The centro storico of Verona is unarguably beautiful. The Roman amphitheatre is, by and large, intact and every year hosts opera performances, as well as concerts by artists as diverse as Pavarotti and Eric Clapton. It is, of course, also well known for its romantic connection and countless people have made the pilgrimage to the house of Juliet to see the famous balcony. Except that it’s a fraud. This archaeological conceit was dreamed up by Professor Antonio Avena during the 1930s – he attached parts of a recovered sarcophagus to the wall and suddenly we have the balcony! So if the idea of succumbing to this hugely successful exercise in mass deception no longer appeals, you may find yourself nosing around an enoteca or wine merchant, of which there are many in Verona. There you will find a Valpolicella wine called Amarone which translates as the big bitter one and it will not be cheap. So if you are feeling a little sceptical after learning the sordid truth about the balcony you may find yourself wondering what is this all about and is it worth it?
Valpolicella is a small town north of Verona and is also the name of the wine produced in the surrounding area. They have been making wine here since Bacchus was a boy playing at the feet of his tutor Silenus, and Amarone is one of the family. To understand these wines is to understand some of the fundamentals of Italian wine making. With over 500 varieties of grapes to choose from, it should come as no surprise that many Italian wines are blends, exploiting the best that different grapes can bring to the party, and the Valpolicella family are indeed blends of principally three grapes. Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. Other varieties are permitted in small quantities but for the purist it has to be these three.
To produce Amarone, the Rolls Royce of the range, the grapes go through a process called appassimento in which the grapes are laid out on trays and air dried. This drying process increases the sugars and decreases the water in the grapes and thus increases the potential alcohol in the finished article. The wine must then be aged for at least two years, but these are the minimum requirements and a little research on any potential purchase will reveal how much the winemaker has put into their Amarone.
At the other end, the Mini if you will, is Valpolicella, a red wine made from exactly the same grapes but without the appassimento process and with no requirement to undergo the aging process, although the best producers will age their wines to add character and structure.
The mid-range, if I may use such a term, has its roots in the waste not, want not culture of peasant farming. The term is called ripasso and the Valpolicella is fermented together with the lees from the Amarone production to add body to the wine which must then be aged for at least a year. Again, the best producers will age for more than the minimum requirement.
Finally, we come to Valpolicella Recioto which is made in the same way as Amarone but the fermentation is stopped before all the sugar is converted into alcohol thus producing a slightly sweet dessert wine.
My memory stretches back a long way and in the 1970s, when going to a student party, it was customary to take a bottle of wine. My choice was always Valpolicella. I would love to be able to say that this was because of the quality but it wasn’t. It was cheap; a triumph of quantity over quality. But times have changed and Italians now glory in their gastronomic and viticultural heritage and this is reflected in the change that has happened to Valpolicella and its family. There are still cheap ones to be found if you really want them but the quality is now freely available and a real joy.