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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Thursday, February 12 2010. 12:36

Valpolicella: Think Amarone-Drink Ripasso

Despite the elevated status it has achieved as the king of Veneto wines due to its fleshy, fruity and full-bodied style, Amarone may attract only a limited market due to the cost, but a good quality, cheaper and young Ripasso is the wine for India, writes Subhash Arora who recently tasted a wide range in Verona, with Amarone being his top favourite.

The area of Valpolicella Classico, nearly 25 minutes drive northwest of Verona with rolling hills and several valleys (the non Classico region actually stretches to the northeast) , makes a range of wines from predominantly three indigenous varieties (Corvina or Corvinone, Rondinella and a small percentage of Molinara). The style of wines vary from very quaffable, simple and fruity low alcohol Valpolicella doc or Valpolicella Classico doc (made within the designated geographical locations) on the low end to the sweet Recioto on the other extreme, with the Ripasso and Amarone being in the middle of the spectrum.

Recioto is made by stopping the fermentation of air-dried, sugar concentrated grapes mid- way, keeping the sugar level high-more than 54 gms by law. The local history is full of stories on how this wine has been a specialty in the region for centuries. But Amarone that was born only around 1939 and earned the DOC status in 1966, is made from the same grapes but the higher sugar is allowed to ferment till the sugar is fully fermented, resulting in a dry, higher alcohol, well integrated wine.

Time for Pause

And this is where I pause for my first reason for giving Ripasso precedence over the ‘king of the Veneto’ wine where the alcohol level normally crosses 15.5%. Nobody raises an eyebrow when it pierces the 16% mark, if it is well integrated. There are a few producers like Zenato and Zeni who offer very good quality, but at 16.5% abv. A small minority is suspected to flirt even with the 17% mark!.

The denizens referring to Amarone as the meditation wine- one may enjoy sip it over conversation with friends after dinner with cheese or without any accompaniment for hours. Yet it might not charm the Indian palate at that level of alcohol. Besides, the tannins, though not as pronounced as in Cabernets or Shiraz,  make this wine enjoyable with serious food match, mostly with red meats and game which are not the staple food for most Indians.

Then there is the cost factor. With duties and taxes as high as 360% of the CIF Value (as  they work out in Delhi) and with hotels charging 400-500% profit margins on the duty free costs (relatively lower margins where the high excise has to be paid by them), it is not feasible for most people to afford the wine on a frequent basis.

In any case, Amarone is not the ideal daily drink or even perhaps the weekly drink as most Amarone producers would admit in private because it is too ‘heavy’ a wine. There are a few exceptions of Amarone with lower alcohol levels but those are generally very lean and not as rich and complex as the good quality promises to be.

Recioto is not in the contention for the popularity crown since it is a sweet wine besides being expensive and the Indian palate is not yet tuned to cherish dessert wines with their blueberry cheese cakes, halwa or gulab-jamuns.

Lasso that Ripasso  

With the cost and quality- including the alcohol level, texture and body, falling somewhere between the Valpolicella and Amarone, Ripasso della Valpolicella makes an interesting and affordable option-certainly for the Indian market. It may cost a Euro or two more than the Valpolicella doc, but the richness and roundness of the flavours if developed well in a skillfully produced wine, makes it the best value for money premium wine which can handle a wide array of foods like serious meaty dishes on one hand and many vegetarian cuisines on the other. The price is only around 40% of Amarone. If an Amarone sells for € 30 in the enoteca, expect the Ripasso from the same producer  at around €12 or slightly higher.

One does not need a computer to calculate the difference it would make on the landed final price in India with our current tax regime. To simplify, this would be like selecting a Rosso di Montalcino over Brunello, a Rosso di Montepulciano over Nobile, preferring a Second Growth Bordeaux to the First Growth or choosing the second wine of a First Growth over its Chateau wine. Not only are these wines cheaper-they cost 30/40% of the real McCoy.

Making of Ripasso

The process of making Ripasso evolved around 30 years ago when the producers came up with the Ripasso technique of ‘passing over’ the fermented Valpolicella over the pressed skins of Amarone or Recioto grapes that have already undergone fermentation. The liquid undergoes a secondary fermentation for a week or less because of the contact with residual sugar and the yeasts. This results in an increased level of alcohol to around 13.5-14%. The body gets a littler fuller, rounder and the flavours get richer and more complex.

The extent of reaching the approximation in flavour and texture to Amarone depends upon the ratio of Valpolicella to the fermented skins the percentage of which in the second fermentation could be as high as 40%. Similarly the time allowed for fermentation would also be a factor in determining the stylle. The final product is like a young Amarone.

Apart from the lower cost, it does not need to mature for as long a period as Amarone (2006 Amarones were still young, though 2007 and some 2008 Ripasso are already drinking well. Conversely, Amarone is much longer ageing-one can still find examples of 40-45 year old premium Amarones still alive whereas the Ripasso can ideally be drunk between 3-5 years after harvest; a perfect age for India.

Love you Baby

Popularly known as ‘Baby Amarone’ in the US, the wine is more versatile in food pairing- I even tried it with some fish dishes and the combination was not off-putting. Pizzas and pastas of course would take you to higher level of food-n- wine experience with this wine. It can even pair well with chicken, even if not perfectly. Lamb and mutton would be perfectly matched- the lower alcohol level is an incentive to drink more. The well made Ripasso is truly a meditation wine. 

A few of the best value Ripasso wines I tasted at the Amarone Tastings earlier this month were from Michele Castellani Valpolicella Superiore (Ripasso) 2007; Ripasso Gaso San Rustico was more like Valpolicella DOC though a clean and interesting wine. Cantina di Negrar offered a couple of delicious labels that really value-added the lunch, though they seemed to be higher than expected priced. Ripasso 2007 from Stefano Accordini was more like an Amarone-perhaps the best value-for money wine, despite its slightly higher price.

The conclusion

If someone pays for it, think of Amarone as an excellent once-a-week wine. Also consider storage as an important factor. But drink Ripasso, provided you know the producer whose brief to the winemaker is to get it as close to Amarone as possible, within the processing parameters.

Think Amarone.  But drink Ripasso!
Subhash Arora

P.S. - At the last stop before returning to the hotel, we tasted a few barrel samples which the passionate Tiziano Accordini, the brother of Daniele and part owner, volunteered to taste with us, including an Amarone 2009. Rough on the edges but it had makings of a good Amarone. What impressed us more was the sample of 2008 he tapped out of the small stainless steel tank. It was truly the making of a good Amarone, everyone concurred. A quick cup of coffee and we rode off in the bus.

A few minutes later, our tour guide got a call from Tiziano, profusely apologizing. There had been a mistake, he said. The Amarone 2008 we had supposedly tasted from the barrel wasn’t an Amarone…it was a Ripasso della Valpolicella 2008!

I rest my case.

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