In the days of my callow youth, there were many glasses of plonk table wine consumed without a second thought, as Alberta was adrift in a desert bereft of fine wines.
That all changed in 1993, when King Ralph decided to get the government out of the booze business, making Alberta the first Canadian province to move to privatized liquor distribution.
Almost overnight, the handful of dreary warehouse-like retail outlets staffed by disgruntled government clerks were replaced by a bloom of privately-owned liquor boutiques. For the first time, liquor stores were forced to compete based on price, hours, and selection.
As a college student at the time, my wine selections were still based largely on price, and one of the first new wines that arrived in Alberta following liquor privatization was a Valpolicella Classico, which I still drink 25 years later.
Valpolicella is not a particular type of grape, but describes a delineated growing region in the Italian province of Verona, which Shakespeare fans will recognize as the setting of the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet.
The Valpolicella region has been producing wine since the time of the ancient Greeks, but has only been recognized as a protected designation since 1968, meaning that the grapes must be grown in a very specific area under certain regulations in order for the Valpolicella name to appear on the label.
Since Valpolicella refers to the region instead of the grapes, the label may not tell you which grapes make up a particular wine. The Corvina grape varietal tends to make up the vast majority of wines from the Valpolicella region, followed by smaller portions of Rondinella and Molinara, and perhaps even trace amounts of Barbera and Sangiovese.
Similar to the Beaujolais Nouveau style from France, Valpolicella wines are often served very young, sometimes just a few weeks after harvest.
Valpolicella earned a bit of a bad reputation in decades past, as the export markets were seen as a dumping ground for the less desirable blends, while the good stuff stayed in the Italian domestic market. This flood of low-end supermarket wines into the North American market in the waning days of the last millenium made Valpolicella a wine to be avoided, but that turned around halfway through the naughty nineties, just as Alberta was privatizing its liquor distribution.
With quality on the upswing, Valpolicella wines quickly became a favourite here in Canada, making us one of the largest export markets. We Canucks buy more of the $15-$20 bottles of Valpolicella per capita than any other country, and I can certainly claim to have done my part in keeping those numbers high.
The classical Valplicella is a light to medium bodied red wine, with plenty of fresh cherry and red fruit. Unlike other reds, I like to put my Valpolicella in the refrigerator for 10 minutes before serving, just to give it a slight chill on a warm summer day.
Moving up to a higher price point, the Valpolicella wine region is also famous for two other styles, namely Ripasso and Amarone.
Ripasso refers to an extended maceration process of skins and pomace from previouly pressed grapes into a new batch of wine, which adds more tannins and phenolic compounds for a more complex wine.
Amarone is the most expensive of the Valpolicella wines, made by drying the grapes on specially designed racks to reduce their water content and increase their intensity. The wine then undergoes an extended fermentation until all of the residual sugar is completely converted to alcohol, resulting in an extremely dry, almost bitter style of wine.
Amarone wines are typically aged in oak barrels for several years before bottling to allow the bitterness to soften, resulting in a very full-bodied red with earthy notes of fig and mocha. Because of their intense flavours, Amarone wines are typically paired with heavy roast meat dishes, and strong parmesan cheeses.
The classic Valpolicella blends can generally be found for under $20, while the wines made in the Ripasso style hover around $35. At the peak of the Valpolicella wines, the Amarone styles start at $50 and go sky-high from there.
Whatever your preference, you will find plenty of Valpolicella wines at your friendly neighbourhood wine shop, so look for a bottle on your next visit.