Valpolicella: Little Big Wines

If this wine were a fruit, it’d be too ripe to touch.

I don't think any wines give me warm fuzzies quite like those of northeastern Italy. This time of year, when the thought of red wine seems the opposite of refreshing, I turn to Valpolicella, a little big wine that can mingle at any outdoor occasion. When I sold wine, and couldn't narrow down what a customer was trying to ask of me, I'd bring her here to fair Verona, where we lay our scene. Valpolicella is named after the hills just north of the city of Verona. The wine consists of three grape varieties: rondinella, molinara, and corvina (the superstar of the group). Look straight north from the city, and the vineyards form a snapshot of undulating waves of green speckled with an art-directed smattering of cream-colored buildings. Of course Romeo and Juliet fell in love here. Though Dante wrote much of the Divine Comedy under the Tuscan sun, it's also said that he lived for a few years among these hills, where he penned the "Paradiso" section of the work. Although Verona sometimes qualifies as the fourth level of hell during tourist season, I'd say not much has spoiled this little slice of heaven in the 700 years since Dante's time. Valpolicella is a light- to medium-bodied red that should smell and taste berry-fruity with a hint of plum, meaning it doesn't give your mouth that overly dry feeling. If this wine were a fruit, it'd be too ripe to touch. It also has a really cool feature: The best word I use to remember it is dustiness. Not earthy—just shy of that. The dustiness makes the wine more complex, like the difference between a fruit jam and a subtly spiced chutney. If you want to taste something close to heaven, try amarone della Valpolicella. A number of wineries in the region take the very best of the same grapes that make Valpolicella, dry them on straw mats, then make wine from the raisins. As it ferments, all the sugar disappears, and the amarone becomes a rich and intense—but dry—wine. Amarone smells vaguely port-like, with a certain bitter finish (amaro means "bitter"). Next to it, even the most pedigreed zinfandels seem pitiable. Just looking at a bottle of Masi's Campolongo di Torbe makes me weak in the knees. Because of the labor-intensive process, amarone is not a cheap wine, but it is one of the most reliable values for the money. If $50 and up per bottle is too rich for your blood, there is another wine, made from the same three grapes, that positions itself as less costly than the special-occasion amarone but plusher than your everyday Valpolicella. Think of it as an every-other-Saturday-night wine. After a winemaker drains a tank of amarone, the little raisins remain at the bottom. Instead of wasting the dried fruit, he takes young Valpolicella wine and adds it to the tank to mingle with the leftovers. The wine picks up a few echoes of the ultra-rich characteristics of amarone, yielding a wine called ripasso ("repassed"), another aspect of Valpolicella's deliciousness. Some wineries take liberties with the process but achieve the same "baby amarone" result; Masi's Campofiorin is a fine example. I'd buy it just to smell it. Give it a good home in a r eally big glass. Today, Masi Agricola, the leading winery in the area, produces wines not only under the Masi Agricola moniker but also under the Serego Alighieri brand, taken from the same estate that Dante Alighieri's son purchased in the Valpolicella hills in the mid-14th century. The winery works in conjunction with the current Count (yes, Count) to uphold the tradition of the Valpolicella trinity. Both labels are excellent examples of this profanely luscious yet divinely light red. If you can't summer in Valpolicella, you can at least summer with it.

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