By Celia Strong
Our wine region this week is the Venet in northeastern Italy. This area includes Friuli, Venezie and Trentino-Alto Adige. Parts of this area produce great quantities of white wines like Pinot Grigios, Soaves and Proseccos, and other parts produce red wines that include Bardolinos, Valpolicellas and Amarones. Veneto is the eighth-largest wine producing region in Italy, with over 220,000 acres of vines planted, but only about 35,000 of these grow grapes for DOC classified wines. Just over half of the region’s production is white wines.
The region’s most popular reds — Bardolinos, Valpolicellas and Amarones — come from the western part of the region, near Lake Garda and the city of Verona. These three wines are basically a progression of the same grape varieties, grown in lesser to better soils and treated in fancier and more complicated ways as the grapes progress. The grapes are mainly Corvina, blended with Rondinella and Molinara. Grapes grown on the valley floors make the lighter-bodied Bardolino wines. From vineyards going up the slopes, warmer sites and better drainage, the same grapes make Valpolicella. With some variations in production methods, Valpolicella wines become fuller and much more complex, and reach their peak levels in Amarones. We need to note that Amarone is an abbreviation of the actual name for this wine — Amarone della Valpolicella. As you go from Bardolinos to Valpolicellas to Amarones, the costs rise with the quality.
The unique technique used to make the best Valpolicellas, including Amarone, is Appassimento. This technique dates back over 3,000 years, when it was used in many countries around the Mediterranean. Basically, appassimento is a drying process for the harvested grapes. Traditionally, large, round straw mats and baskets held the bunches in the sun for a fairly long time — from the September harvest through January. The grapes would dry and become wrinkled. With less liquid left in every grape, the pulp became more and more intensely flavored, and the increased sugar to pulp ratio allowed for higher alcohol levels to support more flavors in the finished wine. Amarone grapes are always treated this way, hence the finished wine has for more flavors and textures, but its price rises significantly because there is far less juice to make into wine.
In some other Valpolicella wines, versions of appassimento are used to enhance the finished wine. “Ripasso” is the most common and best-known of these methods. (This name means “repassed over.”) The Valpolicella grapes are crushed, and when they go into their fermentation vats, sediment from previous years’ Amarone barrels are added in. By fermenting with the sediment, the new Valpolicella wine picks up and retains extra flavors and textures. Of course, a ripasso costs more than a plain Valpolicella, but not as much as an Amarone.
This technique is also used in wines from the same basic grape varieties but from outlying areas, not officially grown in the vineyards classified for Valpolicellas. One example is Pasqua Passimento, our featured wine this week.
Pasqua Family Vineyards was founded in 1925. They are producers of high-quality Veneto wines, though the founding brothers started as wine traders. They moved to the Verona area from Apulia, and within several years knew they wanted to make their own wines. The company is now run by the third generation of this family, with energy, enthusiasm and innovation. Their Passimento red wine is not DOC, but often it is mislabeled a baby Amarone. It is made from 40 percent Merlot, 30 percent Corvina and 30 percent Croatina. It is a bright ruby red, with deep, dark purple undertones. Its aromas and flavors include blackberries, blueberries, black cherries, chocolate, espresso and mocha powder, with a rich, juicy texture and long finish. An everyday wine that has been able to take advantage of history and knowledge. For $12.99. Enjoy.
Celia Strong works at Bill’s Liquor & Fine Wines on Lady’s Island.