Valpolicella evokes red wine’s good old days

Andrea Sartori has his work cut out for him. A fifth-generation winemaker in his family’s firm, he is trying to remind the wine-drinking world what Valpolicella tastes like. Valpolicella was once a highly regarded wine. But over the last several decades, this red wine, which takes its name from the hills near Verona in northeast-

ern Italy, has become dilute and characterless as giant companies churned out every increasing quantity. Producers such as Sartori, Masi, and Allegrini, to name a few, are trying to reverse that trend. They limit the vine’s yield and as a result produce less wine than government regulations allow. This practice, embraced by quality-oriented winemakers around the world, results in wines with more flavor and substance. A combination of factors including the type and quality of grapes, where they are planted, and aging also determines the quality of the wine.

Valpolicella producers use a blend of indigenous grapes, primarily corvina, rondinella, and molinara. Just as a chef uses different ingredients for a sauce, a winemaker blends the wines that he made from the individual varieties of grapes until he achieves the desired style. Producers aiming for quality over quantity typically include more corvina in the blend, despite its expense. The best grapes, which represent about half the total Valpolicella production, come from the original, or Classico, sub region. Regulations for Valpolicella do not require producers to age the wine before release. However, the better wines, those made from riper grapes and aged for at least a year, are labeled Superiore.

Sartori’s best Valpolicella is made from grapes grown in a single vineyard, Montegradella, located in the Classico sub zone. Like Masi and Allegrini, Sartori uses a high proportion of corvina in the blend for this wine and ages it for a year before releasing it. His 1999 Valpolicella Classico Superiore Montegradella reminds us why Valpolicella was so popular in the past. Rich with intriguing dried fruit character, it bears no relation to the mass-produced Valpolicella saturating the market. Devoid of harsh tannins or astringency, you can enjoy it the next time you have pizza or other take-out Italian food. It’s also great with a simple steak.

Sartori’s 1999 Valpolicella Classico Superiore Montegradella, about $13. 

April 8, 2004.