If the great nebbiolo wines of Piemonte are Italy’s Burgundy – ethereal wines made from the collaboration of a fussy grape, grudging soil and a climate teetering between damp and too damp – then Valpolicella might just its Bordeaux. Its variety and variability, the abundance of microclimates and the moderating influence of being between two water sources (in the case of Bordeaux the Atlantic and the Gironde estuary; in Valpolicella, the Adriatic and Lake Garda) – and above all, the extreme range of wines produced, from honest, everyday reds to the brooding seriousness of top-of-the-range, internationally renowned wines of considerable ageability and, let’s be honest, expense!
But while every inch of Bordeaux is familiar to wine-lovers all over the world, the valleys and villages of Valpolicella remain to many merely names on bottles – a shame, as there is just as much to know to guide the discerning customer about the wine. This article cannot cover all of it, but hopefully it can serve as an introduction to the region and its terrains.
Alright then, tell me about them
There is much speculation and little certainty as to the origins of the name ‘Valpolicella’. The first known appearance of the name is in a 12th Century document as ‘Val Polesela’; some believe it means ‘valley of many cellars’ from a combination of Greek (poli) and Latin (cella), others that it’s a reference to the fertility of the soil. It is possible, however, that this refers to precisely the soils of the region least suited to making great wine – the ultra-fertile soils of the flats and plains, which are beautiful for orchard trees but far too productive for the growth of wine grapes, which typically need relatively sterile soils in which to struggle, and thus produce better fruit.
The first known appearance of the name is in a 12th Century document as ‘Val Polesela’; some believe it means ‘valley of many cellars’..
That soil is the kind found higher on the hills, alluvial soils rich in in limestone and sandstone (the extent to which minerals impact flavour is debated – what’s not, however, is the importance of heat retention and good drainage, which these soils guarantee). These hills are the other part of that famous name – ‘val’, describing the key geographical feature of the region. All in all there are eleven designated valleys which mark the territory, three of which – Fumane, Marano and Negrar – are in the major historic region known now as ‘Valpolicella Classica’ in the western part of the area, closest to Lake Garda and in the hills of the Monti Lessini. At the southern convergence of these valleys can be found the villages of Sant’Ambrogio and San Pietro in Cariano, which all together make up the five distinct regions of Valpolicella Classico suitable for quality wine production.
The Classico region is however, despite being the most historic and prestigious, only accounts for around a third of the actual area of Valpolicella (though nearly half the total production). In 1968, to try and match the exploding demand, the zone of vineyards allowed to use the name was expanded eastward to create the area known now as Valpolicella Allargata (or sometimes Valpolicella Estesa), the north-west portion of which is designated the Valpolicella Valpantena DOC, named for the valley around which it is based. Many producers insist that the Valpantena makes wine every bit as good as those of the Classico.
The rest of the region comprises the valleys of Illasi, Marcellise, Mezzane and Mizzole. Though this region is not generally afforded the same prestige as the Classico or even Valpantena it is still capable of greatness, especially in the volcanic soils and cooler altitudes of the hills to the east – for instance the legendary Amarone maker Romano dal Forno, located in the Val d’Illasi.
The Short Version
Name: Valpolicella DOC
Sub-names: Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Valpantena and, erm, well, Valpolicella (OK, Allargata)
More specific names: OK then, some valleys? Alright: Avesa, Fumane, Illasi, Marano, Marcellise, Mezzane, Negrar, Quinzano, Squaranto, Tramigna, Valpantena (and some bonus villages: Sant’Ambrogio, San Pietro in Cariano).
Water: Lots, on both sides, thus cool air.
Soils: Alluvial (read: shifty); limestone (read: good drainage (read: good good)); volcanic (read: rare, good for elegance)
Oh, and the name: Who knows.