Transformation isn't the sole province of sloppy heterosexual men or tired rooms in a home, as recent makeover shows might suggest. Wines can take on different experience depending on the wine-making process used. One need to look no further than the varieties of Valpolicella to understand the transformative nature of wine and wine-making. Depending on the processing, this simple red wine can evolve from a light fruity quaffer to an intense red.
Valpolicella is in the Venoto region of Italy, tucked into the most northeastern section of the country. Although one of Italy's largest wine-producing locales, it's often lost in the shadows of Tuscany and Piedmont.
Valpolicella in its basic form is lightly-styled red wine, well suited for everyday drinking rather than sitting down in the cellar for a later time. Wines from Valpolicella are primarily comprised of Corvine, Veronese, Rondinella and Molinara grapes. Check out such quality producers as Bolla, Raimondi and Allegini for a light-style wine to enjoy on its own or with lighter tomato-based pasta dishes or antipasti.
Winemakers who want to dial up the flavor will create ripassa-style Valpolicella, using a process that takes the fermented juice and stores it in casks with the sediment from fermentation from a previous batch of one of its stronger cousins.
The wine sits for two to three weeks, developing more color, tannins and complex flavors and producing a rich, deep wine that holds up against the Syrahs and Grenaches of the world.
An excellent primer in ripassa-style Valpolicella can be found in the 2000 Zenato Ripassa Superiore which typically sells for $15. It's one of those wines that "tastes up" — like a more expensive bottle. As a Valpolicella labeled "superiore" the wine is slightly more alcoholic (about one percent) and has been aged for at least one year. This wine can be enjoyed with heavier pasta dishes in addition to grilled meats.
If a Valpolicella producers want more flavor, they make an amarone (from amar, "bitter," and one, pronounced "oh-ney," meaning big). Amarone is made when the ripest Valpolicella grapes are dehydrated in the open air or on straw mats, a process that also includes fermentation of the sugar. The resulting dense, dry, red wines weigh in with a 14-16 percent alcohol level. With lots of intense berry and jam flavors, amarones offer a long, rich finish and can be served with heavier meats like roasts and duck or as a port-like complement to chocolate or soft cheeses.
Amarone wine is not cheap, starting around $40, but well worth it. For a quality amarone, check out Masi Costasera Amarone Classico, Le Ragose Amarone or Allegrini Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico.