Do you love Italian wine? Join the crowd – Italian wine is one of the most popular imports; and with over a thousand grape varieties and many different climates, soil types, and elevations, one can easily spend a lifetime understanding the magic of Italian wine. Today let’s just focus on one region, the Valpolicella area in northern Italy, and one producer, Tedeschi, which dates from 1824.
Why speak of Valpolicella at all? Why now? First, some background: Valpolicella is a DOC within the Verona region of Italy (the setting for the play Romeo and Juliet). Go to a wine store and ask the clerk for “a Valpolicella” and you will receive a pleasant, easy-drinking wine (usually under $15) made from three of the region’s five allowed grape varieties, usually a blend of Molinara, Rondinella, and Corvina. You will find the wine refreshing and fruity, meant to “drink now” and not age. So the key element to understand is that Valpolicella is both a region and the name of a local table wine.
Yet take those same allowed grape varieties and produce the wine in a different way and you can get two very different, more expensive, wines. The most expensive wine of the Valpolicella region is called Amarone. You might have heard that name in a Godfather movie or overheard some Wall Street folks order a magnum of it to celebrate a big deal in a popular steakhouse. Amarone is expensive, and you will soon understand the reason for this expense. The “middle” wine — the bridge between the simple Valpolicella and the elegant Amarone — is called Ripasso, and I will explain this production method forthwith.
The reason I am writing about Valpolicella today is that I had the good fortune to lunch with Riccardo Tedeschi, winemaker, enologist, and with his siblings one of the heirs to the Tedeschi Winery, who was visiting Manhattan recently. The Tedeschi family has been producing wine since 1824, and is a big name in the very big business of Amarone production – a leading name. As such, one of Mr. Tedeschi’s objectives is to limit the region’s production of Amarone, which has been increasing in recent years.
Now you may be wondering how Amarone is different than the simple Valpolicella; they have the same or similar grapes, after all. Here is a simplified version of the Amarone story. Healthy ripe grapes from top vineyards are hand selected and harvested in the first two weeks of October. Instead of being pressed and fermented, they are laid on straw mats to dry and shrivel, concentrating the remaining sugars and flavors, for 90-120 days.
Following the drying (end of January and/or beginning of February) the grapes are crushed and go through a dry low temperature fermentation process which can last between 30 and 50days. After fermentation, the wine is aged in barriques made from French or Slovenian oak.
Despite the concentrated sugars of the grapes, the resulting Amarone wine is officially dry, yet many have a nose that hints at sweetness and residual sugar. If fermentation is stopped (accidentally or on purpose) the resulting wine contains residual sugar (more than 4 grams of sugar per litre) and produces a sweeter wine known as Recioto dela Valpolicella.
During the lunch, I had the pleasure of tasting Mr. Tedeshi’s Amarone, which was quite full-bodied, muscular, yet with elegance and finesse, and his ‘simple’ Valpolicella which I really adored for its bright acidity that went so well with all manner of cuisine, from traditional Italian appetizers like rocket salad and grilled octopus to an entrée such as grilled halibut.
I also was able to try a wine I have not yet described called Ripasso, which is produced when partially aged ‘simple’ Valpolicella wine is put in contact with the lees (dead yeast cells) of the Amarone, including the unpressed grape skins (pomice) that have been maturing with the wine in the barrel. As the lees still contain a lot of sugar, the Valpolicella undergoes a second fermentation tha typically takes place in the spring following the harvest. This resulting wine, Ripasso, is more tannic, with more body, a deeper color, more alcohol, and more extract. All of the Tedeschi wines I tried were excellent examples of their type, and as winemaker Mr. Tedeschi seemed dedicated to quality and tradition.
I also enjoyed getting to know this sophisticated and polite gentlemen as an individual, finding it romantic that he and his wife had known each other since their school days and that his little daughter is quite the artist. “Why don’t you encourage her to draw a label for your next edition of wine?” I asked. Mr. Tedeschi promised he’d think about it.