Ever take the "Hemingway cure"? The term enjoys popularity among those who like a twist of irony with their alcohol-spiked hangover "remedies."
In Venice, home of the official Hemingway cure, though, it's another thing altogether: scampi and Valpolicella. The novelist famously prescribed himself a steady diet of the seafood-and-red-wine pairing in 1954 during an extended stay at the Gritti Palace hotel on the Grand Canal. He had checked in to convalesce in high style following injuries suffered during a jarring period in Africa, having survived a fire and two plane crashes.
Valpolicella was tailor-made for Papa, who often favoured his beverages, like his prose, raw and to the point. Four years earlier, he had published Across the River and Into the Trees, a novel in which the colonel protagonist, a Valpolicella fan, describes the wine as "better when it is newer. It is not a grand vin and bottling it and putting years on it only adds sediment."
Hmm. Suited to light seafood and best consumed young – it sounds more like a white wine, and that is essentially what a lot of Valpolicella used to be, a white pretending to be red. The humble image stayed with it through the 1970s and 1980s, the wine's nadir, when inexpensive large-scale brands were common in Italian restaurants in North America.
But Valpolicella, made mainly from the corvina and rondinella grapes near Verona, has been getting darker, richer and more complex over the past 20 years.
Part of the credit goes to the late Giuseppe (Bepi) Quintarelli, an exacting producer who showed that the bright, cherry-like wine could soar in price as well as flavour. He was best known for perfecting a top-end, full-bodied style of Valpolicella called Amarone, made from grapes that have been left to dry for months to concentrate sugars in an age-old process called appassimento.
Yet even his entry-level, non-Amarone Valpolicella is exceedingly complex and costs $79.95 in Ontario, the stratosphere for a category associated with Tuesday-night pizza duty.
Another missionary was Sandro Boscaini, owner of Masi, who helped popularize a mid-tier Valpolicella style called ripasso. The wine begins life as regular Valpolicella, then a few months later, as it settles in the tank, it's refermented with spent skins and seeds discarded from Amarone production. The Amarone solids goose up the alcohol and texture, resulting in a wine with weight somewhere between regular Valpolicella and Amarone.
Quintarelli, in fact, made his regular Valpolicellas partly using the ripasso technique, though he kept it a secret, unlike today's producers, who proudly display the designation on the label.
Still others employ a separate technique to turbocharge their Valpolicellas. Instead of waiting to referment the young wine with Amarone pomace, they let the grapes dry after harvest for just a month – versus three months for Amarone – then crush and press as normal, yielding a sort of baby Amarone.
Confusingly, this partial- appassimento wine, too, is often called ripasso. (Unfortunately, wine laws tend to lack the clarity of Hemingway's prose.) The Gritti Palace's famous 1950s "patient" might have found all these upscale Valpolicellas unsettling at first.
But I bet he would not have turned down a glass with a plate of scampi. Better still, with a pork chop, some hard cheese or the Venetian liver dish called fegato alla vicentina.
Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $49.95
It's dry, which is how I prefer my Amarones, some of which can be a tad sweet. Big spice opens up the show, stepping aside momentarily to yield the stage to voluptuous plum and chocolate. Then the spice returns, arm in arm with lively acidity, for an extended finale. ($46.79 in N.B., $59.98 in B.C., $57.33 in Man., $47.50 in Que., $48.29 in Nfld.)
Tedeschi Capitel Nicalo Appassimento Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $15.95
A standard-bearer for affordable ripasso, it is medium-full-bodied, with a rich core of dark-skinned fruit and dark chocolate, with ideal ripeness that stops short of raisin. And it shows a delicious infusion of food-friendly bitterness. ($16.40 in Que.)
Farina Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $34.95
This is an unusual Amarone, with a floral, bathsoap essence at first. It is full-bodied but not heavy, with delectable plum and chocolate freshened up by herbs, flowers and acidity, and offers good Amarone value. ($33 in Que.)
Tommasi Arele Appassimento 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
Medium-full-bodied and plum-like, it has a hint of raisin against a savoury background reminiscent of the herbal character in a southern Rhône red.
Monte del Fra Tenuta Lena di Mezzo Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
A regular Valpolicella, this is an example of the progress in quality even at this level. It is medium-bodied, velvety in the middle, lifted by a peppery finish. It is available in Ontario.
San Cassiano Valpolicella 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $14.95
Medium-bodied, with cherry, chestnut and church incense, it shows a nuance of raisin but finishes dry.