Valpolicella is a viticulture zone in the region of Veneto in Northeastern Italy. The climate is cool but the region still manages to rank second only to Chianti in total D.O.C. wine production. The red wines are made from a combination of Corvina, Rondinella, and occasionally Molinara.
The vast majority of this wine is labeled as Valpolicella. The wines tend to be light bodied, fairly simple with flavors of red cherries, and low in alcohol (11-13%). Some of them are quite Beaujolais-like and are served slightly chilled. Some are more serious and complex, aged in oak for at least a year, and are labeled as “Superiore.” While perfectly drinkable, they are simple and for the most part uninteresting.
Amarones are another story. The same grapes used in the simpler wines are left on the vine as long as possible to get maximum ripening, then dried for up to three months (a process known as “appassimento.”) They lose up to a third of their water content which concentrates the sugar and flavor while maintaining a high acidity. The wines are aged for at least two years before release, but often remain in oak for up to five years. This results in very powerful, aromatic, and age-worthy wines. The flavors are almost port-like, with chocolate, dried fig, raisin, and mocha. They are very expensive, starting around $50.00, and can escalate easily to triple digits…but the “Wow” factor makes them worth saving for a special occasions.
So in an area making a ton of wine, we have a choice of a simple quaffing wine or a very expensive monster? That would seem a little absurd if it were true. Fortunately, Bacchus, the God of Wine, has given us Ripasso.
Ripasso means “repassed.” Otherwise standard, unremarkable Valpolicella is added to casks containing the skin and the lees left over from fermenting Amarone. This “repassing” of the lighter wine over the remains of the “bigger” wine imparts additional color, flavor, texture, and complexity, often impressively so. A secondary fermentation is induced which increases the wine’s alcohol as well.
Ripassos can be awesome wines and are true bargains. They are sometimes called “baby Amarones” as they have some of the flavor profile of that wine, but are more approachable early (Amarones sometimes don’t reach their maturity for ten to fifteen years.) They often taste more like an Amarone than a Valpolicella for a fraction of the cost of the former. Most Ripassos give you all this flavor—and an interesting story to make you sound really wine savvy—for $15.00 to $30.00.
Ripassos can be served with risottos (especially mushroom) and hearty pasta preparations, but are at their best with roasted veal and lamb or braised beef or game. They are a worthy accompaniment to hard cheeses as well.
Customers will often come into the store interested in Amarones until they are horrified by the price. When I introduce them to Ripassos, they come back in large numbers to try more. We have a good selection of these wines as their popularity is increasing. Here are a few examples.
Cesari “Mara” Ripasso della Valpolicella 2009: This warm and elegant single vineyard wine with its seductive dark fruit flavors is a great introduction to Ripasso. $19.99.
Zenato Superiore Ripassa della Valpolicella 2009: This is an absolutely delicious wine. It is aged in small and large oak barrels for eighteen months and six months in bottle before release. It is very full bodied and very Amarone-like, with flavors of dried fruit—raisins, plums, and dark cherries—accented by rich spice. It has a velvety texture, gentle tannin, and a long finish. $31.99
Allegrini Palazzo della Torre 2009: A consistent finding on Wine Spectator’s top 100 list year after year is this Ripasso from one of Veneto’s top estates. It is a blend mainly of Corvina and Rondinella with a tiny amount of Sangiovese. Rather than the usual method of making Ripasso, this estate dries 30% of the harvested grapes and processes the others as for Valpolicella. Then the dried grapes are added to the fresh grapes and they are fermented. I love this wine, and it is one of my staff picks. It has aromas of wild berries and vanilla, followed by a palate of blackberry, black currant, and kirsch. It is well structured and elegant, with supple tannins and a lingering finish. $20.99.
These are a few examples of the many to choose from. Next time you go to your local wine shop, make Ripasso one of your priorities. It is yet another example of the ingenuity of Italian winemaking, and you will not be disappointed.