Sunday, February 07, 2016

Has Valpolicella Ripasso had its day in the sun?

Verona in January can be severe. Or it can be a welcome change from the early spring, when Vinitaly wine fair-goers clog every artery, fill every seat in every restaurant and take every bed in even the most humble lodge. And so on a sunny but crisp day last week as we drove up the hill from Verona into the Valpolicella winegrowing zone, I looked forward to a tranquil day in nature.

Our little troop, hosted by the Valpolicella Consortium for their annual Anteprima Amarone, was one of several vans combing the territory, tasting, meeting with the winemakers. On the ground, one of the best ways to learn about wine.

Stepping out of the van, at one of the highest vineyards in Valpolicella, a brisk breeze welcomed us, followed by clear skies and full sun. I was entertaining thoughts of sitting out the visit to catch a few extra rays of that precious sunlight, maybe even get a head start on my summer tan. But the lure of the grapes drew me inside.

Over the course of two days, this happened often. I’d spy an animal outside and want to see its world. Or I’d walk over to a small corner of a vineyard, pick up a clump of soil or grass and hold it to my nose. Where better to come into contact with the ubiquitous terroir everyone is always prattling about?

But we were there to taste Amarone and all the wines the lead up to it, starting simply with Valpolicella.

I have friends with great palates who absolutely adore Corvina, the grape that makes up the soul of these wines. Not as deep of a love from my end, I’ve had to search for ways to appreciate the wine over the years. Part of the problem has been the inconsistent message the different wineries telegraph in their styles. What really is a Ripasso? I’ve determined there are at least three (more like five+ now) different ways to make a wine called Ripasso. And there are wines that have the Ripasso name on them that often don’t resemble each other. It’s a pretty confusing mess, even to one who studies these matters. Imagine what the innocent wine consumer, standing in front of a rack in a wine store, must go through. I know, because I’ve stood there with them, countless times, having them ask me, and me trying to provide insight about this wine we call Ripasso.

I’m not going to go into the methods, having blogged about this years ago. No, I’ve moved on from the technical side of this. I’m fascinated by how America has embraced Ripasso wines. But has it lost its grip, loosened up a bit of late?

One, I believe is the lack of consistent quality among the various wines called Ripasso. You can find the wines on the shelves in America from $7.99 to well over $20. There are wines which use the Ripasso method, but which never state it so clearly on their label. And there are those who use it as a means to clear out a lot of lighter, simpler wine that might not be as popular as it had once been. I call it the dilemma of Beaujolais. Wine which once had been loved but which changed to suit a trend in order to keep some market presence. Beaujolais went the Nouveau way. They know now that they have to rebuild their identity. Valpolicella has gone the Ripasso way. We’re not quite there with going back to light, delicate Valpolicella. Ripasso still has some momentum. But the clock is ticking in America.

Why? Well, folks who like fruity wine have lots of options, from country of origin to levels of fruit to price. And the sweet wine marketers are cramming the market with an abundance of those kinds of wines. It’s a battlefield.

And lovely little Valpolicella, the one I sipped while a winemaker's cook handed me a genuine plate of pasta? How perfect was that? One of the great combinations I’ve had in a year. Yes, I sipped on the winemakers Ripasso and his Amarone, but I went back to his quiet little red wine, named for the place.

Named for the place. How perfect. But in a world where folks want power and plush and plunk, the quiet little red in the corner isn’t fashionable. It’s where we’re at as a people right now. We want the screamers, not the whisperers. So Ripasso screams and people plop them in their baskets and take them home. But do they come back for more?

Stepping outside, having tasted through a gorgeous range of wines that culminated in an unctuous and gob-smacking Recioto, I perched on the railing at the edge of the property, overlooking the valley below. Above the sun warmed my face, like it had done so many years on the grapes in this area. But I couldn’t help but venture whether or not the sun hadn’t shined a little too brightly, a little too long, on Ripasso. And I wondered if its day in the sun is nearing a close.

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