Wine 101: Italy Region Deep Dive Valpolicella

This episode of “Wine 101” features Maze Row Wine Merchant’s esteemed partner Allegrini, which is located in northern Italy, in the Veneto region. The Allegrini family dates back to six generations of making wine in the Valpolicella region, which means “land of many cellars.” Valpolicella is also the name of one of Allegrini’s most famous red wines, made from the historic grape called Corvina that imparts signature notes of almond. To try Allegrini, follow the link in the episode description to

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores Valpolicella and how Valpolicella is not just Amarone. Tune in to learn more.

Listen Online

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Listen on Spotify

Or Check Out the Conversation Here

Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and I just found out about trees and crown shyness and it blows my mind. The tops of trees in a group in the wind will not touch each other. Google it. It’s incredible.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair Podcasting Network, this is “Wine 101.” My name is Keith Beavers and I am the tastings director of VinePair, and how are you today? I really feel we need to get real with Valpolicella. Yes, yes, there’s Amarone and it’s great. There’s so much more. Let’s go into Valpolicella, get you guys excited about it because it’s going to be your new favorite, promise.

Okay, wine lovers, we have to talk. We have to talk about Valpolicella. Because I know, I know that we, as Americans, and our love for big red wines throughout the ’80s, that the word Amarone became part of our wine-loving vocabulary. And the thing about Amarone, if you know about it, we’re going to get into it if you don’t, it’s actually called Amarone della Valpolicella. It has a longer name. And that “della Valpolicella” means “of Valpolicella,” because the Amarone wine is made in a certain place and that is Valpolicella.

This is one of Italy’s most stunning wine regions. And I say that because I’ve been, and I’ve been in these mountains and I’ve been overwhelmed with what I saw. Sort of like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so small. I’m a human, I’m so small. This place is so big.” I have to say, wine lovers, I am a huge fan of the wines of Valpolicella, and I really am excited to get you guys excited about these wines, beyond the Amarone, which again, we’re going to talk about, there’s a whole thing going on here. This wine region is awesome, incredible, and stunning, but also with the humans involved, things got weird. And in the same tradition of Chianti Classico, being like, “Look, we are our own thing,” there is also a classico here in Valpolicella. Let’s talk about where this is, what it is, and why it’s awesome.

In northern Italy, sort of northeastern Italy, is the region of the Veneto. We’ve talked about Veneto before, especially in the Prosecco episode. The Veneto is bordered to the north by the Alps, and just south of that northern border is a famous city called Verona. Now if you’re in Verona and you head north, you’re going to eventually be in the Alps. But as you head north from Verona, before you get into the Alps, you get into what are called the Pre-Alps. And here in the Pre-Alps, north of Verona, is a mountain range. They’re mountains, they’re just not the Alps, called the Lessinia mountain range.

And this is kind of hard to explain because it’s really dramatic, it’s very dramatic — geography, I guess you could call it. You imagine how crazy and craggy and huge the Alps are. Well, if you were to be in the Alps and start heading down towards the Pre-Alps, you’ll get into these lower mountains. And as you leave the Pre-Alps to go even further down towards the plains, which you’ll eventually get to Verona, that little section between the foothills of the Pre-Alps and the plains, are these adjacent valleys formed in the mountains as they cascade down into the planes towards Verona.

I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s really the only way to put it. It’s very, very amazing. I have had the opportunity to be in the Lessini mountains and have seen all this. It’s arresting. It catches your breath. It’s absolutely beautiful. And this area, actually long, long time ago, used to be under water. And I actually went to a museum and saw fossils, it was mind-blowing. And this section of mountain, Pre-Alp mountain just north of Verona, is actually just east of Lake Garda. Between Lake Garda and these valleys is actually a wine region called Bardolino, which we should get into at some point.

But what’s really beautiful about this place is that these valleys run adjacent to each other and they have names. And the most western valley is called Fumane. Then just east of Fumane is a valley called Marano. And then east of that is a valley called Negrar. And in these three valleys, only mostly, I should say, primarily on the hillside of these three valleys, humans have grown vines, vines with grapes, with names like Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara. They’re not your normal varieties you hear about on the American market.

But these three valleys, for a very long time, humans have been producing wine here. And the area is referred to as Valpolicella. And that is a Latin-Greek mix word to refer to all the natural caves in these Lessini mountains. And it roughly translates to “the valley of cellers” or “valley of caves.” And these vines can get upwards of 1,300-plus feet above sea level. I know I’ve mentioned this term before, but this is mountain fruit. And it’s in these three valleys where a wine region began to emerge through history. And uniquely enough, there is actually a third valley just east of Negrar, and here it is a specific sort of isolated valley. It’s called Valpantena, which means the “valley of the gods,” because it’s named after an ancient pantheon in the area.

And before Italy created its appellation system, the Valpolicella and the Valpantena was a wine-producing region that focused mainly on a variety called Corvina. There were other native varieties in the area, but Corvina was their main squeeze. And they made red wine out of it. And they would blend sometimes with native varieties, and we’ll get to those in a little bit. Or they would make a sort of dessert wine called Recioto. Now “recioto” in the local dialect means “ear.” And they would take the grapes from the top lobe of the grape bunch and make wine from that in a sort of passito dessert style, which we’ll get into a little bit as well, but it was called Recioto.

It sounds pretty amazing, am I right? Mountain fruit, Corvina, red wine, good acidity, vibrant red wine with a little bit of depth to it. They even have their own little dessert wine. It was all going so well in the hills of the valleys of the Valpolicella in the Valpantena. And this is the wine that defined this region. The thing is with Italy and its appellation system, when they were forming it, this happened with Chianti as well. And it happens not often, but it happened enough that it was noticeable in that a wine region that initially was a certain size, when it became a DOC, they would enlarge it. They would widen the demarcation of it. And what that would often do is it would go beyond the original area that defined the region into other soils and micro climates that were different from that area.

In the 1960s, when Valpolicella became a DOC, it included the three valleys and then it also included Valpantena. But then it also included a large swath of land to the east of all of that, down in a more of a plains region, more fertile soil. The resulting wine is going to be different from those growing on the hills of valleys and the craggy mountains, the Lessini mountains. And this is where things get a little bit confusing. And if you know about Valpolicella wines and you’ve heard of the Amarone wine, this is where things get a little bit crazy. And this might be the reason why this word, Valpolicella, may give people some agita.

So in 1968 the Valpolicella DOC was formed. It included the valleys and then that big, large, flat plain area. And in addition to that, the other varieties that were being grown natively in the area were also permitted in the wine. So you had Corvina, then you had a grape called Rondinella, and a grape called Molinara. Also a grape called Corvinone, but we’ll get into that in a second. And then, they sectioned out that original area with the three valleys and called that Valpolicella Classico. So that is another DOC within the larger Valpolicella DOC.

It’s a little bit confusing. Then, to add a little bit more confusion, the Valpantena, the “valley of the gods,” is not its own DOC but just a sub-zone that can attach Valpantena to the label. It’s a little bit confusing. But what’s happening here is another wine region is getting a DOC, expanding, and trying to hold on to that original thing that people fell in love with. The problem is, because of the large plain area and the high use of the other native varieties blended with Corvina, the quality of Valpolicella, it went down a little bit, just like it happened in Chianti.

And what happened was, this is unique to this area, is the plains wine got so popular, or it was just so easy to make and it was just so well distributed, that the Classico area — this is wild — started to be abandoned because those people couldn’t make any money. The place where the original wines were made could not make money and compete with the larger plains area within the same DOC.

But that all changed in the 1950s when, the legend has it, a Recioto was fermented to dryness. Recioto, the wine made from — originally it became the entire bunch at some point — but it was the lobe, the top lobes of the grape bunch. I think maybe because it had the highest concentration of sugar, I’m not really sure. And they would dry these grapes out until they’re almost like raisins and they would ferment them. And at some point they would halt the fermentation before it fermented to complete dryness. And it was a sweet dessert wine that went well with all the local cheeses and stuff like that.

The legend has it that at some point someone actually fermented Recioto to dryness. And the result was a wine with less residual sugar, but still had that deep, dark concentration to it and a slight bitterness to it. A little Amarone: dark and bitter. And in the 1950s and especially the 1960s, this idea caught fire. It caught fire to the point where it got its own DOCG in the Valpolicella DOC. Are you confused yet? It’s confusing. So now we have regular Valpolicella red wine, just a red wine that’s blended with some grapes: Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara. And it’s made all over the Valpolicella DOC, and it’s made in the Classico DOC, and it’s made in the Valpantena.

Then we have Recioto, which is a sort of dessert wine, with grapes that are dried out until they are like raisins and they ferment a little bit, and they make a sweet wine out of it. And that is made across the Valpolicella. That is actually now a DOCG. And then we have Amarone, which is a Recioto, fermented to dryness and powerful, but a red wine. So those are the wines that were in the Valpolicella. And Amarone got so popular that it brought the Classico region back and they began to be able to compete with the plains region. I know, it’s really bizarre. They’re competing within the same DOC, it’s nuts.

And then something else happened, wine lovers, one more thing happened, and this is called Ripasso. All right, bear with me, This is a lot, but in the end it’s going to be really awesome for all of us. Imagine Valpolicella, just a regular blend, red wine Valpolicella, that is pumped over the pomace of Amarone. What happens is, you have a regular, bright Valpolicella blend being exposed to the residual-residual sugar of Amarone, and that imparts some of the Amarone into the vibrant red wine. And that process is called the repass. They repass this juice over Amarone, repass, repass. In Italy, they call it Ripasso. And that became popular.

So here we are today with the Valpolicella DOC, which is a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. Rondinella and Molinara are only in the DOC because of politics, and a lot of winemakers are trying to not use Molinara anymore. And they’re also trying to cut on Rondinella because there’s a new grape called Corvinone that everyone thought was related to Corvina, but it turns out it’s not, but it has very similar characteristics to Corvina. And now everybody wants Corvina and Corvinone to be the primary varietals of this region.

But anyway, this is what you’re going to see on a shelf in a wine shop, because a lot of wine shops have Valpolicella wines. You’re going to see the regular Valpolicella DOC. There it is. It’s a blend, we all know. Then within that DOC is the Valpolicella Classico DOC. Same grapes, mostly Corvina and Corvinone. And you’re going to see that on the label, Valpolicella Classico. Then you have Recioto DOCG within the DOC of Valpolicella. And what you’ll see on the label is Recioto della Valpolicella. Then you’ll also see Amarone. And on the label it’ll say Amarone della Valpolicella. That’s the real name of Amarone.

And then you’ll see another label that says Ripasso, Valpolicella Ripasso. And it’s thought that, well, it’s said that, Valpolicella Ripasso is a baby Amarone, because the price of these wines are much, much lower than Amarone. Amarone is very expensive wine. If you get Amarone that is not very expensive you may not get the classic idea of what Amorone became in the 1950s and ’60s, because Amarone can be made all over Valpolicella. So it can be made in the plains, it can be made in the Classico, it can be made in the Valpantena, it can be made wherever.

So, if you want to get a Valpolicella… I mean, I’m sorry, an Amarone that’ll kind of knock you socks off, you got to spend like 80 bucks. You got to spend some money. The labor of making this wine is a little more intense. The grapes for Amarone are much more expensive because Amarone is now officially a DOCG as well within a DOC. But it’s worth it because when you have this wine, you have the right wine. Talk to your wine merchants about this one, don’t just go buy one. It’s better to talk to a wine merchant than just picking one off the shelf. It’ll blow your mind. And it’s really wild how this is a wine that was created in the 1950s based off of an accident, legend says, from Recioto. It’s wild.

But okay, so that’s Valpolicella. But what I want you guys to understand is mostly Valpolicella Classico, but also just regular Valpolicella DOC, if you could find a good one, these wines are absolutely… I don’t know what to say. They’re wonderful. They are beautiful, vibrant, cherry, bright, great acidity, medium-bodied fruit, just excellent wines that you can chill a little bit and drink a little bit cold. But they’re some of the most amazing food wine coming out of Italy that no one really talks about.

Yes, Chianti’s amazing with its Sangiovese in the cranberry notes and the acidity, but we can’t sleep on Valpolicella, because some of these wines… Having a Valpolicella Classico, just to have it around, or having a Valpolicella you tend to dig laying around, is one of the best wines to have laying around because it goes with all kinds of foods. So I want to highlight the regular Valpolicella where it all began, because then Recioto, Amarone, Ripasso, those are all awesome wines. And Ripasso is so cool because it’s like the vibrant Valpolicella with a little bit of density of Amarone.

They’re awesome wines and they’re everywhere. If you want to get real nice, from Classico all the way to Amarone, definitely talk to a wine merchant about the wines they have from Valpolicella. Because if someone’s actually seeking out Valpolicella wines as a wine merchant, they’re going to find some pretty awesome stuff. On the larger market you’re not really sure what you’re going to get because that plains area is still pumping out a bunch of wine. And hey, if you drink that and you like it, that’s great. You’re drinking Valpolicella, it’s awesome. But I’m just saying, you want the original stuff, the Classico is awesome.

Okay, I think I’ve waxed on and off enough about Valpolicella because I love it so much, and I hope that this kind of got you a little bit excited about Valpolicella. But the thing is, this Classico thing, it didn’t just happen in Chianti, it didn’t just happen in Valpolicella, it actually happened in the wine region neighboring Valpolicella to the east, which is a white wine region — Soave. That one’s crazy. I’ll see you next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePairs Wine 101. Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide range of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wines. I mean, Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast. So whether you’re new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. We look forward to serving you enjoyment in moments that matter. Cheers. Visit today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.