On his excellent blog, drvino.com, the American wine writer Tyler Colman recently championed a cause that might seem utterly passé in these high times for big wines. Citing the French expression vin de soif (literally "wine for thirst"), he wrote: "The term captures a wine style – thirst-quenching, gulpable – that delights in the pleasures of drinking wine, not worshipping it. It has to also be somewhat light in body and easy on the wallet to make it really thirst-quenching for me."
Those words echoed as I had dinner in Toronto's Corso Italia neighbourhood the other week with Marilisa Allegrini of the Allegrini winery in the Valpolicella district of northeast Italy. Writers tend to reserve the refreshment angle for white wines, but reds can be that way, too, which is what Dr. Colman was getting at. For my money, Valpolicella fits the bill.
Light, crisp and usually between 12- and 12.5-per-cent alcohol, basic Valpolicella is just the thing for a warm summer's day, especially when it's given a 20-minute chill in the fridge. When it's good, it's bright and cherry-like, rarely dominated by vanilla richness that comes with wood aging. It's an Italian analogue to entry-level Beaujolais, that quintessential vindesoif. At $10 to $15 for most brands, it appeals to a similar cheap-and-cheerful mindset.
"We don't use any oak in our Valpolicella," said Ms. Allegrini, whose family has been making wine near the city of Verona for six generations. "The style is fruity and fresh."
Like Beaujolais, Valpolicella suffers from a blast-from-the-past stigma. Both were far more dominant in North America in the 1970s, when most drinkers sought little more from a wine than European pedigree and a familiar name they could be assured of finding at the bargain extremity of a restaurant list.
Led by the huge producers Bolla and Folonari, Italy pumped out torrents of Valpolicella, transforming what was then mostly a bulk domestic product sold in jugs into one of the country's biggest bottled exports. Much of it was, to be frank, dismal, produced from high-yielding vines on the alluvial plains rather than the better-drained hillsides. The world, or most of us anyway, moved on.
But Valpolicella has been evolving, mostly for the better. Better growing techniques and care in the cellar have helped, as they have with most Italian wines. But a big key lies in the grape mix.
Traditionally, it was blended mainly from three local varieties, corvina, rondinella and molinara. Law mandated the use of all three, but it was a poorly kept secret that there was an off-key singer in the trio: molinara. Light-hued and harsh with acidity, it yields a wine that, if vinified on its own, could be confused with rosé, Ms. Allegrini says. That's fine if you're shopping for something pink, not so much if you're in the mood for a red, even a refreshing one.
"You immediately understand why good producers don't want to use molinara," she said, citing a Swiss chef who recently disparaged one competitor's molinara-heavy Valpolicella to her as "salad dressing." The grape "makes sense if you want a wine with high acidity."
Vocal resistance from Allegrini and other quality producers prompted authorities to relax the rules in 2003, relegating molinara to an option rather than mandatory ingredient. It was comparable to a ruling in Tuscany, which erased white grapes from the formula for Chianti Classico, a red that's undergone an even more dramatic makeover since its straw-flask ignominy. Allegrini and others have been scaling back molinara while playing up the real star, corvina. "When we replant the vineyard, we will take away all the molinara," Ms. Allegrini says.
Improvements in basic Valpolicella have largely fallen below the radar not just because of bargain-wine competition from abroad. The region itself has been luring consumers away from the affordable stuff with more profitable Amarone and ripasso, heavier reds that rely on grapes that have been air-dried after harvest, a step that concentrates flavour.
Expect to pay $25 to $50 for most wines labelled Amarone, though great examples from such producers as Quintarelli, Masi and dal Forno can set you back much more. Ripasso, a style that falls midway between Amarone and basic Valpolicella, sells for roughly $15 to $25 and undergoes a second fermentation in winter triggered by the addition of spent Amarone skins and sediment (or sometimes the addition of dried whole berries).
So fashionable have these high-octane Valpolicellas become that Ms. Allegrini says it's led to a shortage of basic Valpolicella, which is driving up prices, if only slightly. "All the producers want to put the wine into the drying process," she says. In Ontario, for example, you'll find many more ripassos and Amarones on the shelf than plain-vanilla Valpolicellas.
Basic Valpolicella has its own hierarchy, too: "Valpolicella" at the low end; Valpolicella "classico" to designate wines grown on the hillier western part of the zone; and longer-aged, higher-alcohol "superiore." Adding to consumer confusion, producers may use partially dried grapes in these wines without displaying "ripasso" on the label.
While I'm a fan of Amarone and such quality ripassos as Allegrini's single-vineyard Palazzo della Torre (which contains no molinara and even eschews the word Valpolicella on the main label), on a warm summer's day I'd just as soon reach for a thirst-quenching classico or superiore.