Pressure on Ripasso

Ripasso is a major export earner for Valpolicella, says Elisabetta Tosi. Yet there are signs that it’s becoming a victim of its own success. 

Emilio Pedron, CEO, Bertani Domains
Emilio Pedron, CEO, Bertani Domains

Valpolicella has become known for a wine rooted in a tradition centuries old, yet which has a taste that is definitely modern. It is inspired by the concept of not wasting anything, so it’s perfectly in keeping with today’s eco-sensitive era. It’s Ripasso della Valpolicella, a wine that has captivated export markets.

The beginnings

“The technique is made up of pouring wine in the barrels on the pomace of Recioto, after its racking. The pomace, still rich in sugar and yeasts, causes a new, true, alcoholic fermentation on a base wine about four to five months after the harvest. The Ripasso is essentially a biological action so singular and so delicate as to require accuracy and precision…” These are notes from Nino Franceschetti’s unpublished diary, which I had the luck to read. Franceschetti, an oenologist of great talent who passed away in 2009, was the winemaker who developed the oenological protocol to make Masi Campofiorin. This was an original Valpolicella red wine that first appeared on the market in 1967 labelled as Campofiorin Ripasso. Critics immediately hailed it as the first appearance of a new category of wine –  the modern Ripasso. Today, the wine is described by its producer as a super Venetian.

Yet this kind of wine has a much older history, with its roots in the rural culture of Valpolicella, the region outside Verona. Valpolicella is renowned for the ‘appassimento’ wines Amarone (dry) and Recioto (sweet), made with a blend of local grapes (Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella), which are dried for some months in ventilated lofts, and then pressed and fermented. This process dates back centuries, and is closely related to the technique used for modern Ripasso. The most important wine in the past was the sweet Recioto, the making of which required the farmers to reserve the best grapes. They realised that, after racking, Recioto’s pomace was still rich in elements such as sugar, colour, yeasts and flavours. A tradition grew up of taking the fermented and pressed skins and pouring their ordinary, fresh Valpolicella over them, a technique known as re-passing. That triggered a second fermentation and gave the light, basic Valpolicella more alcohol, colour and structure. Later, when Recioto’s production started to decrease as producers made more Amarone, the makers of Ripasso began to use Amarone marcs to re-pass the fresh Valpolicella. Nowadays, it’s up to individual wineries to decide whether to make Ripasso with Amarone pomace or Recioto’s, or with both.

“In the countryside, people were used to not throwing away anything,” explains Christian Zulian, winemaker and technical director for Bolla, one of the most historic wineries in Valpolicella, now part of Gruppo Italiano Vini. “In a sense, the Ripasso is a wine that doesn’t exist by itself, because to make it, you need two wines: the fresh Valpolicella and the marc of the Amarone. It’s the son of the hard times when the people exploited everything that could give them nourishment and energy, and even a sign of respect of the fruits of the earth.” This technique is still used extensively in Valpolicella: curiously, no other Italian region has adopted a similar process.

Skyrocketing production

The attractiveness of Ripasso no doubt comes from the winning combination of two wines: the opulence of Amarone coupled with the easy drinkability of the Valpolicella, available at a lower price than Amarone. The wine offers great value for money, as most Ripasso is sold to the consumer at either €12-13 ($13.70-14.80) or €18-19. In 2000, the first year that data about Ripasso production was officially collected, there were 7.5m bottles produced. Just two years later, there were 13.6m.  

When Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella gained the DOCG classification in 2010, Ripasso was also recognised; until then, it had been classified merely as a type of Valpolicella wine. Since then, production of Ripasso has skyrocketed. The current production rules stipulate a ratio of one to two, meaning that for each bottle of Amarone, a maximum of two bottles of Ripasso can be produced. This means that the destiny of Ripasso is bound to that of Amarone, to the extent that it’s likely many producers have increased the production of Amarone just so they can make more Ripasso. The two wines even travel abroad together: where Amarone is successful, Ripasso is sure to do well also. 

Indeed, after Amarone, Ripasso is undoubtedly the most exported and beloved wine from Valpolicella. The 2017 turnover from the region was €600m, of which €245m came from Recioto, Valpolicella and (mainly) Ripasso. As for exports, the main markets are Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, the US and Canada.

“Ripasso wines are very popular in Sweden. Our country consumes about 7% of the total Ripasso production,” says Karin Husberg of Systembolaget, the Swedish monopoly. “One reason is of course that many people appreciate the taste, but the price is also of importance.” 

The price issue is a sensitive one: it can be the key to open many markets, but also an Achille’s heel. “Today our zone produces 27m-28m bottles of Ripasso, and the price range is very wide, from €4 per bottle to €9-9.50 ex-cellar,” says winemaker and general manager of Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, Daniele Accordini. “However, this doesn’t affect the final price for the consumer, which is always very approachable for wines of high quality as many Ripasso. In the last two years, the selling of this wine is stable, but the problem is that production continues to increase.” Accordini says that in 2010 the DOC Valpolicella had 6,300ha of vineyards, which had expanded to 8,000ha by 2017. “This year 150 new hectares of vineyards have already been entered in production.” 

In short, the sound of cracking can be heard.

Warnings ahead

Emilio Pedron, CEO of Bertani Domains, doesn’t hide his disquiet. “The current threats to the Ripasso are the side effect of its success,” he says. “It’s a so requested wine that some producers are giving in to the temptation to make it as the market wants: richer, more structured, more coloured. This way though, you lose the typicality of Valpolicella, which is elegance, balance, not powerfulness.” He says that while Ripasso is still successful, there are already some signs of decline, mainly in Canada and northern Europe, its major markets. 

This is confirmed by Systembolaget. Husberg says that in 2017, Swedish sales of Ripasso fell by 4.85% and by 6.64% in 2018. “We see a slight decrease in interest,” she says. Maybe consumers are finally becoming tired of this wine? Or are other competitors emerging? “Many customers seem to turn to other wines such as appassimento,” says Husberg, “but also to comparable wines from the US.” 

Raffaele Boscaini, marketing and technical group coordinator at Masi winery, has a similar opinion: “In the restaurant, there is still interest for the Ripasso, but in the retail and in the modern distribution we note weariness,” he says. “Perhaps it is the beginning of the end of the Ripasso phenomenon: it was to be expected.” He adds that what may be behind this fatigue is “probably the mad rush that producers made to Ripasso,” producing it in volume, thus compromising its credibility and pricing. “Furthermore, the wine is suffering the competition of too many appassimentos –  wines simply made with dried grapes. A category of products with no sense, that only tries to exploit a fashion. Here the real winner is the low price, not the brand, or the denomination.”  

Many producers are realising that in order to maintain Ripasso’s success, they need to recover Valpolicella. “If you want a good Ripasso, seek a winery which produces a good Valpolicella,” says Zulian of Bolla. “If the producer makes a good fresh wine that’s pleasant to drink – a typical Valpolicella, I mean – there you will likely also find a great Ripasso.”  

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