Soon the summer tourists will descend on Verona, Italy, the city of Romeo and Juliet. But few of those travelers will make their way to the hilly wine country just north of the city. This peaceful region, Valpolicella, is home to two important red wines — rich, powerful Amarone and the lighter and less expensive Valpolicella.
Amarone is the star, with flavors ranging from spicy black cherry to leather to bittersweet chocolate. Some are so dense and opulent that they almost seem sweet, even when there’s no residual sugar. That’s because Amarone is made from grapes that are dried until they lose 30 to 40 percent of their weight, a process called appassimento. The grapes are then fermented until the wine is dry or nearly dry, often with alcohol of 15 percent or more.
The appassimento process goes back to Roman times, although it was probably used mostly to produce sweet wines. The first commercial Amarone didn’t appear until the early 1950s, when it was commercialized by Bolla, then Masi. Good Amarone almost always costs $50 or more— sometimes much more. Look for examples from Masi, Allegrini or Tommasi. Sartori Amarone, at $40, is a relative bargain.
Amarone is great with hearty winter dishes, but it can also pair with summer’s grilled meats. A traditional partner is full-flavored cheese, particularly Grana Padana, an aged cheese from the Verona area.
Even if you never plunk down the cash for Amarone, you might still benefit from its success. The money that Amarone has brought to the Valpolicella area has enabled producers to upgrade their cellars and vineyards, leading to improvement in all the region’s wines.
A good Valpolicella — which uses the same grape varieties as Amarone — can be had for less than $20; a bottle of its big brother, known as Valpolicella Ripasso, is usually less than half the price of Amarone.
Valpolicella typically displays plenty of bright, spicy cherry fruit. Sometimes the label will say “Valpolicella Classico,” which means the wine is from a western sub-zone. I’m a fan of the 2008 Allegrini Valpolicella Classico ($17), with its bright, fresh cherry fruit, hint of anise and smooth finish. Others to try include the 2006 Sartori “Montegradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore ($14), a fresh, lively wine with bright cherry, a very slight earthy quality and fine tannins; and the more structured 2007 Tommasi “Rafael” Valpolicella Classico Superiore ($14), which offers spicy cherry and a slight herbal note.
Valpolicella Ripasso is a beefed-up style, produced by refermenting Valpolicella with the skins, seeds and pulp of the grapes that had been used to make Amarone. The result is a richer, more structured wine — it’s sometimes called “baby Amarone.” The ripasso technique was started in the 1960s by Masi, with a wine called Campofiorin. The 2005 Masi Campofiorin ($19), which isn’t technically Valpolicella, is bright and a bit earthy, with red cherry, spice and medium tannins.