in the 1990s Canadian wine really began to perk up. By 2000 some of British Columbia’s and Ontario’s best-known wineries had been founded, and in the few years since then they have been joined by hundreds more. It’s not just that the number of producers in Canada has burgeoned – more than three-quarters of the wineries have opened since 2000 – but that the quality has risen exponentially.
Canada now produces a wide range of fine wines. Many styles are made throughout the country, but there are some noteworthy concentrations: robust reds from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, cool-climate whites and reds in Ontario, edgy whites in Quebec, and sparkling wines in Nova Scotia. Icewine, the early standard-bearer of Canadian wine, has been pushed aside by quality table wines, but its export sales are more than robust. Canadian wines run the gamut from conventional, through organic, to biodynamic and low-intervention.
Still, Canada’s wine production is well under one per cent of the world’s, and that’s in a good year in Canada. A handful of the 700-or-so wineries export their table wines to Europe, Asia, and Europe, and they tend to be small-production and high-quality wines that are to be found on the lists of high-end restaurants, not on supermarket shelves. Production is so small that that’s not likely to change soon.
I’m fortunate to have lived through a significant phase of the evolution of Canada’s wine industry, from the awful stuff being made in the 1960s to the fine wines produced by many Canadian wineries today. In The Wines of Canada I’ve provided a historical overview that captures some of this story. But the bulk of the book deals with Canadian wine today, in general terms and within the important regions: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic Provinces.
At the same time, this is a critical book. The Canadian wine industry has its blemishes: there’s no national wine law, labelling can be confusing, and there’s a persistent failure to deal properly with blends of foreign and Canadian wines. So The Wines of Canada is not just another celebration of a wine region. It highlights the achievements, discusses the challenges, and points to areas in need of improvement.
The achievements are many and solid, and one of the reasons I wrote The Wines of Canada is to help get the word out that Canadian wines have arrived. Of course there’s a wide range of quality, as there is everywhere, but a little research will lead you to astonishing whites made from Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and other varieties, and fine wines from varieties such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Merlot. Nor should hybrids be discounted: look for a few stellar wines from Baco Noir and some terrific sparkling wines made from hybrid varieties. And there are more and more exciting rosés.
If you have trouble finding much Canadian wine where you live, come to Canada and visit the wine regions. Almost all the wineries are so recent that they were built with wine tourism in mind. You’ll find well-marked wine routes that lead you to tasting rooms, wine shops, and winery tours.
Reading is an excellent start. Tasting is the next step
The wines of Canada was published on 21 September 2017, priced £30, available from your favourite book shop. Or click here to buy your copy today.
Glancing behind me as I write this, at shelves loaded with wine books, I can count perhaps a dozen Classic Wine Library titles, from the black-spined Faber & Faber editions, through the less soberly jacketed Mitchell Beazley versions to the elegantly presented and up-to-date publications from Infinite Ideas. I am not sure when I bought my first one, or which it was, probably Julian Jeffs’ Sherry or Anthony Hanson’s Côte d’Or, but I am certain that without the Classic Wine Library my journey of discovery through the world of wine, from keen consumer to Wine Editor of Ireland’s Food & Wine Magazine, would have been more challenging and certainly less enjoyable. The library has been a go-to reference point for longer than I can remember.
I always regarded the Classic Wine Library like a club – not exclusive but inclusive – led by authoritative and informative writers whose knowledge and enthusiasm for their subject shone through on every page. Thus it was with great excitement that I joined the club over a year ago, commissioned to write about the wine region closest to my heart – Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. The excitement was not so great as to blind me to the challenge ahead – the labyrinthine complexity of its nomenclature alone intimidates the neophyte – but I could also call on one asset beyond value. A little over 10 years ago my wife and I were fortunate to buy a house in the Côte d’Or and since then we have visited the region dozens of times. Thus I was able to explore at leisure, chasing up the back roads, discovering unexpected delights, as well as more formally, packing in scores of visits to winemakers, from the biggest négociants to the smallest domaines.
I never – ever – tire of the Côte d’Or and I believe it is now at one of the most exciting periods in its history. That history has seen it stamped by innumerable forces, two of which – the French Revolution and the scourge of phylloxera – are largely responsible for its shape today. And perhaps now, as the memory of their trauma fades, the côte is slipping into the grip of another pair: climate change and the extraordinary surge in the prices paid for mere scraps of prestigious vineyard land. How these will shape the côte in the decades to come is still a matter for speculation, but they make every visit challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
Notwithstanding the undeniable influence of these forces, at a micro level the Côte d’Or is probably producing more high quality wine today than at any point in its history and hence it rewards repeated exploration. There is always something new to be seen, to discover, change is ever present – and this in a region that appears unchanging to the casual observer. In Côte d’Or: The wines and winemakers of the heart of Burgundy, I hope I have managed to present an early twenty-first century snapshot of an era that future historians may well come to label as a golden age – for what I consider to be the world’s greatest wine region.
Côte d’Or is published on 8 September 2017, priced £30, available from your favourite book shop. Or click here to buy your copy today.