Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Sipping Valpolicella: a tasteful experience

After three days of feasting, sightseeing and navigating the waterways of Venice, my crew of intrepid wineaux (e.g. the plural of wino) set off for the Veneto in our rented Auto Europe Van. Though our stomachs were distended, our spirits were hungry for more.

It is only an hour and a half along the A-4 autostrada to our first stop of the day in the tiny village of Fumane di Valpolicella where we were to spend an interesting half-day with the folks from Allegrini.

I have written about my affection for Pallazo Della Torre - one of Allegrini’s Valpolicella red wines that is made in the ripasso method. Valpolicella is made from corvina, rondinalla and molinara grapes, all of which produce light to medium-bodied red wines that can be very pleasant quaffs.

Valpolicella becomes something more, though, when the grapes are planted in select vineyard sites and when a process called ripasso is employed during wine making. First though, it is necessary to tell you about Amarone which is like ripasso’s bigger brother.

Amarone is produced from the same Valpolicella blend, but instead of taking the grapes from the vineyard to the crusher, the little buggers are put in buildings and on trays and allowed to shrivel up and dry out like raisins. This exercise increases the sugar content so that the resulting wine is a powerful, dark and very alcoholic brute that is then aged in wood for a couple of years before it is bottled.

[caption id="attachment_952" align="alignleft" width="300"] La Grola Vineyard in Valpolicella

To make a ripasso, new Valpolicella wine is refermented by combining it with the pressings or pomace from the Amarone, and sometimes with the addition of dried grapes. The resulting ripasso wine is considerably darker and fuller bodied than Valpolicella, but not as powerful as Amarone. The well-respected Valpolicella producer Masi invented the ripasso process in the early 1960’s.

So I was excited to be at Allegrini where my favorite ripasso (Pallazo Della Torre) is produced. However, after visiting the vineyards and tasting through the entire Allegrini portfolio as well as sampling the vinous wares of many other producers, I had an epiphany: Valpolicella is one of the most underrated wine appellations not only in Italy, but in the world.

I know that is a pretty bold statement and certainly will elicit some scorn from those who view the Veneto as a second tier appellation, but the proof is in the palate and mine was blown away by the quality and diversity of the wines – both red and white. But back to my visit at Allegrini.

The patriarch of the clan – the late Giovanni Allegrini – was among the most influential voices in the emergence of Valpolicella as a premium appellation. Much to the chagrin of the majority of producers back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, he began to employ viticultural practices such as limiting the quantity of production, planting on hillsides and planting the proper varietals on specific vineyard sites. Until that time, producers were content with planting in the valleys and getting the maximum production to market where quantity counted more than quality.

We visited one of Allegrini’s single vineyard sites La Grola situated on a hillside overlooking the Valpolicella plain. La Grola is planted to corvina which is known to be the best red grape of the Valpolicella region. Later, we tasted the entire Allegrini portfolio at the actual medieval palace – Pallazo Della Torre.

[caption id="attachment_955" align="alignleft" width="300"] Allegrini's Pallazo Della Torre

This incredible pallazo, constructed in the 1300’s, is a treasure trove of antiquity and has some pretty startling stone work, including fireplaces constructed to look like lions and other beasts. Our tasting room had one of those fireplaces and I couldn’t help but think how scary they must have been to the kids living in the place way back then.

While we tasted several excellent white wines, the stars were the red wines. Prices range from a low of about $12 for the Valpolicella Classico and $22 for the Pallazo Della Torre to up to $80 for the single vineyard La Poja and around $40 to $50 for the Amarone wines. Most are blends of the Valpolicella varietals with La Poja made entirely with corvina and planted in the La Grola vineyard.

Valpolicella Classico – Deliciously fruity light to medium bodied wine that would be excellent with antipasti or grilled Italian sausage.

Palazzo Della Torre – medium to full-bodied – almost zinfandel like- with black cherry and toasty oak flavors. This would be hit with double-cut, pork chops stuffed with herbed goat cheese, pan-seared and oven baked with a soy-honey glaze.

La Grola   – Full-bodied and long-lived, this wine demonstrates that Valpolicella can be a serious wine. Ripe and rich with blackberry and cola flavors, this would pair nicely with a grilled bone-in ribeye.

La Poja – Slightly more elegant than the La Grola, the La Poja is a 100% corvina that is aged in new French oak for more than 20 months. It has licorice and plum flavors and is one you will want to lay down for a few years. Try this with a butterflied veal chop that has been marinated in red wine, garlic and rosemary.

Villa Giona - A blend of cabernet sauvignon 50%, Merlot 40%, Syrah 10%, this wine shows how well Bordeaux varietals take to the soils of Valpolicella. Aged for about 18 months in French oak, Villa Giona has aromas of tea and leather and flavors of ripe cherries. Marry it with oven roasted pork tenderloin that has been rubbed with kosher salt, coarse black pepper and fennel seeds.

[caption id="attachment_954" align="alignleft" width="225"] Fireplace lion at Pallazo Della Torre

Amarone – Ripe, but not overripe, this Amarone is full of sweet and sour cherry flavors. Very intense, but not raisiny as some Amarone’s can be, this wine would be a lovely accompaniment to a sweet (dolce) gorgonzola with roasted walnuts. Great by a roaring fire around a campsite or at the fireplace during winter.
Gallo: Still tasty after all these years
The wines of Northern Italy