If wine didn’t flummox us from time to time, what would we have to look forward to? I found myself embracing this rhetorical question recently as I dived back into the wines of Valpolicella. Fully expecting to find easy answers for why certain things happen in the glass, I came up empty.
Sometimes it seems like a life in wine is just a mystery novel without an end: the big payoff sometimes never arrives. In the case of Amarone and his little brothers, the payoff I expected as I tasted through four notable producers was consistency, or a “house style.” But just as often as I got a glimpse of this, I also tasted irregularities that I couldn’t explain, most often in the Ripasso category. Let’s not confuse irregularities with flaws: none of these wines were flawed, but they did occasionally stray from the script.
The Complex Universe of Valpolicella
The “Valley of Many Cellars” is actually a series of valleys and hills that stretch north of Verona. Because of this varied landscape, and the highly crafted wines that it inspires, triangulating all of the factors that lead to what Valpolicella shows in the glass is exceedingly difficult.
First, there is the terrain and its intimate relationship with the weather. Valpolicella resides at a climatic pinch-point. Facing south over the massive Po River plain, the hills and plains of this appellation are swaddled in the warm, humid air that settles in from the Adriatic Sea. To the north the Alps fence-off the colder air currents of Northern Europe.
On a smaller scale, colliding forces from nearby Lake Garda (again, warm humid air) and Monti Lessini (cool air that descends at night) foster a complex network of microclimates that makes each undulation of the Valpolicella landscape unique. The historic heart of the region, Valpolicella Classica, occupies the hills closer to Lake Garda, where the massive body of water carries a more profound influence. In the Illasi Valley, furtherest to the east, the impact is minimal.
It is in part because of these microclimates that the region is known not for one grape, but many. Corvina plays a dominant role because it is so conducive to air drying (more on that later), but Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara are grown here as well and utilized for the region’s famous blended red wines. By law, that blend is 45-95% Corvina or Corvinone plus 30% Rondinella plus up to 25% auxiliary grapes (a big group ranging from obscure Oseleta to better-known Sangiovese).
That alone makes mapping out Valpolicella’s various expressions significantly harder than, say, a single-vineyard varietal wine.
If tracking the variables in the vineyard is like chasing your tail (and I didn’t even get to the variety of vine-training systems employed here!), than understanding them in the winery will have you tripping over your feet. That’s because the differences across the three main dry red wines — Valpolicella, Valpolicella Ripasso and Amarone della Valpolicella — is vinification technique, specifically air drying of the grapes.
Valpolicella is the most transparent wine because it doesn’t rely on air-drying at all. It is just a blended red, and a light one at that. Amarone relies entirely on the appassimento process. Ripasso, the middle child, is the former “passed through” the pomace of the latter. How long the wine sits on the skins and seeds of the crushed, air-dryed grapes, plus how much Amarone is blended back in (up to 15% is allowed) … (sigh). Another variable.
As I saw when I visited the region last in 2018, how a producer chooses to air dry their grapes can vary from extreme control with robotic fans desiccating the grapes, to simply allowing the early winter breeze to pass over them in hillside lofts. From there, more variables: fermentation process, oak regime, duration of aging …
Regardless of which techniques are employed, these are undoubtedly some of the world’s most hands-on wines: they do not make themselves. In fact, they have fingerprints all over them. Perhaps that is why, in this Age of Terroir Obsession, Valpolicella is increasingly overlooked by wine’s loudest voices. If minimal intervention is your dogmatic virtue, you’ll see sin everywhere in the wineries of Valpolicella.
Personally, I do not share that standpoint. I find this place fascinating and I respect the through line of tradition that has passed over these hills for two millennia. But it can be a frustrating place to love as well. When it comes down to it, I had to back away and ask myself are these wines even enjoyable to drink? In the end, that is all that matters. But again, the answers I got to that question were as all-over-the-place as the terroir and techniques of Valpolicella.
Valpolicella Superiore: 2016 Secondo Marco Valpolicella Superiore (★★★★ 1/2)
Valpolicella Ripasso: 2016 Zenato “Ripassa” Valpolicella Ripasso (★★★★ 3/4)
Amarone della Valpolicella: 2011 Secondo Marco Amarone della Valpolicella (★★★★ 3/4) … although, in fairness, it was an older vintage. Zenato and Tomassi’s Amarone may be on equal footing with time.
Multi-generational wine families are a marvel to behold. In Valpolicella, the Speri family is one of Amarone’s lynchpins, thanks to the work Benedetto Speri performed at Bertani (one of the first estates to make a name for Amarone) then with his own eponymous estate. His son followed in his footsteps by learning under his tutelage, and then moving off in his own direction, with his Fumane-based winery, Secondo Marco.
Tasting through their lineup of wines was illuminating. I was reminded a bit of my favorite Valpolicella producer, Buglioni, because of the acidity-driven profile of their wines. As a lineup, they seem more conducive to the dinner table than many Valpolicella producers, who tend to rev their engines even when it is uncalled for.
I found their 2016 Valpolicella Superiore (★★★★ 1/2) to be refreshing and mineral, with its suggestions of cherry, cocoa and bell pepper conjuring similarities to Cabernet Franc. Surprisingly, the 2014 Valpolicella Ripasso (★★★★ 1/4) was less complex, seemingly displaying one of the lightest and leanest profiles I’ve tasted in the category. But where Secondo Marco shines most is with the 2011 Amarone della Valpolicella (★★★★ 3/4), which offers a robust, refined take with strong aromas recalling dried cherries, espresso, rose, cinnamon and black pepper. It walks the balance beam well, offering a powerful intensity that is neither forceful nor overbearing.
Tommasi is one of Valpolicella’s biggest names, with a longer Amarone history than many. Over time, the family has built a wine empire across Italy with additional estates under different names in Tuscany, Lombardy, Puglia and Basilicata. But don’t confuse this ambition with modernism, for in Valpolicella, the winemaking is still quite traditional, with the grapes for Amarone dried in a fruttaio room and the wine aged in large casks where the thumbprints of oak will be minimal.
Often times, “traditional” red wines in Italy need more time to come around, and I felt that was the case with two of the three Tommasi wines I sampled. The 2016 Tommasi Valpolicella Ripasso (★★★★ 1/4) possessed surprising ambition: this is not a middle-of-the-road option in the lineup, but rather a boxer that aspires to bulk up for the weigh-in. It’s tannins still need time to integrate for it to show its best. The same can certainly be said for the 2015 Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella (★★★★ 1/2), whose beastly tannins roar to life on the palate. They will mellow with time, and when they do, you’ll get a better sense for the wonderful tones that recall dried cherries, mocha, smoked meat and madras curry. I would suggest you bust out the decanter (or a pitcher) to let this vintage breathe if you open it in the next few years.
Going backwards in the lineup, the 2018 Tommasi “Rafaèl” Valpolicella (★★★★ 1/4) is a pleasantly low-alcohol ambassador of the entry-level category, with nice peppery inflections over cherry-like fruit.
Tenuta Sant’Antonio is perhaps best known as “the other Illasi Valley producer” of Valpolicella, residing in the long shadows cast by the maniacally perfect Dal Forno Romano. Those Dal Forno Romano wines — which may as well be made from unobtainium given their price — bear little similarity to Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s open-to-interpretation reds. I have been familiar with their wines for some time, and this go around, it was the entry-level 2018 Tenuta Sant’Antonio “Nanfrè” Valpolicella (★★★★ 1/4) that caught my attention most. Not because it was a superior wine, but because it was the most unexpected and surprising. The peppercorn tones, mixed with a seductive suggestion of violets, made this wine cozy up to the side of me that adores Cabernet Franc. For a simple sipper, it is a delight.
Conversely, the 2017 vintage of the Tenuta Sant’Antonio “Monti Garbi” Valpolicella Ripasso (★★★★) failed to grab me. This is usually a very good wine, but in this vintage, I was struck by some inconsistency, such as the woody tannins, which lent the wine a shrill voice. The wine’s robust frame and ample meatiness remain, but this vintage is a bit out of balance. Finally, the 2015 Tenuta Sant’Antonio “Antonio Castagnedi” Amarone della Valpolicella (★★★★ 1/4) rounds out the lineup with one of the densest and most lavish interpretations of Amarone that I’ve had in recent memories. Assertive and brawny, it effectively conveys Amarone’s unique texture while offering ample dried-fruit character.
Long ago, my first taste of Valpolicella Ripasso was Zenato’s “Ripassa,” which I would later learn is among the most respected versions of the technique in Italian wine circles. A consistently reliable producer, Zenato is one of Italy’s best wineries for an introduction to Italian wine. New World drinkers find the fruit-forward profile they are used to, while learning about Veneto’s crazy indigenous varieties and even crazier winemaking techniques.
Zenato’s Valpolicella Superiore (★★★★ 1/4) has long been an easy-to-find, go-to wine for pizza and simple weeknight meals. It does not disappoint. But it is the “Ripassa” that remains the star, in my opinion, an easy-to-understand, well-priced wine that gets its hooks in you and won’t let go. The 2016 Zenato “Ripassa” Valpolicella Ripasso (★★★★ 3/4) is sultry enough to convert any Cabernet Sauvignon drinker to this category of wine. It’s depths and darkness on the nose suggest blackberries, while a piquant note simultaneously recalls red currant. Floral and cocoa aromatics complement it, too, and on the palate, the full-bodied wine is juicy and mineral with restrained but effective tannins. Meanwhile, the 2015 Zenato Amarone della Valpolicella (★★★★ 1/2) shows how even high-alcohol wines (a staggering 16.5%!) can still be balanced with careful winemaking. This was something I wish I saw more in our recent Châteauneuf-du-Pape tasting, where so many wines with runaway alcohol lacked definition. Not here. The aromas are currently very compact and need time in the cellar to tease out: a sharpness akin to dried figs, a depth akin to blueberries, with a dazzling bouquet of blue flowers and a bitter nuttiness suggesting walnuts. I got the feeling this wine has more to show us in another five years. Or perhaps 10.
Note: Wines for this article were provided by the wineries’ importers — Winebow, Vintus, Dalla Terra and Winebow (again) — upon a specific story pitch. Learn more about our editorial policy.
Captions: (Top) The rolling lower slopes of Monti Lessini foster the unique microclimates that have made Valpolicella such a renowned and diverse wine region. (First) Valpolicella in winter, when the cold air dissects grapes set aside for Amarone della Valpolicella production; stock photo. (Second) Corvina grapes being air-dried for Amarone della Valpolicella production; stock photo. (Third) Valpolicella vineyards at harvest time; stock photo. (Last) Grapes drying for Amarone della Valpolicella. ©Tommasi/Vintus Imports. All bottle shots by ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle