I went to Valpolicella to learn about the region’s most expensive, highly regarded wine: Amarone. Made from dried grapes, this wine is hotter than ever and the Italian press now gathers annually to taste new Amarone releases. I tagged along, hoping to discover what I have been missing.

Instead, I learned that my tastes are exactly backwards of a normal wine drinker. It’s kind of devastating.

Then I looked into the history of the region and felt better about the fact that, I shudder to admit … In Valpolicella, I like the cheapest wines best. There! I said it! These inexpensive wines are probably the best they’ve ever been, but everybody rushes past them on their way to the heavyweights.

The best local grape in this region near Verona – home of the fictional Romeo and Juliet – is Corvina, which produces a light-bodied, fresh-tasting red. Seeking a richer wine, locals partially dried the grapes before fermenting to produce Recioto, a sweet wine with residual sugar. As the region is not wealthy (there are still sharecroppers, believe it or not), workers would come in from the fields for a piece of salami and a glass of Recioto.

The main wine, though, was called Valpolicella. It was light and simple and, because farmers grew enormous crops of grapes, bland. I drank it in Japan when I was near-broke because it was cheap and red: those were its sole selling points. It’s no wonder vintners did what they could to add body.

There’s going to be a different side to this story, but let’s talk about Amarone first.
One day a vintner mistakenly let his Recioto ferment all the way dry, and Amarone (from “amaro,” which means bitter) was born. This is ironic today, because most Amarones are noticeably sweet. This is inevitable; few yeasts can stay alive and keep fermenting as alcohol crests over 16 percent, which has become commonplace today. Amarone was always designed to be rich, but it wasn’t this high in alcohol in the 1990s. With rising alcohol has come rising popularity.

Amarone is the greatest example of winemaking adding value: taking inherently cheap grapes and making an expensive bottle. Drying the grapes adds risk. Organic and biodynamic grapes are sadly rare in Valpolicella because, vintners say, the risk of out-of-control fungus is too high. But drying the grapes definitely gives the wines more power, and power is still fashionable.

In order to conserve ingredients and add even more value, vintners came up with the idea to reuse the leftover grape skins from pressing Amarone. They dump perfectly good Valpolicella wine on top of the skins and allow it to re-ferment to create Ripasso.

So there you have the hierarchy of wines in the region: Valpolicella at the bottom, Ripasso in the middle (many sommeliers call it a “baby Amarone,” though vintners don’t like that term) and Amarone at the top. Recioto is still made, but it’s a minor wine now. They’re priced by production risk as well as demand, but not by production volume.

In 2012, Ripasso passed Valpolicella to become the most-produced wine in the region. This popularity is largely due to that “baby Amarone” designation, because, while the quality is highly variable, it remains quite affordable compared to its big brother.

So, nobody loves Valpolicella anymore and, ironically, that’s why it’s better than ever.

Vintners don’t need to make their money by selling truckloads of Valpolicella. Moreover, if they have two batches, and one is a little light, that batch is actually better suited to being beefed up into Ripasso.

There’s no economic reason to even sell Valpolicella now, unless the winery likes it and is trying to make a good one. This has never been true before in the history of the region.

Several winemakers in the region told me – while dining with all their wines open in front of them – that they like Valpolicella best with meals. Of course they do! They tend to be fruity, light bodied, easy-quaffing wines, whereas Amarone really doesn’t go with any food at all. If you like wine as a cocktail, and many Americans do, Amarone is great.

But Valpolicella is cheaper. And it’s the original, classic wine of the region. So, if you see a Valpolicella in your local wine shop, give it a shot. Don’t expect too much: expectations are for Amarone. Valpolicella is for dinner.


6 Responses

  1. Ahli Anggur

    Tricky, tricky with the click-bait title! Growling, ready to cite “Cheap Wine Sucks: A Manifesto”… but yep, give me the Valpolicella over the Amarone. And if the wine is less obviously impressive, it can still be excellent and exciting, such as this Tre Bicchieri winner:
    Valpolicella Classico Superiore Camporenzo 2011 Monte dall’Ora

  2. Bob Henry

    I wish Blake’s piece had come out before last week’s Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri trade tasting hosted in Los Angeles. I would have put Valpolicella on my sampling list. (When I want an Amarone-like experience, there is always high octane Zinfandel from California.)

  3. Mike Madaio

    “Amarone really doesn’t go with any food at all.” ~ So well said. I’ve never really understood the obsession with Amarone. Unless you’re drinking it as a dessert wine.

  4. bressanvido

    Yes, there are some very good Valpolicellas out there & definitely works as a better everyday wine than Amarone but I disagree that Amarone doesn’t go well with food. Amarone overwhelms most dishes but we have venison & wild boar a couple of times a year & Amarone goes excellent with those as do other full bodied wines such as Brunello di Montalcino. It also goes very well with another dish my wife prepares about once a year, “duck breast with a pomegranate glaze”. Valpolicella is too light bodied for those dishes but we only eat them a couple of times a year which is about how often we can afford a bottle of good Amarone. We lived an hour away from the region for 4 years, 12 years ago & we did drink a hell of a lot more Valpolicella than Amarone for the reasons above but a glass of good Amarone with the right paring is still something I look forward to on occasion.

  5. VinoPigro

    Thank you for this great article. I really wish Valpolicella’s wine producers read it. I live here (next time, if you like, I can introduce to you some excellent & organic wineproducer…just let me know when you come!). I’ve always been a big fan of Valpolicella wine, because is the most authentic and original wine you can have in this region (along with Recioto), as you wrote. It can be paradoxical, but seems to be the most difficult to make, because if you want a really good wine you need to have perfect grapes. No mistake allowed. Vice versa, the drying grapes process lets you more room for maneuver. Furthermore, currently Amarone (being more expensive) gives much money, and is easier to sell. However, when I visit a winery, I always ask to taste Valpolicella – not Ripasso nor Amarone. And Recioto. If they are good, it’s likely that the whole wine production is good or even excellent. For further info about this topic, let me share this: http://www.terroiramarone.net/blog/2017/1/26/updated-9-facts-about-valpolicella