Do you have a yearning for a wine with the heft and weight of Amarone, but feel unable to as you’re watching your wallet? Rather amazingly, there is an option.
There are some places today outside of Valpolicella which practice appassimento, the fermentation of dried grapes. There are, however, vanishingly few which practice ripasso, effectively a by-product of making appassimento wine, but which only makes sense if you make as much of it as Valpolicella does. Why? Well, here’s how it’s made.
The story starts with Recioto and Amarone della Valpolicella. As mentioned (and as you may know), these wines are made by first drying the very best grapes of the vintage in order to concentrate the sugar and other chemical elements responsible for certain flavours, structure and so on, prior to fermentation. But what to do with all those leftovers – grapeskins, stems etc., known in the trade as ‘pomace’ – once you’re done pressing the precious juice out of them? Well, the farmers of Valpolicella (wary, as are farmers everywhere, of waste) hit upon an ingenious solution: take this pomace and steep it in some of the wine fermented from the ordinary grapes of that vintage for about a month, in order to give it a boost of alcohol, flavour and structure. And so was born the wine known as ripasso – ‘repassed’, as in over the pomace.
Which all makes sense, until you ask the inevitable question: well, how? What use are old grapeskins? The answer lies, strangely, in the fact that Amarone is a young wine technique, invented in the 1930s and produced deliberately really since the 1940s – deliberately, because initially Amarone was an accident, produced when the process for arresting the fermentation of the sugars in an attempt to produce Recioto went wrong, and the wine was fermented to dryness. Before this, Recioto was the indisputed king of the region, and the only reason to put the grapes through the concentrating process of appassimento was to make it. The pomace, therefore, still contained a good deal of unfermented sugar, and effectively caused the ordinary Valpolicella wine macerating it to undergo a secondary fermentation, boosting its alcohol content along with the other bonuses – leeching from skins extra-concentrated with phenolics and other compounds – and contributing to a wine with added flavour to go with added strength.
Today, this presents a few problems, as an enormous percentage of Recioto production has been replaced with Amarone, meaning a lot of pomace with not enough sugar to produce really good, balanced ripasso. Many makers, therefore, employ a few techniques to help the final product, such as deliberately underpressing the grapes to leave more unfermented juice within, or even specially drying a batch of grapes for around half the time given to Amarone grapes in order to referment the wine with these grapes (this method is sometimes nicknamed ‘baby Amarone’). In any case, the job of the ripasso technique is done: to beef up regular Valpolicella wine, to make it deeper, richer, more rounded, and to impart some of that Amarone feel for half the price. Democratic Amarone, then – a treat for the people.