Friday, 16 September 2011

Wine Review: Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella DOC Classico Superiore (2004)

Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella DOC Classico Superiore (2004) Review
Price: £18 per bottle
Availability: Independent merchants

In 1560, Italian nobleman and landowner Marcantonio Serego turned to architect Andrea Palladio and asked him to build a villa in the centre of his estate, north of Verona, in North East Italy. That villa was named Villa Santa Sofia and today this is the image that adorns every bottle of Santa Sofia wine. Nestling amongst the four streams and four valleys (Marano, Negrar, Furmane and Novare) that form the Valpolicella Classico DOC zone, north west of Verona, the Santa Sofia Estate is today a Venetian landmark.

Family owned since establishment and with vines grown amongst the valleys of "Valpolicella" (believed to be derived from the Greek meaning “The Valley of the Cellars") since before Roman times, the Begnoni family are understandably proud of the Santa Sofia vineyards’ heritage and history. Today run by Giancarlo Begnoni and his son and daughter Luciano and Patrizia, they see themselves as much as custodians of a great winemaking tradition in Valpolicella, as much as winemakers in Valpolicella.

Today Santa Sofia produces three ranges of wines, Santa Sofia “I Classici”, Santa Sofia “Le Selezione” and Sonta Sofia “Le Riserve”. The Santa Sofia “Le Riserve” range features Santa Sofia’s most outstanding wines, produced in limited numbers (including Santa Sofia’s outstanding Amarone della Valpolicella) and this, the Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore.

In some ways, labelling this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore as a "Valpolicella" is misleading. Typically light, young drinking and vivacious, this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore is nothing like a “typical” Valpolicella. For starters this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore is grown within the historic “Classico” sub area of Valpolicella, which represents the original growing heartlands of Valpolicella before a massive expansion of the area in which Valpolicella could be made in the late 1960s (much Valpolicella is no longer grown in this area and is poorer for it). Secondly, this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore is labelled a Valpolicella “Superiore” – meaning that this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” has been aged in oak for at least one year and has an alcoholic content of at least 12% abv (the majority of Valpolicella is not aged in oak for that long, if at all).

And lastly and perhaps most damning, this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore is produced in a manner which is nothing like “most” Valpolicella. Whereas “most” Valpolicella is pressed immediately after picking, before vinfication and release as soon as possible, the grapes that make up this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore are first dried on straw mats (a process very similar to that used in the production of Valpolicella’s most prestigious derivative: Amarone della Valpolicella) before a slow vinification process and a wait of at least two years before release.

A blend of 65% Corvina, 30% Rondinella and 5% Molinara, the grapes destined for this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore are in fact dried for 40-45 days on the same straw mats as Santa Sofia’s Amarone della Valpolicella.  (The Amarone della Valpolicella grapes themselves are typically dried for up to 120 days.) The two years aging of this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore is then spilt into 18 months in large Slavonian oak barrels and 6–9 months resting in bottle.

A process that similar to, but not identical to, the making of Amarone della Valpolicella, ought to yield a wine in the form of this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore that is similar to, but not identical to this famed wine, yet at a price which is less than half of it’s more famous cousin. Not many winemakers choose to dry the grapes destined for Valpolicella, thus making this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore a tough wine to classify and a tougher wine to purchase (it is twice the price of a typical high quality Valpolicella) unless you happen to know the intricacies of how it has been made.

The bottle of this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore itself doesn’t help you here in identifying these intricacies, although it is a beautiful and classically presented high shouldered (“Bordeaux” style) bottle with a label which exudes Santa Sofia’s heritage. A very high quality natural cork with “Santa Sofia” stencilling seals the bottle.

In the glass, this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore is a moderately intense cherry to rustic garnet. There is a clear rust coloured browning across the wine, which is particularly noticeable at the rim - a result of this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore's extended oak aging. The alcoholic content of this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore is higher than can be found with most “ordinary” Valpolicella, weighing in as it does at 13.5% abv. Although, given that the partial “appasimento” process (air drying process) that is applied to the grapes for this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore concentrates the sugars within them (a process that can yield 16-17% abv in Amarone della Valpolicella) perhaps it is surprising that this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore does not contain more alcohol still.

The nose of this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore is quite simply outstanding. Wonderfully and hedonistically intense and fragrant, a musk thick with cherries, raisins and vanilla is sniffable a good distance from the glass. Nuanced and superb, this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore offers so much more than 99% of “typical” Valpolicella, yet also in the sense the aromas are never too oppressive or overpowering, it has a sense of fragrance and balance that many producers of Amarone della Valpolicela, or even Valpolicella Ripasso (probably the closest flavour comparison for this unusual Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore wine) would envy.

In the mouth, whilst it was always going to be difficult for this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore to match the sheer excellence of its aromas, it is just a little disappointing. Whilst the initial flavours of slightly tart cherry and raspberries which become smoother and richer into the mid palate are enjoyable (and significantly weightier than “typical” Valpolicella, but lighter than Amarone della Valpolicella) a slightly too tart note that underlies a violet and raisined finish undermines the overall balance of the palate of this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella Classico Superiore. A wine that your tastebuds are led to believe ought to be smooth and rich, but not oppressive, becomes a little too challenging in the mouth which takes the shine off what would otherwise be an absolutely outstanding wine. A good length of finish and a gradual drying of the mouth as the tannins begin to be felt, round off a wine that is still very accomplished.

In all, this Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella is highly accomplished effort from the Benoni family. An unusual production style yields a wine in the form of this Santa Sofia "Monte Gradella" Valpolicella Classico Superiore that is hard to classify, but is excellent drinking.

Santa Sofia “Monte Gradella” Valpolicella DOC Classico Superiore (2004)

Score: 90/100 – Highly accomplished and enjoyable.

Value for Money: 7/10 – Sits at the top end of Valpolicella pricing, but excellent.

Other Valpolicella-based wines reviewed to date:
Giuseppe Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC (2000)
Possibly the godfather of all Valpolicella, Guiseppe Quintarelli crafts Valpolicella like no other. Fermentation in oak and a long (up to 10 year) maturation period makes this Valpolicella a wine that is unique and absolutely region defining. Outstanding.


Allegrini “Corte Giara” Valpolicella Ripasso DOC (2009)
Valpolicella "Ripasso" is made when a simply vinified Valpolicella is "re-passed" over the skins of grapes that have already been used to make Amarone della Valpolicella to kick off an additional fermentation. The result is a greater depth of flavour, additional structure and more alcohol!

Montresor "La Colombaia" Amarone della Valpolicella DOC (2006)
For many, the ultimate expression of Valpolicella is Amarone della Valpolicella. Richer, smoother and longer than "ordinary" Valpolicella, this Montresor Amarone della Valpolicella is wonderfully fruit-forward and approachable.