Valpolicella & Soave: The Times, They Are A Changin’
BY ERIC GUIDO | FEBRUARY 25, 2021
It’s amazing to consider how much the world has changed in such a short period of time. Suddenly we are all focused on the importance of other people and our relationships with them. Instead of firing off a text or email, we now pick up the phone to hear a human voice on the other side; and with each conversation, we all speak enthusiastically about the days we had face-to-face meetings, tastings, dinners or just a friendly conversation. This train of thought was emphasized during my recent tastings, as numerous wineries sent in samples and offered to taste together over Zoom. I truly believe it is one of many signs, once we can regain some sense of normalcy, that the world has changed for the better in some ways.
My foray into the Veneto or, more specifically, Valpolicella (including the Ripasso, Amarone and Recioto categories) and Soave was filled with many experiences such like this. From the largest estate to the smallest azienda agricola, producers were eager to talk and taste face-to-face. The message that rang loud and clear from the majority of them was that the region has opened its mind to change. Some of that change is welcome, such as the enormous number of producers who no longer wish to rely on residual sugars and the overuse of oak to pump up their Amarone. Also welcome is the focus, in both regions, on creating new cru bottles to showcase special mesoclimates, unique soils or older vines within the great growing area. However, other changes, like the massive wave of producers that are jumping onto the IGT bandwagon to avoid the blending and aging regulations within Valpolicella, seem a bit misguided - but I will address that later.
Unfortunately, what has not changed is the large amount of bulk wine that is produced in this region, Soave being one of the biggest examples. The same can be said of entry-level Valpolicella, with many wines that are intended to be drunk while enjoying a local trattoria’s fare. It’s a shame, really, because while we can organize a report and tastings around producers we know and trust, in reality our coverage here is just a tiny snapshot from within a colossal category. Which brings up one of the most important points that I can possibly make: the Veneto is really about producers first, and terroir second. Granted, you can say this about many wine-producing regions. Just look at Burgundy’s Grand Cru, Clos de Vougeot in the Côte de Nuits, with its 49 hectares and the myriad of producers who make wines from within its walls. Some are revelatory, and others are flat-out forgettable. However, in most regions, this is the exception, not the rule. In Valpolicella and Soave, you have amazing producers and growers within the Classico regions, but many more that are not worth your time, and who rely on winemaking wizardry to dress up inferior fruit or supplying cooperatives without any incentive to produce quality over quantity. On the flip side, when we look to the expanded Valpolicella growing area, even as far east as the borders of Soave itself, we find producers such as Dal Forno, Roccolo Grassi and Pra' making some of the top wines in the region. This is simply reality; and so here, it pays to follow specific producers.
Inama's Foscarino cru in Soave Classico.
Just Skimming the Surface
How does one sum up Valpolicella and the multifaceted wines that this region produces? For one thing, it’s safe to say that a wine lover could find every desirable experience possible here, from easy-drinking Valpolicellas, to the richer and more structured Superiores, to the darker and more bitter Ripassos, then the more opulent, sometimes sweet, sometimes savory Amarones, and of course, the decadent Reciotos. Add in the myriad of IGTs, some of which are world-class with their depth, concentration and balance, and you have a little of something for everyone.
The Dizzying Array of Valpolicella
It all starts with the basic Valpolicella (translated to “valley of many cellars”) and Valpolicella Superiore, which on their own cover many possible styles. The reason for this is that producers have the option to use freshly harvested grapes to make an entry-level wine, late-harvested grapes to add ripeness and richness, partially dried grapes to kick things up another notch, or a cru expression that showcases an individual terroir. Maturation in a winemaker's cellar is also incredibly open-ended, delivering stainless steel or concrete-fermented and minimally aged wines, as well as those matured in wood. The Superiore DOCG dictates at least a year of refinement in the winery prior to release, but the fruit can come from any of the region's unique subzones from west to east of the Classica area, bordered by the Adige River to the west, Valpantena (“valley of the gods”) in the middle of the region and directly north of Verona, and Orientale, which borders Soave to the east. So you can see why randomly buying a bottle of Valpolicella is a bit of a crapshoot. What does remain the same throughout all of the variations is the primary grape (from 45% to 95% of the blend), Corvina, and the larger-berried Corvinone, both of which form the backbone and add the notions of cherry that we love in these wines. Next in the recipe is Rondinella (5% to 30% of the blend), which adds the deeper colors and aromatics. To a lesser extent, and not necessary, is up to 10% Molinara (adding a nice acid twist), Croatina, Negrara or Dindarella.
However, it’s within these rules of blending that many producers feel the most stifled and are swaying toward the IGT designation, the most glaring example being Corvina and Corvinone, which are both widely believed to be a big part of the future for Valpolicella as a region. There was a time when it was the family of Cabernets and Merlot that would be the most talked-about among IGTs, but today it’s the ability to create single-varietal Corvina and Corvinone wines. I can tell you from my own experience that the potential for these wines is very high. They possess all of the raw ingredients, depth, intensity and structure to evolve slowly into something glorious. The challenge is in finding the right mix of terroir and élevage in the cellar. My only worry is, what happens when the best Corvina and Corvinone, which make up the backbone of Valpolicella, Amarone and Recioto, are removed from those blends to make varietal wine? Also, the chances of an IGT going ignored on a retail shelf, versus a branded wine like Amarone, are very high.
This brings us to the next three categories, the big wines of Valpolicella; Amarone, its mini-me Ripasso, and the one that’s thought to have started it all, the sweeter and richer Recioto. The reason I list these together is that they are linked by one very important element: Appassimento, the process of air-drying grapes with the objective of reducing their water content by 30–40%. This process was first created over 1,500 years ago as a way to make less-interesting grapes more palatable, but also to produce a sturdier wine that could stand the test of time and travel. It continues now as one of the most important ingredients in the complex recipe of Appassimento-styled wines. Making wine from dried grapes is both costly and not without its own challenges, such as mold. What’s more, the days of widespread thinking that Appassimento would gloss over the need to seek out better terroir and superior fruit is thankfully behind us. Today, quality-minded producers are looking to higher elevations, steeper hillsides, poorer soils and the blend of grapes they use. Add to this that those same producers are trying to reduce both sugar and alcohol levels in their wine, and what you have is something of a rebirth of the Amarone category. The question is, how long will it take for the world's wine lovers to understand that they can now bring a bottle of the best producers’ Amarone to the dinner table, or that Ripasso (a Valpolicella which is then passed over the pulp of an Amarone crush and allowed to go through a secondary fermentation) can have the depth and structure of Amarone without the richness that makes some tasters stop after one glass?
For years, I’ve been tasting with producers from the Veneto and raising the question of why there hasn’t been some thought of better classifying the big, ripe and opulent style of Amarone from the intense, deep, savory - sometimes even bitter - and structured versions. In the end, in this region of so many classifications, I guess adding more would only complicate things further; but in my opinion, the success of their wines depends on improving consumer understanding of what they can expect when buying a bottle. This is, in fact, the biggest problem throughout all of these categories, and it’s yet another reason why I say that it is most important to look to the producer first.
Tommasi's La Groletta vineyard in Valpolicella Classica.
A Minefield of Great Wine: Soave
When trying to generalize Soave, we really find ourselves in something of a conundrum. I’d love to say that this is one of the most overlooked categories in fine Italian wine that presents tremendous value, but I’d only be referring to the high-quality artisans, those who are creating some of the best whites in Italy, and not the bulk producers and cooperatives that muddy the waters. This fact makes traversing the selection of Soave very difficult. The good news is that, with a little guidance, readers can find some amazing values within the region.
Very much like Valpolicella, Soave has an “original'' Classico zone with elevations ranging from 150 to 330 meters, unique for its steep hillside vineyards, which are planted in poor, well-draining volcanic terrain. These soils are very much the reason why the Soave zone has the potential to create world-class white wine. You have to travel to Central Italy, into Toscana, Lazio and Campania, before finding similar terrain. Then there is the much larger, extended region of Soave, to the south and west, which produces an ocean of wine from its more fertile soils. There are some parts of the larger Soave area that are worth paying attention to, such as the high elevations of Soave Colli Scaligeri. However, even in the Classico zone, and even if buying up to the more “elevated” Soave Superiore DOCG, which requires lower yields and fruit from hillside vineyards, you still find yourself sifting through a sea of mediocrity. Once again, look first to producers who operate under their own strict guidelines to make great wine; Inama, Gini, Anselmi, Pieropan, Pra' and Suavia are just a few of the names that immediately come to mind. Granted, there are more worth seeking out, but not many. From these houses, you can almost always expect an honest representation of terroir and vintage, not to mention the most dependable “entry-level” wine that offers the most value.
Speaking of terroir, one of the most positive developments in the region are the cru classifications that are now being honored, as of 2019, by the rules of both Soave Classico and Soave Superiore. While many of these 33 crus have adorned top bottlings of the most noted producers for many years, such as Froscà, Foscarino, Carbonare, Rugate, Monte Grande and Roncà Monte Calvarina, they are only now legally catalogued, which is a big step in the right direction. Another move that has improved the average quality across the board is the removal of the Trebbiano Toscano grape from the blending regulations. This now leaves as little as 70% Garganega (an aromatic variety that excels in these volcanic hillsides), up to 30% Trebbiano di Soave (think Verdicchio) and up to 5% Chardonnay or Pinot Bianco. In my view, it’s a combination of Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave that produces the most incredibly balanced and age-worthy expressions of Soave. However, there are also many varietal Garganega bottlings that provide a wonderful expression of terroir. Also worth mentioning is Recioto di Soave, a dessert wine produced using air-dried grapes, often late-harvested or affected by botrytis. The top producers are well worth seeking out.
Looking down toward Campiano from the Gini Valpolicella Estate.
Lest We Forget
Last but not least, while Lugana is not a focus of this report, there were a number of producers whose wines arrived with the samples of Soave, Amarone and Valpolicella, and frankly, it would be a shame to not give this growing region a serious honorable mention. In fact, Lugana seems to be all the rage among Veneto producers these days, with many of them looking to get in on the action. This region, the majority of which is shared with Lombardy to the west, is highly influenced by its proximity to, and the moderating effects of, Lake Garda. What’s more, glacial deposits - a mix of clay, limestone and gravel - make up its soils. Here, the principal grape is the highly aromatic Trebbiano di Lugana, also known as Turbiana, a relative of Verdicchio (no wonder consumers find Italian wine confusing). With all of the excitement about the area, it shouldn’t surprise readers that it is already expanding outside of the original zone, which will undoubtedly affect quality. However, I have a feeling there will be a day when we will be focusing much more on the wines coming out of the denomination.
Looking out toward the Frosca and Salvarenza crus of Soave.
The first wines of 2019 made it into this report. It is a vintage that producers in both Soave and the hills of Valpolicella are excited about. In general, this was another warm and dry vintage, and the danger here can be found in the producers who were pushing ripeness levels. Late spring rains built up water supplies to offset the dry and hot summer months, and if anything, the saving grace was the milder daytime temperatures and cooler evenings at the end of the season, which helped restore freshness and allowed for an extended harvest. The whites I tasted were ripe in profile but balanced by vibrant acidity, making for some highly enjoyable “entry-level” Soave. I’m excited to see what top producers will bring to the table when their more important and cru-designated wines are released. As for the reds, the jury is still out.
I found a lot to like about the high-acid 2018 whites that I tasted for this report, more so than the more fruit-forward reds. The 2018 vintage was generous, with higher yields than both 2017 and 2016. This was the result of balanced temperatures throughout the spring and summer months. The region received more rain than average during the spring, which required Valpolicella producers to be very selective, while those on the hillsides of Soave Classico benefited from their well-draining soils. As mentioned above, 2018 was much more favorable to Soave Classico producers, with wines that will drink well relatively young but also excel through medium-term cellaring. As for Valpolicella and Amarone, look to producers in the higher elevations with hillside vineyards for the best examples.
While Soave was adversely affected by the extreme heat and dry conditions of 2017, resulting in ripe, supple and more immediately appealing wines, a number of producers throughout the Valpolicella Classica region will tell you that the vintage was much more forgiving for them. Many spoke specifically about even ripening and good concentration. I’ve personally found warm and dry years to produce more uniform results, especially for Amarone. Keep in mind that the Classica zone is in close proximity to the moderating effects of Lake Garda, as well as possessing soils that are much better at retaining water. It stands to reason that the wines have a fighting chance. That said, this can’t be applied to the entire Valpolicella zone, and from what I’ve tasted, there were only a handful of standouts from the 2017 vintage.
The majority of Amarone producers are just now releasing their 2016s into the market. This is a vintage that I find quite exciting, even though most of the winemakers I’ve spoken with tend to favor their more fruit-intense and concentrated 2015s. The reason the 2016s are so interesting to me is their combination of dark florals and fruit, mixed with fresh acidity and a more mineral style. While the 2015s are already showing brilliantly, the 2016s will require some time, and most display more savory characteristics than usually associated with these wines. The vintage was characterized by slightly higher-than-average precipitation and cool temperatures throughout. This resulted in lower yields, yet also an extended growing season that packed a lot of character into the later-ripening varieties. Balanced, elegant, fresh and with the structure for many years of cellaring; I think, with time, 2016 will be recognized as a modern-day classic.
Tasting With An Open Mind
On a final note, the Veneto has its challenges. The overproduction and mass-marketing of Soave and Valpolicella have greatly hurt the world’s perception of these wines. As for Amarone, it’s fallen victim to the assumption that all of the wines are overpowering, too rich, too sweet, and best paired with a cheese plate. But, the fact is, as Bob Dylan sang, “The times, they are a-changin'”. It would be a huge mistake to not revisit the top producers in Veneto. The best Soaves are truly world-class, and there were many more moderate-alcohol, savory styles of Amarone tasted in this go-around than I can ever recall having sampled before.
All wines were tasted between December 2020 and January 2021 in New York City. While there were a few producers who were not able to submit their wines in time for this article, we will update it with their entries as they arrive.
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