I had two major anniversaries in 2019, the 25th anniversary of AWSEC and my silver wedding anniversary.
Obviously only one of those anniversaries has a romantic connection so that was the one on my mind when I travelled to Verona in Italy with my wife in late January this year. We were in Verona for the Valpolicella Education Program (VEP).
Verona's key romantic link is the Juliet balcony made famous to most by the playwright, though also the subject of both more and less prosaic pieces of writing, Bill Shakespeare (I come from close enough in the UK to Stratford-Upon-Avon to be able to call him Bill!). I had been to Verona before but without my wife so I had not been to the Juliet balcony hence the obligatory visit on this occasion.
‘What does any of this have to do with wine?' I can imagine you asking.
Well visiting the Juliet balcony got me thinking about relationships and the secret to their success. Love? Of course. Intimacy? Certainly helps. But I pondered the possibility of one important element being variety. After all, ‘variety is the spice of life’! No, not in partners. Let me explain.
Many relationships seem to fail because couples get into a rut, stuck in a routine that results in boredom and the inevitable frustration leads to arguments and the ultimate breakdown of the relationship.
Is it the same for wine? Does a wine drinker's relationship with a wine region or grape variety break down due to boredom brought on by the lack of variety? I won’t quote a couple of examples that I can think of but I’m sure you can imagine.
If that is the case, Valpolicella would seem to be at risk. Your average wine consumer, if they are even familiar with Valpolicella, may dismiss it as a quaffable (I love that word!) cherry scented alcoholic beverage suited to easy drinking. Perhaps the more knowledgeable wine enthusiast would counter with a mention of Amarone but surely that is just a more rich and alcoholic style resulting from 'appassimento’ (the drying of the grapes or, as I learned on the VEP, the ‘withering’ of the grapes).
If I arrived in Verona with some concerns for Valpolicella, my time there made it clear to me that if variety is an important feature of the success of a relationship, the region of Valpolicella has nothing to fear and we all need to understand it better and drink it more!
Yes, there is basic Valpolicella DOC and yes, cherry is a feature of its character but individual producers have individual styles. Some like to highlight the fruit. Others mingle in a little oak. Some perhaps take the oak a bit far but there is clearly a market for such wines or they wouldn't make them. On tasting such a range of wines from Valpolicella, I started to identify the style of individual producers which was a revelation.
But there are many other expressions in this wonderful region beyond the wide range that Valpolicella DOC already gives us.
There is Valpolicella Classico DOC produced in the original, and therefore oldest, production area comprising the towns of Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella (where the Consorzio has its offices and where we attended our lessons), Fumane, San Pietro in Cariano, Marano and Negrar.
There is Valpolicella DOC Valpantena, produced in one of the eleven valleys (you will often see reference to thirteen valleys but while there are thirteen ‘areas/Crus’, only eleven of them are actual valleys) which I found tends to show more mineral characters. For those who find ‘mineral’ a rather nebulous descriptor, look for the occasional spicy note in some expressions of Valpantena.
Then Valpolicella, Classico and Valpantena can all have ‘Superiore’ versions with the wines requiring one year minimum ageing, more dry extract and a higher minimum level of alcohol. These tend to de-emphasize the fruit and highlight more savoury and earthy notes, the ageing rarely being in new oak.
Then there is Amarone. We use the term 'Amarone' but should perhaps state with more clarity 'Amarone della Valpolicella' as the Consorzio does battle with those who feel that the term 'Amarone' is a generic term which can be used by others (it is not and it shouldn't be).
I had the privilege of tasting 54 Amarone della Valpolicella from the 2016 vintage, some of which have been bottled, some are still in cask. They were 54 very individual wines. I would love to say there was a common thread, partly because there is a need to identify Amarone wines in the VEP exam which includes blind tasting, but there isn't one. You could argue the case for balsamic notes and hints of tea tree oil (an oft repeated descriptor during our course but not something I was familiar enough with prior to the course) but many I tasted had none of these characters but were special for other reasons. Looking through my notes, I often see ‘dried fruit’, ‘herbal’, ‘truffle earthiness’, ‘savoury, ‘beetroot’ and many other descriptors which makes defining Amarone somewhat difficult.
And as I run out of space for this article, I haven't even started on Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG or Ripasso della Valpolicella DOC which could each be the subject of their own articles.
So if variety is indeed the spice of life, and if indeed it can help to maintain a relationship, then we should all have a long and loving relationship with the wines of Valpolicella. I certainly will.