Reaching into the cooler at my local wine shop on a hot summer day, the last thing I expected to pull out was a Valpolicella. Intrigued, I bought the bottle. Surprise: It was light and low alcohol, a refreshing revelation. But where were all the other Valpolicellas in my life?
It turns out there are plenty out there, but the lithe wines — which are also a great value, often selling for $15 or less — seem to be getting pushed aside by the burlier-styled Valpolicella Ripasso. This made me wonder whether the future of the region’s reds is on an unstoppable march toward the heavier Valpolicellas dubbed “Baby Amarone.”
The numbers, provided by the Consorzio per la Tutela dei Vini Valpolicella, aren’t glowing for the lighter styles I loved, labelled as “Valpolicella Classico” or simply “Valpolicella.” The volume of these wines bottled in 2019 is 19 percent lower than a decade ago. (Valpolicella Superiore, which has a higher potential alcohol and requires longer aging, is part of this category.) Ripasso, on the other hand, has grown 55 percent in bottle volume over a decade, comparing numbers from 2019 versus 2009.
But who can be mad at Ripasso’s success? As Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan MW says, it’s much easier to sell a “Baby Amarone,” which is a “nice sound bite and talking point.” This phrase “implies that it has more power than Valpolicella, which it does, and is less expensive than Amarone, which it is,” she says.
Simonetti-Bryan’s logic is echoed by Meg Posey Scott, manager and wine director at the Seattle restaurant How to Cook a Wolf, who asked her team about Ripasso. “They observe that people seem to gravitate to the Ripassos as they are the ‘just right’ option in a Goldilocks lineup between a young, inexpensive Valpolicella and an expensive and intense Amarone. At the $60 to $80 dollar restaurant price point, and easy to pronounce, it’s a sweet spot. Zenato did a great job on this front, essentially trademarking the name ‘Ripassa,’ i.e., ‘I’ll have the Ripassa.’ Done.”
Armando Castagnedi, co-owner and co-founder of Tenuta Sant’Antonio, has seen this phenomenon firsthand. “When people think about Valpolicella, they tend to think of a richer-style wine,” he says. If that sounds a bit reserved, Castagnedi continues, “The power of the word Ripasso may be stronger than Valpolicella.”
But fear not, fans of lighter-style Valpolicella. While Tenuta Sant’Antonio makes a “Baby Amarone,” the winery also produces Nanfrè. This Valpolicella sees no oak and is under 13 percent alcohol. “This lighter style is the traditional way that Valpolicella was made at the beginning,” Castagnedi says. “Over a period of 20 to 30 years producers gradually made the wine richer because the market demanded it.”
While production trends are not encouraging for “regular” Valpolicella, there is a heartening global kinship with the wines. “We have a new generation that has learned to drink lighter wines like Pinot Noir and Beaujolais,” Castagnedi says.
Interestingly, Rebecca Travaglini, a representative for Azienda Agricola Graziano Prà, mentioned Pinot Noir as well when discussing the perception of Valpolicella. “Because it’s grown at 500 meters in altitude, our Valpolicella often reminds people of Pinot Noir in blind tastings,” Travaglini says.
Secondo Marco owner and winemaker Marco Speri, a producer of a wide range of Valpolicellas, also has a soft spot for the lighter expressions. He is optimistic in the face of Ripasso’s reign for a broader future across the Valpolicella spectrum. “The trend will move toward the search for lightness and finesse, not volume,” he says. But Speri doesn’t see these wines as one-dimensional refreshers, noting that moderate bottle aging benefits these humble wines.
Education is a big part of turning this sentiment into reality. Dustin Chaubert, a sommelier at Chicago’s Spiaggia, steers fans of “super-rich Napa Valley reds” toward Amarone. Conversely, he’ll suggest customers looking for something Pinot Noir-esque branch out to a Valpolicella Superiore. “Oftentimes, people have this ‘a-ha’ moment when being introduced to some of the lighter styles of Valpolicella where they start to understand that there’s more out there than big, beefy Amarone,” he says.
Another facet that makes Valpolicella intriguing is the wine offers unexpected food pairings. While you can’t go wrong pairing it with pizza, Valpolicella is a wine with rule-breaking qualities. Seafood is a consensus must-try: Simonetti-Bryan likes it with prosciutto-wrapped scallops; Travaglini suggests a spicy fish stew; fritti misti is among Spiri’s recommendations. And, most surprising of all, Castagnedi recalls one sommelier’s bold choice: raw oysters.
Of course, one of the chief pleasures of Valpolicella is that it’s a no-food-required kind of red. Set aside the stemware, pour a generous splash into a short tumbler, and stick that open bottle back in the fridge, or put it on ice for a bit. While there’s always a time and a place for more brooding levels of Valpolicella, discovering a daily red that’s been hidden in plain sight is something worth celebrating — often and with gusto.
5 Valpolicellas to Try
Masi Bonacosta Valpolicella Classico
A bottling from an iconic Veneto producer, the Bonacosta is a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara and is Simonetti-Bryan’s pick. Musing on Valpolicella in general, she says, “I think it is underrated and gets overlooked because basic Chianti is a bigger ‘brand’ for Italian wine here and less intimidating to say than Valpolicella.” Average price: $15
Tenuta Sant’Antonio Nanfrè Valpolicella
This 70 percent Corvina, 30 percent Rondinella is stainless-steel-fermented and aged. “We always speak about Nanfrè as a Pinot Noir style because of the lighter style, the color, and the spicy notes,” says Castagnedi. “It puts this wine in context.” Average price: $14
Secondo Marco Valpolicella Classico
Corvina (70 percent), Corvinone (15 percent), and Rondinella (10 percent), plus a small amount of native grapes, are blended to create the Secondo Marco Valpolicella Classico. Aged six months in concrete, six in barrel, it’s a richer, yet still fresh, Valpolicella. Speri’s comments about short-term aging make it tempting to stash some bottles away. Average price: $21
Prà Morandina Valpolicella
Start exploring Valpolicella’s lighter side with Prà’s Morandina. I was surprised to discover the grapes for this wine (organically grown Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, and Oseleta) are lightly dried before pressing. But make no mistake: This translucent wine is a chillable delight. Average price: $25
Speri Valpolicella Classico
Travaglini mentioned Speri as a producer to know. A seventh-generation family winery whose vineyards were certified organic in 2015, Speri’s Valpolicella is a blend of 60 percent Corvina, 30 percent Rondinella, and 10 percent Molinara. Marco Speri worked at his family’s winery for 25 years before starting Secondo Marco. Average price: $13