The first question many people will ask about a wine is, “What does it taste like?” Rarely does anybody ask, “How does it feel?”
Yet body, density, weight and texture, often combined in the inelegant term ”mouthfeel,” are essential parts of the wine-drinking experience, though often ignored in discussions about it.
I have long been enthralled with the texture of wine. How it feels as you roll it around in your mouth can be just as important a component as its aromas and flavors.
Here at Wine School, we always try at least to think about the texture and feel of a wine, and consider what role it plays in the overall experience. Unexpectedly, this was particularly true with Valpolicella, the wine we have been drinking over the course of the last month.
The focus was on classic Valpolicella, a light, crisp style that once was well-known and popular but over the last few decades has been eclipsed partly by its sibling in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy, Amarone della Valpolicella, a big, powerful, alcoholic and often syrupy wine informally known as Amarone.
As usual, I recommended three bottles to be consumed over the course of the month. The three were: Brigaldara Valpolicella 2018, Zenato Valpolicella Superiore 2017 and Prà Valpolicella Morandina 2018.
Valpolicella and Amarone are made from the same set of grapes, primarily corvina, along with rondinella and corvinone in subordinate roles. As Amarone became a critical darling in the last part of the 20th century, producers in the Veneto began to shift their resources, devoting their best sites and grapes toward production of the more expensive and lucrative Amarone.
Instead of fermenting the grapes shortly after harvest, as with most red wines, the grapes intended for Amarone are first dried until they become sweet and concentrated, then fermented. The drying process changes the ratio of water to sugar in the grapes, and results in a much richer, headier wine than the relatively light-bodied Valpolicella.
The success of Amarone led to the widespread production of Valpolicella Ripasso, which aims for a middle-ground style, retaining the freshness of ordinary Valpolicella but adding some of the richness of Amarone.
This is achieved by pouring the already fermented Valpolicella over the dried grape skins left over from making Amarone. This repassing, or ripasso, is intended to add weight and density to the wine. The technique has been around for a long time, but the category of Valpolicella Ripasso was not officially recognized by Italian wine authorities until 2007. Since then, it has become far more popular than ordinary Valpolicella.
Why is that? Does it necessarily make for a better wine? A lot of people seem to think so, including one reader, Harry from Oslo, who said, “The Zenato Valpolicella Superiore is good, but their Ripasso is far superior.”
He did not explain his thinking, but the usual assumption is that plusher, richer, fruitier wines are by definition better. As a matter of individual taste, one cannot argue with that. As a general assertion, it’s the kind of conventional wisdom that Wine School is intended to counter, not by saying it is wrong but by putting it to the test and coming to our own conclusions.
We obviously did not directly compare ordinary Valpolicella with Valpolicella Ripasso. The intention this month was not to determine which style was better, but simply to ask whether the lighter style has a place in the modern wine cupboard, while also focusing on some other pertinent characteristics of Valpolicella, notably the quality of bitterness in the wines.
Like lightness of body, bitterness is another feature that is often assumed to be a deficiency in wine. Yet, if you pay careful attention, a lot of wines have pleasantly bitter flavors, especially Italian reds.
Bitterness in wine has been on my mind recently, especially after a trip last November to northern Italy, a land of many wonderful bitter flavors. So I thought the discussion would focus on that. But texture and weight came up as well.
I found the Prà to be the lightest-bodied of the three wines. Its aromas offered a sort of breezy freshness, a minty herbal touch, along with flowers and red fruits, that served as a wake-up call for the taste buds. On the palate it was bright and lively, if a bit understated, with a refreshingly bitter punctuation setting up the next sip.
It was interesting to compare it with the Brigaldara, which was a full percentage point higher in alcohol, 13.5 percent to the Prà’s 12.5 percent. Often, a higher degree of alcohol means a fuller-bodied wine, but the Brigaldara was just as lithe as the Prà. Its aromas and flavors were more floral and fruity, though, and it, too, offered a bittersweet off-ramp to the next sip.
The Zenato seemed like an entirely different wine. Visually, it seemed denser and more concentrated than the other two bottles. It was floral and fruity like the Brigaldara, but noticeably richer and fuller-bodied on the palate, zesty and floral, with the same welcome bitterness completing the procession of flavors.
What accounted for this plusher texture? Label readers will note that unlike the other two bottles, the Zenato is a Valpolicella Superiore, a category that requires the wine to be aged for an additional year before it’s released. Unlike the other two bottles, the Zenato was aged in oak barrels, a process that may have contributed richness. The Brigaldara was fermented and aged in steel tanks, while the Prà was fermented in steel but aged in big oak vats.
I suspect that the Zenato was partly made with ripasso wine, or maybe some of the grapes were dried, following the Amarone method. Whatever the reason, it was an interesting comparison with the other two. I thought all three were excellent wines, each a different, individual expression of Valpolicella.
Although I had not asked about texture and body in relation to these wines, several readers volunteered their opinions anyway. VSB in San Francisco found the 2018 Prà a little thin and did not like the bitterness, concluding, “Overall, a good wine to try once, but my personal preferences run to Amarone.”
Peter of Philadelphia tried both the Zenato and a Zenato ripasso-style wine, along with a straightforward Valpolicella from Ca’ La Bionda. He was disappointed by the Zenato Valpolicella Superiore, but found the ripasso to be completely different: “Rich and silky smooth, it tasted of raisins and dark fruit.” Still, he liked the crisp Ca’ La Bionda best.
Martin Schappeit of Forest, Va., noted both the thinness of the Brigaldara and Prà and the “thicker” Zenato. He described the Brigaldara and the Prà as lively and refreshing, and the Zenato as “more serious.”
And Dan Barron of New York loved a 2017 Prà, which he found to be light, with a “lively, sunny freshness,” though his wife, Barb, found it too bitter. He especially enjoyed it with a dish of broccoli rabe tossed with anchovies and roasted garlic, finding that the wine and food “swirled in a fresh and lively flavor tarantella,” an allusion to southern Italian folk dances that I have not seen used in a wine description previously.
My favorite response, however, came from NKyPianoMan in Dayton, Ky., who drank a 2016 Zenato Valpolicella Superiore and said, “This wine was the answer to my 45-year quest to find a wine match for dried bean soup and cornbread!” Happy to help, sir.
This set of three wines ended up raising more questions than answers, which we consider an ideal outcome at Wine School. Primary among them for me: Should a richer wine by definition be considered a more serious wine? And just what is a serious wine, anyway?
Do we mean serious in the sense that some wines are so interesting and complex that we find ourselves engrossed in pondering their characteristics? I’ve had wines that were simultaneously contemplative and so joyous they made me laugh. Can a wine that makes you laugh be called serious?
I think I would retire the word “serious” in relation to wine. It’s too knotted up with assumptions and implicit judgments that are better stated outright. Anybody object?