For many, Valpolicella, an ideal wine to serve with winter stews and slow-cooked braises, conjures up images of poorly made jug wine. But today’s Valpolicella is no longer a middling quality red. Sommeliers and retailers are suggesting a style using ripasso, a technique that adds complexity and heft, which is practiced in the Veneto, in Italy’s northeast.
Valpolicella, as the story goes, derives from a hybrid of Greek and Latin, and means the “valley of many cellars.” At least that’s what most think. Food and wine historian Jeremy Parzen, who blogs at Dobianchi.com, disputes that explanation. He says the name is from “vallis pulicellae,” Latin for “valley of sand deposits,” referring to the alluvial soils along rivers coursing through the rolling hills of Verona. Like many wine names, the word origin is up for lively debate. What isn’t disputed is the blend of grapes used to make these reds. Corvina, also known as corvina Veronese, is the region’s flagship grape. It figures prominently in the blend, along with corvinone, rondinella, and molinara.
If these grapes sound familiar, it may be that the first three are the same varietals used to make Amarone, Italy’s prestigious dried-grape wine, which plays an important role in Valpolicella Ripasso. “Ripasso” (“repassed”) begins with young Valpolicella and referments that wine on the skins and seeds left from making Amarone. That second fermentation lends richness, complexity, and alcoholic strength to the finished pours. Because of Amarone’s role in the process, Valpolicella Ripasso is often called “baby Amarone.” Prices are more diminutive as well. Valpolicella Ripasso wines retail for $20 to $30 a bottle, while Amarones start at $50. Because Amarone is experiencing a resurgence in popularity and there is more being made, producers are ensured plenty of material to make ripasso wines.
When tasting these wines, it is common to catch a whiff of raisins, an echo of the dried grapes used in Amarone. Valpolicella Ripasso is vinified to be completely dry, rather than dried-fruit sweet. These bottles are designated “superiore,” meaning they meet the minimum threshold of 13 percent alcohol by volume (the three here clock in at about 14 percent).
So put down your snow shovel and head inside for stew. Your baby Amarone is waiting.
“Le Ragose” Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore 2009 Aromas of freshly dug soil, cherry, and spiciness from oak. Tart dominant with smooth tannins, red fruit, and amaro bitterness on the finish. Calls out for a rare roast or hard aged cheese. Around $26. At The Wine Bottega, North End, 617-227-6607; Sagarino’s Market, Boston, 617-357-8855.
Tommaso Bussola “Ca’ del Laito” Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore 2009 Raisined fruit and barnyard funk beckon in an altogether attractive way. Dried red fruit and black cherry on a palate modulating acidity and heat. Tannins are generous yet smooth. Amaro toward the end, then finishes cleanly with a touch of saline. Braise pork shoulder in this wine, but save most of it for sipping. Around $26. At Vintages, Belmont, 617-484-4560; The Wine Bottega.
Brigaldara “il Vegro” Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore 2009 Aromas are shy at first, but raisined fruit soon blooms, along with sweet-spicy oak. A fruity impression full of cherry in the mouth with ample tannins and amaro bitterness that lingers deliciously. A truly flexible food wine that loves roasted root vegetables as much as braised meat. Around $28. At Panzano Provviste & Vino, Southborough, 508-485-8884; Ralph’s Wines & Spirits, Hingham, 781-749-9463.