The bright side of planet Valpolicella

The red wines of Valpolicella, Italy, are very diverse. From very light to more dense and even big and bold, not to forget sweet, Valpolicella has something to offer to almost every palate. And yet, when quality is considered, most people turn to Amarone della Valpolicella, the famous wines made of partly dried grapes, and to Valpolicella Ripasso, often called “baby Amarone”, made of “basic” Valpolicella and then put on the lees of the Amarone in order to give more body and concentration. The production of Ripasso has exceeded the production of normal Valpolicella already by 50%. And that while Ripasso only got formal DOC recognition 10 years ago.

It is easy to understand why : these big and bold wines, especially the Amarones, boast high alcohol levels, full body, and sturdy tannins and have a slightly sweet undertone. This is a style that appears to be very popular in Asia, and despite signs that the market there may be slowing down somewhat, the global demand for Amarone and Ripasso keeps going strong, boosting the production, and consequently, the planting of new vineyards. According to data of the Consorzio Valpolicella, the number of hectares in Valpolicella has been rising ever since 1997 from 4902 ha to 7596 ha in 2015.

The popularity of Amarone and Ripasso has cast a shadow on the lighter Valpolicellas in a way that enthusiasts of elegant, fresh and juicy wines rarely consider Valpolicella. The reputation that some may still know of Valpolicella as a cheap pizza wine does not particularly help either. That is why this article is a hommage to those unashamedly light and juicy Valpolicellas and the more concentrated and even complex Valpolicellas Superiore that would surprise many, if given a chance. That other side of planet Valpolicella is translucent red and totally worth being explored.

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The bright side of planet Valpolicella

Valpolicella (Classico)

“Basic” Valpolicella (Classico if made in the Classico heartland) could hardly be more different than Amarone. It boasts fragrant, fresh red fruit, redcurrant, strawberries, cherries, and often has a slight herbaceous touch as well as a bit of pepper here and there. These wines are the epitome of Spring and Summer. The freshly cut red fruit of a Valpolicella deserves a slight chill to emphasize the vibrant acidity, as it is the main element to give texture. Tannins rarely make a meaningful appearance here.

Valpolicella sometimes gets cited amongst wines that are compared to Pinot Noir. That comparison probably stems from the fact that Valpolicella is light, tranparent, fresh and boasts red fruit. Despite those similarities there are very few of the list of wines below that actually echo Burgundian Pinot Noir. If a comparison is needed, Beaujolais is a more apt one. While comparisons with Pinot Noir are well intentioned, they also create expectations that Valpolicella cannot and should not live up to. If Pinot Noir is about complex layers of aromas, depth and length, then Valpolicella is all about delving right into it and indulging in the fresh fruit that bursts out of the glass. If Pinot Noir was a rose, then Valpolicella would be a daffodil.

Valpolicella (Classico) Superiore

Valpolicella and Valpolicella Superiore are often considered as one style. While the DOC regulations do not impose big differences, in practice the Superiores tend to be a bit fuller and more concentrated. It is also in the Superiore category that you can find wines with real ambition. In the list of recommended wines below, the Superiores of Marion and Roccolo Grassi are good examples of wines that are absolutely unfit for the “fun wine” label that Valpolicella often gets. So the tiered system of Valpolicella really makes sense.

There where Valpolicella is made either with fresh grapes or with grapes that were dried for a week or so, the Superiores sometimes already undergo a few weeks of drying to concentrate the juice. Also wood aging is not uncommon at the Superiore level. As is often the case, many of these choices depend on the winery and the style of wine they wish to make. One thing that is sure, however, is that the comparison with Pinot Noir no longer goes here. While the comparison with Beaujolais still holds for some of the Superiores, others will be more complex and structured. Again others will echo some of the characteristics of an Amarone,  boasting maraschino cherries and a warmer mouthfeel. The variety amongst the Superiores is rather big, but they will invariably be fuller and more concentrated than the normal Valpolicellas. That may sound evident, but in many wine regions “Superiore”, or “Supérieur” in France, does not necessarily mean much in terms of taste or style.

Below you will find a list of recommended wines. The ones with the title in red are particularly worth looking out for.

Valpolicella (Classico)

Valpolicella Classico 2017, Montecariano

Very light color. The nose has the whole range of red fruit on offer with redcurrant, raspberries and red cherries. This wine did not age on wood, but there is a certain smokiness that adds complexity. Also the fruit is layered from fresh to ripe, creating depth. This is really lovely. While most of the Valpolicellas in this list are attractive, this one is more than that, it is complex.

On the palate it has more volume than you would expect based on the nose. There is good, refreshing acidity here and the tannins are kept in the background. This juice is really enjoyable.

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Rêverie 2017, Valpolicella, Zymè

Slightly lactic upon opening, but this blows off fast. There’s loads of ripe cherries and some raspberry as well. Not the most complex nose, but the fruit is very attractive and inviting.

The ripe/fresh contrast makes this wine very playful and exciting. Again a Valpolicella with an extremely light color, but don’t let this fool you, as there is good substance here. Only 12% alcohol by the way. Slight bitterness in the end.

This is the kind of wine that makes a creamy Camembert sandwich a feast!

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Valpolicella Classico 2018, Bonacosta

Slightly lactic just after opening. The wine needs a bit to open up, but after a short while you are treated to floral aromas and even a whiff of raspberry. In the background there’s a bit of thyme as well.

This wine is very smooth and creamy, and full of fruit. It is perhaps a little fuller and rounder than some of the other Valpolicellas in this list, but the acidity makes this wine very digestible. Everything comes together very nicely already at this young age. No need to wait, this is instant pleasure. If you like Beaujolais, you will want to try this as well. And at 8,50€, this is a no-brainer.

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Valpolicella Classico 2018, Rubinelli Vajol

The color gives away that this is not a blockbuster. If this Valpolicella were to stand next to a Tavel rosé, it would be difficult to tell them apart. A bit of reduction after opening, but this fades away with a couple of swirls. The dominant aroma is redcurrant but there is a nice green, herby touch here that spices things up in a way that nutmeg does with potato mash.

The wine is very fresh with frivolous red fruit and well integrated acidity. While tannins are normally very light or even absent in these light Valpolicellas, the powdery, but ripe tannins here give your taste buds a friendly pat on the back. Slightly chilled, this wine goes down dangerously fast. This is a such a fun and easy-drinking wine.

Valpolicella Classico 2018, Allegrini

Very fruit-forward nose with candied red fruit, but also violets and black pepper. In the same way as Bonacosta’s Valpolicella the style is very reminiscent of a Beaujolais.

The wine is kept very fresh with vibrant red fruit and a nice acidic lift. The tannins are ripe and well integrated. This is such a pleaser! Frivolous, light on its feet, and highly quaffable.

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Ca’ Fiui 2017, Valpolicella, Corte Sant’Alda (biodynamic)

Fairly intense and rectilinear nose of sour cherries. This is not a wine that will keep you searching for all the different aromas, but the precision and finesse of the nose is attractive.

The acidity that was suggested in the nose manifests itself clearly on the palate and creates the backbone for the cherry fruit. While this wine is dangerously easy to drink, there is a more serious side to this wine. The substance suggests aging potential, which is rather unusual for this category of Valpolicellas. Would be nice to try again in a couple of years.

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Valpolicella Classico 2016, Villa Spinosa

This is the odd one out. There where Valpolicella tends to boast red fruit, the Villa Spinosa had a very surprising nose with blackcurrant and even liquorice. There is some red fruit, but rather in the background, and a “wild” touch that’s hard to pin down. The hallmark acidity of Valpolicella contrasts nicely with the dark fruit. Tannins are hardly noticeable. Simple, but perfectly enjoyable with a selection of soft cheeses.

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Novarè Corvina 2017, IGT Verona, Bertani

This is technically speaking not a Valpolicella as it is made exclusively of Corvina, while this grape is only allowed up to 95% of the blend (with a minimum of 45%). But in terms of style, it fits right in here with the rest. Red fruit and florality in the nose, and a lovely mineral undertone. This is very light, juicy and fresh, the tannins staying discretely in the background. Uncomplicated, but very enjoyable on a summer afternoon. Impossible to keep the glass full.

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Valpolicella (Classico) Superiore

Valpolicella Superiore 2015, Marion

Very surprisingly rich wine, full of pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and also cherries and strawberries. The nose is complex and has enough to keep you sniffing for a while.

The wine is rich and juicy but does not lack freshness. The balance is just right and there’s good length as well. This is obviously a different register than the Valpolicellas described above. Unfortunately, also the price tag is from another level (available around 30€ in Europe). Given the quality of the wine, however, the price is defensible.

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Verjago 2016, Valpolicella Superiore, Domini Veneti

Immediately after opening this is a real pleaser with cherries, a touch of wood, and fresh, red fruit. This is almost like a synthesis of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Loire and Northern Rhone. The fruit is ripe, but there is great tension in this wine, with a beautiful combination of creaminess and vibrant acidity. The wood influence decreases the longer the wine is in the glass, to make place for a whiff of minerality. There is a sense of restraint that contributes to the elegance of this wine. Also the fact that there is a certain degree of concentration that does not hinder the airiness is really exceptional. Especially considering the price tag (under 15€). You need to drink this to believe it.

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Valpolicella Superiore 2014, Roccolo Grassi

Quite ambitious nose, with cedar wood reminiscent of a Bordeaux. Very dense and edgy tannins. Difficult to enjoy. On day two, however, a much more balanced picture with pepper, cherries, iron, and a hint of mint. On the palate there is also red fruit coming through, and in general the wine is nicely fresh and mildly structured with ripe tannins. The Bordeaux connection is not completely gone yet, but it’s on the Cabernet Franc side of things. Serious wine that still needs a few years to reach its peak, but its performance on day 2 makes it hard to be patient.

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Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2015, Le Calendre

Ripe red fruit, thyme, and a whiff of leather. There’s considerable depth and complexity here. The fruit is ripe, but the acidity keeps it well in balance. There is clearly enough substance to cellar this wine for a couple more years, but there is no reason not to open this wine either. The style is somewhat reminiscent of the Valpolicella Superiore of Marion. Maybe without the wow-factor, but also without the price tag, as it is available at less than half the price.

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Valpolicella Superiore 2015, La Bandina

From the first whiff it is clear that this is not a summer quaffer. Abundant dark cherry, accompanied by liquorice and leather. There is a nice smoky touch here and some pepper and clove in the background.

If the nose suggests an opulent wine, the first sip leaves no doubt that the contrary is true. The acidity is beautiful and is part of the picture that is constructed around a tight backbone of ripe tannins, the cherries being rather in the background. There’s a subtle touch of wood that adds to the attraction of this wine. Also no sign of the 14,5% alcohol. Still tight-knit, the wine will benefit from a few years of cellaring. But the wait will be rewarding.

Pruviniano 2017, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Domini Veneti 

Pure cherries and very high acidity just after opening. Half an hour later the wine has opened up nicely with a mineral undertone to the cherries. There’s also a bit of cinnamon and redcurrant in the background.

The start is very fresh with vibrant acidity, underlying minerality, and a hint of bell pepper, not unlike a Loire Cabernet Franc. The tannins are present but they are soft and mostly in the background. The salinity in the finish is really interesting and underscores the freshness of this wine. This is a rather subtle style of Superiore that makes you want to sniff your glass again and again. At just above 10€ (in Europe) this is an absolute steal.

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Food and wine pairing does matter

I always thought of food and wine pairing as something that’s fun. I enjoy thinking about how to combine both. If you hit the nail on the head, you can transcend the individual level of the wine and the dish and reach something that’s more than the sum of the parts. On my blog I have a category that’s called “one and one is three”, where I talk about food and wine pairings that make me especially happy. Because the combination of the flavors create something special, or because one really pushes the other to a higher level, or just simply because they create that kind of feeling where I think : life is good.

American wine writer Alder Yarrow doesn’t think much of food and wine pairing. On his website Vinography he published a blog post calling food and wine pairing “junk science”. Or “the source of panic attacks and the fodder for hundreds of books and scores of useless smartphone apps”. I won’t disagree with the fact that there are many books that are not particularly useful. Many just give very specific combinations of a particular dish with a particular wine. What if you tweak your recipe with a few additional ingredients, or change the sauce? Or more likely, what if that particular wine is not available in your local shop? Not so helpful indeed. But as Mr Yarrow explicitly states that one plus one does not equal three, I felt compelled to write down my own opinion on food and wine pairing.

According to Mr Yarrow the rules of food and wine pairing are “bullshit” and you’re better off forgetting about food and wine pairing altogether as “it only leads to disappointment”. I hear much frustration there. In more than 25 years of eating in top restaurants he can count the experiences  where the sum was greater than the parts on one hand. The good thing I read in that is that at least he had such experiences after all. But apparently very few.

The issue at hand here might be expectation management. If you expect a sommelier to always come with a wine that “will make the choir sing”, then you need to think twice of how restaurants work. Especially the ones who want to be innovative, who experiment with dishes and flavor combinations, and on the top of that change their menu very regularly in order to constantly offer something new to the demanding customer. For a sommelier to find a wine that will fit with a new dish on the menu, there are many things to consider : what is the defining flavor? There might be more than one. And they can interact in a way that does not allow for an extra component, the wine, to interfere. What is the texture of the dish? Does the wine have to support this or contrast with it? Do you want to go for complementarity or make a bold move and aim for contrast? Not to forget a very practical question : what does the sommelier have on the wine list? He/she has to work with what is available and what is ready to drink. If you have a thousand of references to work with, that might ease the job, but such restaurants are exceptions. On top of that, the time and possibilities the sommelier will be given to experiment with the food and wine pairing will be limited. So there are a lot of “ifs” here. That is why I don’t necessarily expect the choir to sing in terms of food and wine pairing when I go to a top restaurant. I know this may sound strange to some, but I don’t. If one plus one equals two, then I will be happy. If the dish is a winner, and so is the wine, without either negatively influencing the other, then also that is a successful food and wine pairing!

Alder Yarrow also talks about the rules of food and wine pairing. As if there was a bible of what to drink with what. Food and wine pairing is not a science. If I were to regard it as such, I would probably also come to the conclusion that food and wine pairing rules are bullshit. But it’s not. Again, if you take top gastronomy as a starting point, there simply are no rules. That is the definition of innovation and experimentation : you do something new. So the wine pairing will inevitably be a trial, and yes, sometimes also be an error.

Bad experiences in such settings is not a reason to conclude that food and wine pairing is bound to be disappointing. Mr Yarrow suggests that wine should be something “universally simple and essential”. So why not look at established combinations that have been tried millions of times and that work. A sauvignon blanc will work wonders with a simple goat cheese. Just as a Muscadet or a Chablis will be a great marriage with fresh oysters. Or a lamb shank from the oven with a spicy, herby Languedoc. These are classic, straightforward dishes that do not need top wines to still be a great match with their liquid partner. There is a much bigger potential for the food and wine to lift each other up if you start with simple things than vice versa. That’s where I see the biggest added value ànd chances of success in food and wine pairings.

Mr Yarrow seems to realise that : “Our expectations need to be re-set. The bar needs to be lowered. We should absolutely be choosing wine to go with our meals, but our goals should center on enjoyment of both and the idea of “mistakes” should be banished.” I can’t think of a better way of saying it actually. So why conclude then that we should forget about food and wine pairings? There will be times that the food and wine pairing does not give the effect we wanted or hoped for, but we can also have great experiences and discover unexpected pairings. You can only do that if you’re open for it, if you see it as fun to experiment, ànd if your state of mind is rather to welcome anything good that comes out of it rather than to be disappointed if the result is anything less than stunning.

Let me give one example of a great discovery I did myself recently. One of our favorite dishes to prepare when we want comfort food is keema matar, an Indian/Pakistani curry with ground meat and green peas, topped with coriander leaves. As you can imagine, it is a very rich and relatively spicy dish. In Mr Yarrow’s opinion you should drink what you like with your food. I quite like red Burgundy, but I wouldn’t dream of drinking that with keema matar. It’d be an absolute waste of the wine. In the past I had already paired this dish with a very rich and opulent Negroamaro, an Italian wine with very ripe black fruit. The reason why that worked very well was because there was a certain sweetness from the ripe fruit that worked with the spiciness of the curry. Recently, however, I decided to take it up a notch with an Amarone, the Campo Inferi 2013 of Brunelli.

This is, for my standards, the embodiment of a “big” wine. Very rich, bold and smooth at the same time, and with a whopping 16,5% alcohol. This is a wine that is defined by ripe black cherries, milk chocolate, butter scotch and cinnamon. Big and ripe tannins, and a supporting acidity that keeps the alcohol in check. Again there is a sense of sweetness here that works very well to counterbalance the spiciness, and the smoothness and ripeness of the wine complement the structure of the curry. A good food and wine pairing, without any doubt. But what really made me tick in this combination was the combination of the ripe cherries, chocolate and cinnamon with the coriander leaves. A match made in heaven! Yes, this was definitely where I felt that one plus one equals three, where everything blended in so well together that the choir sang a little hallelujah.

The effect of the coriander with the Amarone is an example of how food and wine pairing is not a science, but something that you can discover and that will give great satisfaction once you do. Maybe not everyone will appreciate this combination the same way as I did, but others might. And by the looks of the numbers of people who post their food and wine pairings on social media, there seem to be many people who enjoy looking for that combination that adds an extra dimension. These are people who do not think in terms of potential disappointment, but in terms of discovery.

 

Experimenting with the blind tasting order

If you have organized a blind tasting before, chances are high that you will have prepared wines from white to rosé ro red, and from light to heavy. To start with white before red makes perfect sense of course. Although you might come across wineries in Bourgogne who will present their reds before the whites, in Meursault for example. And I have experienced myself that to have a white, rosé or sparkling wine after a series of reds can be nice and useful to “cleanse” your palate, especially if the reds are quite powerful and tannic. But in general white goes before red.

When you come to the order of the reds , things can get slightly more difficult. The basic idea is to start with light and move gradually to more powerful and structured reds. The reason for this this is pretty obvious : if you have a young, structured Bordeaux before a Burgundy, you might miss some of the nuances of the latter. Especially the build up of tannins in your mouth makes it difficult to appreciate the structure and the quality of the tannins of a lighter wine. Chewing on bread and drinking water in between wines will help, but in general you will try and build up from light to powerful.

One issue, however, that I have come across regularly in tastings, is the contrast between ripe and fresh in red wines. What do I mean with that? Let’s take the example of Burgundy again : if you follow the basic guidelines, you will want to start with the Burgundy (so a pinot noir) before you move to wines with more body/alcohol or wines with more tannins. My experience is that it works, as long as you stay in the same category of “freshness”. If you move from a Burgundy to a Loire Cabernet Franc and then to a Bordeaux, for example, that will perfectly work out. It’s more difficult when you move from a fresh, cool-climate style of wine to something riper. The last time I experienced that was when I had a glass of Valpolicella Superiore after I came home from a tasting of Loire Cabernet Franc. The Valpolicella came across as sweet, something I had not experienced when I drank that wine before. Normally I would perceive the fruit of the Valpolicella as ripe, but in balance with the acidity. When I had it after the Loire Cabernet Franc, I perceived it as sweet, round, and lacking tension. We’re talking about the same wine!

So when I had a blind tasting at my place last week with two Burgundy lovers, I decided to experiment a bit with the order. I reckoned that if I put the riper wines before the  fresher, more elegant wines, the riper wines would show well and there would not be a negative effect on the fresher wines that followed.

These are the red wines I gave :

  1. The Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Superiore 2016 of Stefano Mancinelli. (in my previous blog post you can read that these are very aromatic wines, with loads of ripe fruit)
  2. The Valpolicella Superiore 2014 of Roccolo Grassi, also relatively ripe, but very nicely balanced.
  3. The Barolo Ascheri 2015 of Reverdito, a very typical Barolo with ripe red fruit, and strong tannins.
  4. The Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2012 of Charlopin, the most elegant in the line-up with nice strawberries, relatively ripe though for a Burgundy.

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I gave the wines in this order. And as I had hoped for, the Italian wines were appreciated at their true value and were even lauded for their freshness. My two companions being absolute Burgundy lovers, I knew it was not obvious that they would like the Italian wines, especially the Valpolicella, which was the same wine that I found sweet after a Loire Cabernet Franc. So the experiment was successful! Almost…

If I could re-do the tasting, I would probably change one thing. I would put the Barolo last instead of the Gevrey-Chambertin. You can probably guess why : the tannins. The Gevrey was ready to drink and did not have very strong tannins. The Barolo, however, had tightened up a couple of hours after opening. The wine was actually very balanced and accessible just after opening the bottle. A few hours later the tannins had become quite prominent, very much typical Barolo tannins. And that made the transition to the Gevrey less smooth than I had wished.

That goes to show that reversing the order will not always work. I would not start with a very structured Australian Shiraz to finish with a fragile Burgundy. But you can play with the order of a couple of red wines in your line-up. If both wines have a tannin level that is more or less equivalent, and one has riper fruit than the other, then try putting the riper one first. And let me now if that worked!