wine Features
A Vinous Valentine from Verona
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By Jim Clarke
February 2008

How romantic can a city get? How about being the home of Romeo and Juliet? What if I throw in tons of medieval, Romanesque architecture? Is a giant, pink arena in the center of town too much, even – an excess of kitsch? (If it were modern, yes, but as an ancient Roman amphitheater, it gets grandfathered in.) And if your romance needs a little wine to smooth the path of love, the city I’m thinking of – Verona – happens to be the center local wine industry as well.

The vineyards that surround Verona are not Italy’s most famous. Chianti and Montalcino are to the south; Barolo and Barbaresco, to the west. The Veneto – the area around Venice, which includes Verona – produces more wine than those regions, but much of it is nameless plonk, served on tap at undistinguished eateries, or boxed for export.
However, a few sub-regions and producers struggle against that anonymity, and produce wines of singular character and style.

Take Soave. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the name has some of that romantic appeal – who couldn’t use some suavity on a big date? If you’re into wine, though, it may connote that plonkiness I mentioned earlier. Soave and Chianti were Italy’s big winners in the U.S. after World War II; both got dumbed down by easy sales in the large American market. Chianti bounced back sooner, perhaps aided by the pricey Super-Tuscans that spurred interest there. Soave, as a whole, remains in the doldrums, but a few producers are showing how focusing on the traditional Garganega grape and ripening it fully (it does so later than many whites, inducing anxiety and impatience in growers) can yield wines with more fruit, body, and richness than many of Italy’s other native white varieties.

Inama is one of the handful of producers demonstrating the region’s potential (And doesn’t “in ama” suggest “in amore,” or “enamorado,” or “in love”? I’m stretching, I know.). The  Soave Classico 2006 may be their most basic bottling, but it’s still well ahead of the area’s damaged reputation. Light-bodied, it shows beautiful green apple and floral aromas, especially elderberry, as well as some mineral, almond, and honey notes on the palate. I’ve also grown fond of their 2005 “Vigneto du Lot,” a richer, single vineyard wine which sees a rather untraditional (but well-balanced) bit of French oak. The wine has the weight to bear it; full-bodied, with lots of apricot, tangerine, and almond complemented by the wood’s contributions of toast and cedar. It stays fresh and lively for all that, and shows a lot of length.

How about reds? Well, imagine, if you will, the vinous equivalent of a soundtrack – wines to match the different scenes of a movie (I stretched things in the last paragraph, so why hold back now?). The red wines made near Verona could be the “winetrack” for a romance – perhaps even for a film about those crazy local kids, Romeo and Juliet. Three grapes are permitted in the blend for these wines: Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, the first of which has become more and more important to quality producers for its tannins, structure, and aromatics.

Our movie starts with Valpolicella – light, fresh, and youthful. Like Soave, the appellation’s rep has taken a few knocks in the past few decades, so choose your producers carefully. I’ve recommended Zenato in the past; Speri is another Valpolicella that gives the freshness good structure and balance. Their 2005 Valpolicella “La Roverina” shows very typical violet and cherry aromas; it’s a great seafood red, and drinks well with a bit of a chill in hot weather.

For a richer style and more complexity our story turns to the ripasso style of Valpolicella – think of it as a cross between a traditional Valpolicella, and Amarone, on which I have more to say shortly. To make a ripasso, Valpolicella wine is passed over the lees of the Amarone and refermented, lending intensity, body, and a darker shade of fruit. The Cesari ‘Mara’ Ripasso del Valpolicella 2005 shows the black cherry, plum, and cassis aromas that can develop this way, along with notes of morel mushrooms and some remaining floral touches.

Amarone…it may sound like “amore,”but it basically translates as “big bitter.” No, the whole love story analogy doesn’t lead up to a cynical joke. In fact, if I tell you the wines are rich, complex, and powerful…and can age for decades – perhaps I seem like a romantic again? Amarone profits from a little tweak in the winemaking process: by taking the same grape varieties that could be used to make a straightforward Valpolicella and drying them on straw mats before fermentation, the sugars and flavors are concentrated. That means full-bodied wines, with high alcohol – around 16% - and lots of glycerol, making for a round, sweet mouthfeel in wines that are technically dry in terms of sugar. The dried grapes, once fermented, contribute dark, dried fruit aromas like prune, raisin, and fig; the end result is somewhere between port and a big Zinfandel (Can you see how the lees might have something to offer those ripasso wines?). The Romano Dal Forno 2001, for example, fits the description, with touches of licorice and vanilla as well; another decade of aging – or, at the very least, vigorous and early decanting – are definitely in order if you want to make the most of this wine.

Amarones are quite powerful, and may overwhelm. For a sweeter, “Hollywood ending” opt instead for a Recioto. The procedure is pretty much the same as for Amarone, but the wine isn’t fermented to dryness, making for a delicious dessert wine. The Tommaso Bussola Recioto del Valpolicella 2005 has a mix of red and dark fruits, with some menthol and balsamic touches. The tannins are deep but soft, leavened by a moderate amount of sweetness.

Is all the romantic talk is putting too much pressure on your Valentine’s Day? Prefer something simpler, something more relaxed and festive? Head northeast from Verona to Valdobiaddene, home of Prosecco. A refreshing sparkler, Prosecco has neither the cachet nor the cost of Champagne; instead it offers freshness and conviviality. Some can be too light; for a Prosecco with substance, try the Bisol Prosecco “Crede” 2006; it has ripe peach, apple, and lemon aromas, as well as an underlying minerality. Valdobiaddene may be a bit far afield from Verona, but Venice isn’t far either, so there’s still plenty of romance in the air.

Recommended Wines (Prices are retail, and approximate):
Inama Soave Classico 2006 ($13)
Inama “Vigneto du Lot” Soave Classico 2005 ($24)
Speri Valpolicella Classico”La Roverina” 2005 ($13)
Cesari ‘Mara’ Ripasso del Valpolicella 2005 ($14)
Romano Dal Forno Amarone del Valpolicella 2001 ($100)
Tommaso Bussola Recioto del Valpolicella 2005 ($55; 500ml bottle)
Bisol Prosecco “Crede” 2006 ($15)

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