Valpolicella

Grapes – in depth!

There’s an awful lot written (not least on this blog!) about the many aspects that contribute to successful winemaking – soil, weather, vinification techniques, types of oak – everything down to what glass you use. It’s probably important however to remember the thing without which there would not be wine in the first place – the actual fruit that it comes from.

Grapes, of course, come in a truly dizzying array of varieties, all of which grow differently depending on where they are, how they’re cultivated, when they’re harvested and myriad other factors. Complicating matters even further, in many regions the trademark are blends of wines made from different varieties, the balances of which depend on regional rules, winemaker’s choices, the effects of the vintage, and so on ad infinitum!

Valpolicella is one such region, its wines legally obliged to be composites of different varietals, each of which has its own unique set of characteristics which it brings to the finished product, the final wine in the bottle. As with many areas which habitually blend, the different grapes may specialise in acidity, or tannin, or alcohol, or specific desired flavours and aromas, or it may have a moderating effect on other grapes – or, in the case of Valpolicella, it may be particularly suitable for the appassimento process by which Amarone and Recioto are made (and which fundamentally contributes to ripasso).

How to make sense of it all? Not to worry – here is our guide to every grape used to make the red wines of the Valpolicella DOC and DOCG, in order of traditional importance. Naturally complete comprehensiveness is impossible, but we will cover all the bases by looking at the vines’ fruiting schedule, how its grapes grow, what kinds of grapes it produces (and how much of them), the vines’ own health tendencies, how best to train them and, of course (and most importantly), what kind of wine it ultimately produces and how it contributes to the final blend.

Corvina

So, to start with easily the most important grape in the region. By law, wines carrying the Valpolicella label must be made from at least 45% corvina grapes, and at most 95% (up to half of this may be substituted with another, deceptively similar grape – but more on that later). It sometimes goes under the names corvina veronese or, much more rarely, cruina. The origins of the name are unknown, though some think it has something to do with a legend whereby the fruit is considered particularly attractive to ravens (the Italian for raven is ‘corvino’); it could, however, simply refer to the grape’s dark blue-black colour, though as we say, nobody knows for sure. What we do know, however, is that it’s been around for a very long time: first mentioned by the Veronese writer Alessandro Peccana in his 1627 work Del bever freddo, it has almost certainly been around a lot longer even than that, and is probably a spontaneous mutation autochthonous to the Valpolicella region. It is the beating heart of Valpolicella wine.

But what is it actually like as a vine? Well, it is somewhat delicate, and does not respond well to mechanised training. The most common method for training it is known as ‘double Guyot’, in which a vine trunk is encouraged to produce to fruiting canes, which are draped over a support wire in each direction, forming a ‘T’ shape. This does, however, carry a disadvantage with it: overproduction. Corvina is a rather vigorous vine, which sounds like a great thing if all we were dealing with here was quantity. However, a general rule of thumb is that as quantity of fruit produced per vine goes up, the quality of the fruit produced goes down (imagine that each vine has a fixed amount of flavour in it – the more berries that vine produces, the less flavour will be in each individual berry, and the wine overall will be flaccid and bland. Winemakers do need to make a profit, however, so finding the right balance of grapes produced is key). The main way growers can manage yield is through pruning, particularly what’s known as ‘green pruning’, whereby useless shoots – ones which won’t flower and fruit productively – are pruned before they grow too much into flowering season, what’s known as ‘bud-burst’. This occurs relatively late with corvina, as does grape ripening, a characteristic associated with the retention of acidity.

 

The vine produces leaves of a notably stark pentagonal shape which have been said to resemble a lyre. When they grow, the grapes themselves tend to form dense, compact clusters in the form of pyramidal cylinders. The berries are oval in shape and have that aforementioned dark colour, with an opacity borne of its medium-thick skins. The vine is generally very healthy, but the grapes do have a certain susceptibility to the fungal infection botrytis cinerea, of the unfortunately damaging ‘grey rot’ variety (rather than the ‘noble rot’ crucial for the making of sweet wines like Sauternes and Tokaji), and for this reason requires dry weather to flourish – not just in the growing season, but also in the winter for the appassimento process.

That process itself has the effect of concentrating a few aspects of the resulting wine that are on the lower side: sugar concentration and anthocyanin content (read: tannins). Wines made from corvina grapes that haven’t undergone the drying process (including varietal wines released under the Verona IGT classification) tend to be medium-bodied, medium in alcohol terms, low in tannic compounds and relatively high in acidity for red wines. The real trademark aroma is slightly bitter cherries, the influence of certain aldehyde and ester chemicals present in the grape variety (though there are intriguing studies that suggest yeast variety may influence cherry aromas, leaving open the possibility that many Italian reds known for this scent may do so because of shared wild strains). At its simplest, corvina wines focus on this fruity profile, friendly, juicy and even chillable to a degree. At their more complex however, under the influence of other varietals in a blend, appassimento, oak ageing or anything else, corvina is truly capable of greatness, one of the great grape varieties of Italy, that perhaps took too long to be recognised as such but which now nobody can deny.

Corvinone

The name reveals the history. Since time immemorial, corvinone has been considered essentially a version of corvina, a clone – the same grape, just a bit bigger in size (the ‘-one’ suffix in Italian means a big version of the affixed-to noun). This was a reasonable assumption – its leaves are similar, its grapes look similar, it has some similar flavours and characteristics when vinified, and it tends to like the same growing conditions as corvina. There’s only one problem with this assumption: it turns out it’s wrong.

 

Ampelographers over the course of the 1980s determined through genetic tests that corvinone shares ancestry with corvina, but is in fact a varietal in its own right, which needs its own subtleties of care and cultivation in order to bring out its best qualities. Despite its similar five-lobed leaves and ripening times, corvinone requires even more aggressive pruning to arrest its yields and maintain quality. The grape clusters are of a different shape, less cylindrical and more pyramidal in shape, and the skins of the berries themselves are slightly thicker, making it highly suitable for the rigours of appassimento (though it does not necessarily mean more tannin). The juice itself tends to be slightly more acidic as well, a highly desirable contribution to any final blend. The size of the berries generally makes them a little less sweet than corvina and thus less alcoholic after fermentation – however, they can be somewhat higher in ester compounds, making them sometimes more fragrant and floral than is normal for corvina.

Corvinone’s historical classification as a clone of corvina has probably played a role in its more limited diffusion, with as of now only a single solitary hectare known to be planted outside of Italy (in Argentina, in case you wondered). According to the laws of the Valpolicella appellation, it is allowed to substitute up to half of the corvina in the assemblage (practically meaning a maximum share of 47.5%). Its greater resilience, acidity and sometimes extra floweriness are all highly valuable to winemakers, as well as its high degree of suitability for raisinification. After a long time in the shadow of what was considered a bigger, better sibling, corvinone is now gaining the respect it deserves for what it can do of its own account, and the number of top winemakers who have shown great faith in corvinone (such as Tommasi and Quintarelli) illustrates this.

Rondinella

There does seem to be something about birds in the Veneto doesn’t there? Rondinella means ‘little swallow’, for reasons that honestly nobody seems able to determine (it could, like is theorised about corvina, be that it’s considered the favourite berry of its namesake avian, but there’s no evidence to determine this for sure). We do know that it is autochthonous to the Veneto, probably originally from the Bardolino area before arriving in Valpolicella in around the 13th Century. These days it is the only other compulsory grape in the blend along with corvina, by law comprising 5-30% of the assemblage of wines that carry the Valpolicella label, a fact that reflects its continued importance to the identity of the region.

The vine’s medium-sized leaves are identifiable for their five deep lobes and their peculiar U-shape, almost like a lyre. It tends towards medium-to-late ripening, though a little earlier than the first two grapes we’ve covered in this post. The grapes when they grow are of a blue-black colour, considerably rounder than the ovoid shape of corvina or corvinone, and grow in very compact, pyramid-shaped clusters. Even compared to those two vines as well rondinella is an extremely vigorous vine which, if not very heavily pruned, will overproduce grapes of considerably lower quality (and indeed in the past this wasn’t always done, which contributed to an undeserved lower reputation for the varietal). Its flavours are relatively mild, medium acidity and medium sweetness, but it does have a notable quantity of tannic compounds especially after drying – to which, owing to its remarkable resistance to disease, it is extremely suited.

 

Though almost never vinified on its own, rondinella’s increasing percentages in many Valpolicella and Amarone wines reflect a renewed interest in the variety, particularly when its yields are controlled, given how well it undergoes appassimento. It has also produced an interesting spontaneous white mutation, rondinella bianca, which forms the basis of Zymé’s groundbreaking ‘From Black to White’ release.

Oseleta

No abating on the ornithological theme, oseleta is the most Veneto of names, meaning ‘little bird’ in dialect, not Italian. It is of course autochthonous, found nowhere outside the region, and has long been considered a rarity even in Veronese vineyards owing especially to its devastation by the phylloxera plague, after which many vineyards elected to replant with other vines (in particular corvina).

From a certain economic point of view you can understand why. First of all, permitted varietals other than the aforementioned three are only permitted to make up 25% of wines with the Valpolicella label, limiting the cost-effectiveness of extensive planting. Furthermore, oseleta in particular is, in great contrast to the three grapes we’ve covered so far, not especially productive, with relatively low yields compared to those ultra-productive colleague vines, an issue further compounded by the relatively small size of its wide-oval blue-black grapes (it is, in general, a somewhat petite vine, with smallish leaves of five-to-seven lobes). These aspects do have some advantages however: lower yields can mean grapes of somewhat greater concentration of the grapes themselves, considerably more desired in this age of viticulture than in the past, which the small size of the berries emphasises, as well as their comparatively thick skins and higher tannin levels. It also tends to ripen earlier than its colleagues which, while being somewhat disadvantageous for developing acidity, makes it a more reliable annual crop – a reliability confirmed by its great disease-resistance, also important for appassimento.

 

That oseleta has made such a comeback owes a great deal to the house of Masi, which championed the variety over the 1980s and 90s and even released a varietal wine. It is generally used to add tannin and heavier fruit flavour to final blends (though it is not mandated for inclusion in Valpolicella DOC assemblages), and is increasingly recognised for this added structure and weight compared to rondinella and other permitted varieties. As well as Masi, Zymé (in line with their more experimental ethos) have produced a varietal oseleta to considerable acclaim. In spite of this it remains rare, by a long way the least planted autochthonous variety in the Veneto; however, having once been considered little more than a relic from history, there’s every indication that oseleta will continue to grow in importance going forward.

Molinara

At last the supply of birds gives out. The name of molinara, the final important native grape of the Veneto, means ‘of the mill’, and is believed to derive from the remarkable amount of yeast (or ‘bloom’) attracted to settle on the grapes. After corvina and rondinella it is the third most planted variety in the region, though its share has decreased in recent years. Its pretty recognisable in the vineyard, with its rather circular leaves and long, conical clusters of very rounded and rather pinkish berries covered in the aforementioned dusting of wild yeast.

Molinara was, in the past, considerably popular for its high productivity, its reasonable resistance to disease and above all the elegance, freshness and hints of spice it adds to the wine. It has a few drawbacks, however, at least to modern eyes: first, its vigour does work against it somewhat, requiring a lot of work in the vineyard relative to its contribution; secondly (and relatedly) it does have a tendency to excessive juiciness and blandness and, despite its thickish skins, doesn’t normally bring much by way of tannin to the table (though there are quite a few exceptions); thirdly, the vine does have a certain weakness to oxidation, which can be a weakness in appassimento; and finally, unfortunately, its style (both in flavour terms and more cosmetically) fell considerably out of fashion, its elegance and lightness of colour being passed over in favour of darker, richer alternatives.

 

In 2003 it lost its status as a compulsory ingredient in Valpolicella DOC wines, becoming optional and precipitating a decline as a result. Nevertheless it remains very important for several more old-school producers, who value its leanness and the acidity which remains crucial for long-term ageing in almost any wine. It also remains very popular in Bardolino, where it is especially valued for adding freshness and brightness to merlot-based rosés.

Croatina

From birds’ names, to understandable names, to names which look a lot like a simple error has been made somewhere along the way. Croatina of course means ‘Croatian’, almost certainly a completely incorrect guesstimate as to the grape’s point of origin. Not that the confusion ends there: you see, croatina is simply the local name for the variety, which more commonly goes by the name ‘bonarda’. That’s not the same bonarda as became famous in Argentina, which originally went by the name of douce noir in Savoy. Nor the bonarda known as bonarda piemontese, also known as bonarda del Monferrato. The bonarda also known as ‘uva rara’ around Novara is, too, a completely different grape.

No, the bonarda that takes the name croatina in the Veneto is in fact the bonarda of Oltrepò Pavese in Lombardy, also of Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna, a grape of no small renown in the modern Italian wine landscape, valued as a varietal or blend-leader for its powerful fruit, moderate tannins, and capacity to combine with oak to produce real depth and complexity of flavour. This being the case, it is remarkable that such a grape is only permitted up to 10% under Valpolicella rules, but it becomes perfectly explicable if one understands the purpose of these rules: not to grow grapes which, by some hard-to-determine ‘objective’ assessment, are found to be of the highest ‘quality’, but to ensure the production of wines under the local label remain typical of the wines of the region. Wines of bonarda d’Oltrepò Pavese might have greater potential than wines made solely from, say, molinara, but they aren’t representative of the distinctive characteristics of Valpolicella – and don’t necessarily contribute the most desired characteristics to a blend with corvina, which is the principle job of any supporting grape in this particular wine region.

 

Nonetheless, croatina is the most prominent non-autochthonous variety in the Valpolicella. In small doses it can provide wines with valuable qualities otherwise either missing or in need of a certain shoring-up, such as real freshness and depth of fruit, as well as higher alcohol than is present in some other varieties. The vine – notable for its three-pointed leaves and long cones of dark, globoid grapes – has a highly desirable combination of medium-high vigour (healthy, but not excessively in need of pruning) and medium-to-late ripening (reliable while retaining acidity). The unusual and distinctive aromas of the variety are often readily detectable in wines where it is featured, and this mix of trustworthiness and its capacity to make its presence known are contributing to its popularity and importance in Valpolicella.

Others

That covers the most planted grapes in the region, as well as oseleta, a native grape with a particularly promising future. There are, however, many other varieties permitted in small quantities according to the regulations of the region, most of which are minor native grapes but a couple of which are very major names indeed. There isn’t enough space here to do justice to them all, especially the latter, but here is a short précis of seven permitted varities in alphabetical order.

 

Firstly, barbera. This is one of the two grapes which really are significantly famous for their achievements elsewhere. Barbera is a particularly dark-coloured black grape variety renowned for the wines it produces from its homeland in Piedmont, particularly in the areas of Alba, Asti and Monferrato. For many years overproduced for vino da tavola wine (a problem not helped by its extra vigorousness), in recent decades it has absolutely exploded onto the world stage, marked by wines of medium body, remarkable fragrance and sometimes astonishingly zingy acidity. It is, naturally, this last characteristic for which it is mostly prized in Valpolicella, but it does add fragrance and a certain sour sensation which complements corvina’s hallmark cherries particularly well.

Bigolona, also known as smarzirola, is pretty unique in Valpolicella in that it is white grape permitted in the blend for a red wine. This is hardly abnormal in general, however – until recently Chianti didn’t just allow the white trebbiano grape into the blend but made it compulsory, while over the border in France the homelands of syrah in the Rhone typically blend that grape with small amounts of marsanne, roussanne and viognier. Bigolona itself was always known for its capacity to make sweet passito wines with more than a smattering of botrytis, making it considered a useful contributor to the appassimento style. It had, sadly, almost become extinct in the vineyard around fifty years ago, but renewed interest in autochthonous vines has facilitated something of a comeback in certain areas.

Next up, dindarella is a very rare black grape indeed, with very little acreage under vine, largely owing to its rather low productivity. Nevertheless it remains relatively well-used in the Garda DOC, while its remarkable fruit-retention following appassimento is still valued by some, as well as its notable acidity due to its very late-ripening schedule. Some producers have tentatively begun to showcase the varietal in greater quantities, to encourage more awareness of this unusual native varietal.

 

Negrara is another permitted minor varietal with connections closer to the lake, also being a permitted grape in Garda and Bardolino DOCs (as well as further north in Trentino-Aldo Adige). It’s a dark, blueish grape which grows in conical-pyramidal clusters of medium density and a rounded shape. Though it is practically never vinified alone there is some argument that it should be: it has refinement, hard but not excessive tannins, good fruit and noticeable spicy and bell pepper notes owing to the presence of pyrazines – something it has in common with fine, renowned grapes like cabernet sauvignon.

The rossignola variety returns us to our bird theme, its name derived from the Venetian dialect word for ‘nightingale’ (like the French ‘rossignol’ – the standard Italian is ‘usignolo’). Much like others it has diminished in popularity in Valpolicella and Bardolino, though significant acreages remain in the vineyards around Vicenza. Much of this owes to a relative weakness to diseases such as powdery mildew and grey rot (A.K.A ‘bad’ botrytis). It does ripen rather late, however, leading to a lean acidity it can contribute to blends of Valpolicella DOC in particular.

Sangiovese is the second very well known grape in this section, and almost certainly the most famous grape in this whole article. The vine primarily responsible for virtually all of the most celebrated reds of Tuscany, from Chianti through Brunello di Montalcino to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, sangiovese is renowned for its fine acidity, depth of fruit and spice, affinity for oak and exceptional capacity for ageing. This storied and marvellous varietal is grown to some extent in Valpolicella, but of course therein lies a problem – so well known is the character of sangiovese that, despite its many qualities, too much in the assemblage might undermine the unique qualities that make Valpolicella what it is. As a result, some sangiovese is considered a reasonable contributor to the blends of the region, but its quantities are kept under control.

Finally, something new – or at least newly recorded. Spigamonti derives its name from the village where, in the year 2000 in the course of surveying some more mainstream Valpolicella vines, the agronomist Claudio Oliboni noticed certain extraordinarily coloured grapes of an unfamiliar variety. Ampelographic tests revealed this to be aspiran bouschet – a cross dating back to 1865, where it was created by Henri Bouschet as a combination between aramon noir and teinturier. As the name suggests it is a very deeply coloured grape with the unusual property of having dark flesh as well as skin. Its presence in the assemblage is very rare in the region, but it can be used to bulk up colour, fruit and a bit of tannin.

 

As is the case in much of the Old World of wine (and in certain places with a long history of relative viticultural isolation like Chile), there’s no telling what might happen if, like Claudio Oliboni, anyone were to go rootling around in the old vineyards of the Valpolicella region. However, there’s no doubting the main star of the show, corvina, nor the importance of its principle supporting players. Attention to the latter, to the various specific oenological demands unique to each grape, has further had the effect of enhancing many of their reputations, as well as increasing understanding of how to optimise, combine and balance them all perfectly in the service of the holy grail of Valpolicella – the perfect blend.

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