Among the far-too-many wine events in New York this fall, I particularly enjoyed two of – for me – the highest importance, at opposite ends of the size spectrum: one a large, well-attended Amarone seminar and tasting sponsored by a group called Amarone Families and held at the New York Public Library (!), and the other a private lunch with Roberto Felluga, head of the Marco Felluga/Russiz Superiore estates and son of the eponymous Marco.
Let’s start with white wines, shall we? Not that Felluga doesn’t make a few nice reds, but its whites – and, generally speaking, the white wines of its native region, Friuli – are the real attention grabbers. I joined Roberto for a simple, satisfying lunch of interesting bruschette and very tasty pasta at Corsino, deep in the West Village, a comfortable setting for both tasting and talking.
Roberto represents the fifth generation of his family’s commitment to Friuli’s indigenous grape varieties and the fine wines they produce – maybe the best, certainly among the best, white wines of Italy. His great-great-grandfather began that enterprise, and his father Marco expanded it to its present dimensions. A graduate of Conegliano, one of the most prestigious enological institutes in Italy, Marco created the vineyards that bear his name in Gradisca d’Isonzo, as well as the Russiz Superiore vineyards in Capriva, both within the Collio DOC, the most prized viticultural zone in Friuli.
Roberto took great care to explain his family’s goals in winemaking: to express both the character of the grape variety and the character of the land. To that end, he said, they use the best and least intrusive of modern technology. In the simplest terms, that translates into controlled-temperature fermentation and a very carefully measured time in oak (largely for the red wines). That showed clearly in the wines we tasted, which one after another were absolutely textbook examples of their kinds.
The Marco Felluga MonGris 2009, a single-vineyard Pinot Grigio, stood stylistically halfway between Alsace and Italy, with the steely spine of the former and the alluring fruit and spice of the latter. The ’07 Russiz Superiore Friulano – that’s what the EU says we must now call the grape we used to know as Tocai, an indigenous Friulian specialty – and the ’08 Russiz Superiore Pinot bianco both showed classic varietal character, lush fruit, and spines of steel. These would make perfect dinner wines with any dish calling for a white wine, from delicate to assertive. I’d have to use the same sort of adjectives over and over to describe Felluga’s other distinguished white wines as well, so I’ll simply name them here: Sauvignon blanc (from both estates); Ribolla gialla, a very traditional variety in eastern Friuli (Marco Felluga); Molamatta, a lovely blend of three varieties (oak-fermented Pinot bianco and steel-fermented Friulano and Ribolla gialla: Marco Felluga); and finally Horus, a succulent dessert wine made of 90% Picolit, a very old and much endangered Friulian variety.
Totally different in setting, scale, and formality, the Amarone Families seminar and tasting took place in a cavernous hall just across the third-floor lobby from NYPL’s catalog room and equally cavernous main reading room. For all the times I’ve used the library, I never once suspected this huge space was there – much less that it could be used for food and wine events! New York is filled with surprises.
The Amarone families number 12 – Allegrini, Begali, Brigaldara, Masi, Agricola Musella, Nicolis, Speri, Tedeschi, Sant’ Antonio Estate, Tommasi, Venturini, Zenato – and collectively embody 2000 years of history in wine. They have banded together to defend quality Amarone – Amarone d’Arte is the name they use in Italian – from the tidal wave of commercialized plonk that is now pouring out of the Veronese hills under its label. They are devoted to what Sandro Boscaini of Masi called “true, historic Amarone.” That is a wine, as their manifesto makes clear, that can only be made in the best vintages, from the best sites, with very restricted yields (half of what’s allowed for Valpolicella from similar sites). It must be made slowly, over an exceptionally long, gentle fermentation and an even longer pre-release aging. Amarone d’Arte consequently is never going to be inexpensive, will always need time to mature, and ought never, ever be thought of as an everyday drink: It is by deliberate choice a special-occasion wine.
To emphasize their point, the youngest wines the families showed at the seminar were all ten years old, – five wines from the 2000 vintage – and my tasting note on each one of them ends with the same observation: “needs lots of time.” The five 1997s they poured next were all potentially lovely wines, but each one of them was either entering or already well into that dumb phase that all great red wines undergo – though it usually happens a few years after bottling: Amarone does everything in slow motion. The single examples of the 1988 (Masi) and 1986 (Brigaldara) vintages showed the glory of mature Amarone – big, balanced, velvety, elegant on the palate, deep and complex and long-lasting, and for all their evolved flavors still vigorous, with years of life before them.
The Amarone families’ assertion that theirs is a special wine, a unique wine, is no simple puffery: It’s a fact. Mary Mulligan MW, who led the seminar, made this strikingly clear from the start, when she emphasized that while Amarone is a “process-driven wine, like Sherry or Port or Champagne,” it is at the same time (and unlike those wines) “a vineyard-driven wine,” whose vineyard sites and the varieties planted in them dramatically affect the wine they produce. That is a two-fer of gigantic proportions in wine terms, and when it’s handled well, as the Amarone families do, it yields a giant of a wine.