Valpolicella is the most famous red wine district in north-eastern Italy's Veneto wine region. It's not hard to understand why, given the easy-drinking appeal of regular red Valpolicella, coupled with the prestige of its powerful and intensely flavoured counterpart Amarone della Valpolicella. The valley also produces white wines – both dry and sweet – under the various Soave titles.

The grape varieties used to make Valpolicella are Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara. Corvina is generally regarded as the finest of the three, and is certainly the most traditional. Rondinella proved popular in the 1960s and 1970s because of its generous yields, while pale, over-acidic, oxidation-prone Molinara has declined dramatically since its early surge. Corvina remains the grape of choice for higher-quality Valpolicella, and particularly Amarone della Valpolicella, Recioto della Valpolicella and Valpolicella Ripasso. On warmer, well-drained slopes, Corvina produces wines with more body than is traditionally expected of Valpolicella, which explains the huge quality differential between regular Valpolicella from the plains and Amarone from the hills of the traditional Valpolicella Classico zone.

Corvinone was only identified as a distinct grape variety in 1993, having previously been considered to be a mutation of Corvina, to which it is not in fact a close relative. In 2010 the laws for Valpolicella were updated so that Corvina should constitute 45 to 95 percent of the various Valpolicella wines, while permitting that Corvinone can substitute for Corvina up to a maximum of 50 percent of the blend.

The Valpolicella production area ballooned in the late 1960s when it was granted DOC status, resulting in a dramatic see-saw of quality and quantity which lasted for approximately 40 years. The prices fetched by Valpolicella wines reached their nadir in the 1970s and 1980s, when the low price paid per kilo of grapes led more quality-focused producers, particularly in the finer Classico and Valpantena zones, to abandon their vines altogether. This increased the percentage of Valpolicella which came from the poorer sites, and the downward spiral continued, only to be halted by a sudden spike of interest in Amarone della Valpolicella during the 1990s.

Everyday Valpolicella wine is a bright, tangy fruity red with aromas of blueberries and banana, and the distinctive "sour cherry" note found in so many northern Italian reds. It is as enjoyable at room temperature as it is slightly chilled, making it ideal as a refreshing red for warm summer afternoons.

Because standard Valpolicella wines have traditionally tended towards the lighter end of the spectrum, local winemakers have employed various techniques to achieve greater depth and complexity in their cuvees. Standard Valpolicella is quite different from the district's Ripasso, Amarone ("big bitter") and Recioto ("little ear") wines.

The passito and ripasso methods have been so successful that both techniques now have dedicated DOC or DOCG designations. For a passito wine - Amarone or Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG - the grapes are dried out for weeks or even months prior to fermentation, during which time their natural sugars and flavours become sufficiently concentrated to produce deeper, more alcoholic wines. The Valpolicella Ripasso method - awarded DOC status in 2007 - is to "re-pass" (re-ferment) the passito grapes with standard Valpolicella wine, creating a deeper, more character-laden result.

Meanwhile Valpolicella might easily be viewed as the Italian answer to Beaujolais. The comparison extends beyond just style, however; in the past few decades Valpolicella has suffered from the same questionable reputation as Beaujolais, the result of ever-increasing yields and inconsistent quality.

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