When Ripasso is Not Ripasso

Ripasso is a very curious compromise in winemaking. Originating in the need to strengthen Valpolicella – which by itself is a rather light and flighty wine – it was originally made by taking the pommace (skins and seeds) left after pressing dried grapes to make Amarone, and adding it to the wine that had been made previously by fermenting grapes after harvest. There was enough sugar left in the pommace to start another fermentation, increasing alcohol and extract in the wine. But as producers who have abandoned the technique say, “you wouldn’t use a previously used tea bag to make another cup of tea.”

Ripasso has become wildly popular, to the point at which it now represents 40% of production in Valpolicella, more than Amarone or Valpolicella per se. Ripasso della Valpolicella has had its own DOC since 2009. (Production of Ripasso is supposed to be limited to twice the production of Amarone, but the regulation hasn’t had much effect in stifling its growth given that Amarone production has also increased exponentially: see The Scandalous Expansion of Amarone).

Official figures under estimate the extent of Ripasso production, as producers who abandoned the traditional method have relabeled their wines as  IGTs instead of Valpolicella Ripasso. “The original pommace used to leave a bitter residue, and we worked to eliminate it. The solution was to use semi-dried grapes to avoid the bitterness coming from material that had already been fermented. So now we call it double fermentation rather than Ripasso,” explains Massimilla di Serego Alighieri at Masi, whose Campofiorin is a flagship wine now made by double fermentation, when a quarter of the grapes are dried for six weeks and then added to the wine to start a second fermentation.

Masi14Grapes drying for Amarone and Ripasso.

Another IGT is Allegrini’s Palazzo Della Torre, which started as a Valpolicella, but in the 1990s Allegrini decided to take out the Molinara (one of the three major varieties of the region, which was required at the time) when they replanted, and so the wine came out of the DOC. Today the wine is made by double fermentation, which would not have been allowed for classic Ripasso either. “We wanted to have the style of Ripasso but without its oxidative notes,” says Marilisa Allegrini. It’s an old story that the authorities always catch up too late to the needs of quality, so the best producers may be forced to take their wines out of the DOC.

So how much better is it to do double fermentation than classical Ripasso? The problem with Ripasso, to my mind, is that the residual bitterness is a symbol of a certain lack of balance. The second fermentation bumps up extract and alcohol, but the fruit level still corresponds to the original fermentation. I find that sometimes this gives the wine a certain sense of being artificially inflated. That’s not so much a problem with double fermentation using partially dried grapes, although I think there’s still a risk of outrunning the fruits.

I’ve been wondering what effect it has to do a second fermentation with dried grapes, compared to what would happen if it were possible to perform a single fermentation with a mixture of fresh and dried grapes. I suspect the difference is that with double fermentation, the skins are added to wine, so there’s a significant effect of macerating the skins in an alcohol solution. This is likely to extract more astringent tannins, and may explain some of my problems with the taste profile.

You need to be pretty skilled to produced a wine that’s fully integrated using these techniques: here are four really good examples, tasted on my recent visit to Valpolicella. (I discuss the producers in tomorrow’s blog, I Visit Four Top Producers in Valpolicella.)

Masi: IGT Veronese, Brolo Campofiorin Oro, 2011

This special selection is less obvious than Campofiorin, more of a savory impression to the nose with hints of spice. Black cherry fruits are not so obviously aromatic as Campofiorin, and have been damped down by the sense of structure – but with less bitterness on the finish because the extract has given the wine more genuine body.

Allegrini : IGT Veronese, Palazzo Della Torre, 2012

This spends 15 months in old barriques. Very much the classic nose of bitter cherries. Light on the palate, with a smooth, elegant impression. Everything is well integrated. Good fruits with nice balance on palate, but the typical bite on the finish.

Giuseppe Quintarelli: Valpolicella Superiore, 2007

Half the grapes are fermented fresh; half are dried for two months and then there is a second fermentation. This spends 6 years in oak. Cherry fruit impression to nose has hints of piquancy. Rich on palate with bitter cherry fruits increasing in bitterness at very end. Balanced acidity gives a fresh lift to the palate.

Tommaso Bussola, Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso, Ca’ del Laito, 2011

From a mix of young and old vines, this is a classic Ripasso. There’s a round impression from the nose with a touch of chocolate. Round and rich, the palate shows good flavor variety and a nice balance, definitely a cut above the normal Ripasso. It’s light and fresh with a characteristic touch of bitterness at the end.