Valpolicella

An in depth look at Valpolicella Ripasso

How is Valpolicella Ripasso Doc made? Infographic

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.

Introduction

A little while ago we did an article called ‘Amarone 101 – everything you wanted to know (but were too afraid to ask)‘, in which we answered some of the most common questions about Amarone della Valpolicella on the internet’s mind – which turned out to be quite a lot of questions, given that Amarone is both very popular and rather mysterious and complicated in terms of its origin, style, and the method of its making.

Well, the wonderful thing about Valpolicella is that almost all of the styles there are mysterious and complicated! The process of appassimento and its attendant complexities, requirements and indeed by-products influence so much about the region’s wine production. This is of course wonderful (especially for us wine nerds!), but it can be somewhat intimidating when you first come across a Valpolicella wine with nothing there to help you but the word ‘ripasso’.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at Valpolicella Ripasso, probably the second most famous wine of the area and quite possibly the most unique, the appassimento style having spread to other regions but ripasso remaining virtually a Valpolicella exclusive. Without further ado then, let’s look at some of the most common questions that come up about this enigmatic wine – starting with the most basic.

What is Valpolicella Ripasso?

Most simply, Valpolicella Ripasso is a medium-full red wine from the Valpolicella region near Verona in Veneto, Italy. However, to consider what it is in greater detail, we need to first remind ourselves what Amarone della Valpolicella is, as the Ripasso one is deeply intertwined with its ‘big brother’.

Amarone, as we recall, is a red wine made via the unusual method of carefully allowing the grapes to dry out a bit to a semi-raisinated level, concentrating the sugar in the juices and, as a result, the alcohol in the wine.

As is usual, once the grapes are crushed, the skins of these half-raisins are left to macerate in the wine while it ferments, imparting colour, tannins and other substances. These skins are then removed, and along with the stems and other vine detritus are known as pomace, or vinaccia in Italian, retaining some alcoholic and phenolic potential, but generally beyond the capacity of the winemaking process to extract. Normally grape skins are therefore sold off, either for the purpose of distilling into pomace spirits or industrial alcohol. In Valpolicella, however, they think differently.

Because this particular Amarone pomace is so densely packed with useful flavours which can still contribute to the winemaking process, producers will select a particularly-made Valpolicella red wine and age it on the vinaccia for 10-12 days, which will impart to it the remaining flavour and texture compounds that it has to offer. This process is known as the ripasso, as the wine is, as it were, ‘re-passed’ over the skins (even though it’s different wine, but never mind!). Hence, Valpolicella Ripasso.

What’s the difference between Valpolicella and Ripasso?

As intimated above, Valpolicella is a word that can indicate a few things, whereas Ripasso refers strictly to the process and the wine that it produces. Valpolicella can refer to the aforementioned region as a whole, or be used as a shorthand for a couple of different wine styles: Valpolicella Classico or Valpolicella Superiore. And speaking of which…

What’s the difference between regular Ripasso and Ripasso Superiore?

Well this gets a little fiddly, but while most Ripasso wine is ‘Superiore’, the term itself really applies to the Valpolicella bit rather than the Ripasso bit. According to the denomination rules, a wine in Valpolicella is deemed to be ‘Superiore’ when it hits 13% alcohol or more.

However, realistically, given that the desired profile of most Valpollicella Ripasso wine is at least a true-medium body (if not often significantly fuller), the vast majority of wine used to make Ripasso will be at least 13% if not 13.5%, and therefore worthy of the Superiore designation.

A note: ‘Superiore’ does not mean ‘superior’ (though understandably it often is) – it’s a purely technical designation.

So – Valpolicella Ripasso is full-bodied?

Pretty much! The wine selected to be able to go through the ripasso process is also, therefore, able to go through (and likely to reap the benefits of) oak-barrel aging as well, further increasing the wine’s body and structure. As mentioned above, Valpolicella Ripasso wines do tend to qualify for ‘superiore’ status, but many can get up to as much as 14% alcohol and beyond!

As a rule, ‘prestige’ reds in Valpolicella don’t come light, exploiting the peculiar characteristics of the fruit that they’re made from. And speaking of which…

What grape is Valpolicella Ripasso?

Grapes plural, actually, the same ones as everywhere else in Valpolicella, of which the undoubted star is corvina, whose unique combination of acidity, sugar, tannin and other phenolic compounds with resistance to certain moulds and diseases makes it particularly well suited to the appassimento and ripasso processes and methods. Other grapes that make up the specially balanced blend of traditional Valpolicella wine include molinara, rondinella, croatina, and oseleta (click here for our in-depth guide to the grape varieties of Valpolicella!).

Is Valpolicella Ripasso expensive?

Well. It depends. Top-end, boutique Ripasso can begin to fetch prices that, in the wine world, start to be considered serious. However, ripasso wines are naturally, on average, much less expensive than Amarone, mostly because the drying process means each grape has less juice, meaning that more (top quality!) grapes are used per bottle of Amarone than for any regular wine – ripasso wines included. It’s for this reason that some people have referred to Valpolicella Ripasso as ‘baby Amarone’ – big, bold and beautiful, and with some of the flavours unique to the passito grapes themselves, but not quite as jaw-dropping huge either on the palate or the price-tag.

What food does Valpolicella Ripasso pair with?

Naturally, all the usual bold red wine favourites, from braised meat stews to hearty mushroom risotto. However, Ripasso does have a couple of particular aspects which, to this writer’s mind at least, leave it open to a little bit of experimentation.

Firstly, it has a particular fruit and floral profile – especially those derived from ester and terpene chemicals – as a result of its brushing with that Amarone pomace which, unlike in its big brother, is a bit more foregrounded as a result of the slightly reduced (though nonetheless substantial and supporting) weight. For this reason, ripasso wines tend to give a certain impression of sweetness (despite being definitely dry reds), making it a candidate for dishes with a certain sourness as well as richness about them, such as Beijing duck or Texas barbecue.

Secondly, in common with much of the wine of Valpolicella, ripasso-method wines manage to combine remarkable freshness and acidity with their body and relative power. This makes it perfect for certain stews and ragouts, especially those with a tomato base, whose richness is too much for whites or light reds but whose vibrancy gets a bit overwhelmed by Amarone (thinking here of chili con carne perhaps, or ragù napoletana).

Above all, ‘baby Amarone’ is a versatile food wine, friend to cheerful dishes with bursting, generous flavours.

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