What makes a wine great is one of those questions that at first sight seems pointless. It’s so easy: greatness is greatness. It should be self-evident. A great wine should just smack you in the face. And to some extent, it is self-evident – until you try to explain to yourself or somebody else just what it is that makes it great. That’s where the trouble starts.
What raised this question recently for me was a lovely dinner, hosted by Cristian Ridolfi, the winemaker for Bertani; Stefano Mangiarotti, Bertani’s North American manager; and Bethany Scherline, the representative of its importer, Palm Bay Imports. The dinner, though fine in itself, served mainly as a foil for a vertical tasting of Bertani Amarones – six of them, of the 2003, 2001, 1998, 1980, 1975, and 1967 vintages.
These are glorious wines, from an Amarone master: The Bertani firm has been making top-flight examples of breed for as long as Amarone has been an identifiable kind. Commercially speaking, that’s roughly 50 years; fully dry Amarone only slowly evolved out of Verona’s traditionally sweet Recioto di Valpolicella. Experienced winos may well remember back when the label still read “Recioto di Valpolicella Amarone” – Amarone meaning literally “big and bitter,” which the wine was, as compared to the sweetness and lushness of conventional Recioto, Verona’s traditional dessert wine.
All well-made Amarone has, ipso facto, a head start on greatness. It begins with specially selected fruit, air-dried and semi-raisined, until its remaining juices have become concentrated essences of the original grapes.
Then it is gently pressed and slowly fermented on the skins over the winter at naturally low temperatures. Fermentation usually finishes around Easter. The resulting wine has high alcohol but usually compensatorily high acidity, which gives it balance, but balance on an enormous scale. (Scale is something we don’t often talk about in a wine, but the large scale of Amarone is intrinsic to its character.) It is further plumped out – to be irreverent about it – by very high extract and tannin, from all that skin contact. And of course its color is deep and its aromas rich: how could they not be? Such a wine needs age, and most reputable Amarone producers keep the wine, in steel or wood or bottle or some combination thereof, for five or more years before release; the 2003 I tasted was Bertani’s current release.
All six wines were brilliant, including the 2003. Its great gush of fruit immediately reminded me that, compared to most of the wines I drink, Amarone is larger than life. As it turned out, that 2003 was probably the least impressive of the six wines offered that evening, not just because it was the youngest, but also because ’03 was a very hot summer, and the resulting wines, all through Italy, in fact throughout most of Europe, were alcoholic and often unbalanced. The ’03 Amarone tasted like a hot vintage – a little baked and evidently high in alcohol, but still with some freshness and acidity at its heart: not a great wine, but still a very good one, even though it didn’t show the kind of structure that gives Amarone its very long life.
The 2001 was a whole other matter – already gorgeous and thoroughly composed, even though its fruit still tasted very youthful and fresh, with no sign yet of the deep, velvety flavors of mature Amarone. This is a wine that should last for decades, getting better and better for at least a few of them. And this is the wine that, by contrast with the 2003, first raised for me the question with which I started this piece. This wine, I said to myself, is going to be great. What made me say that? One answer – and it’s only a partial one – is intuition guided by experience (as Nero Wolfe used to say), an almost instantaneous reaction to the whole configuration of the wine based on years of tasting these wines at every stage of their development. (That’s also one of the reasons that, when it comes to wine, you should be wary of trusting anybody under 30.)
The subsequent bottles only made the question tougher. The 1998 showed gloriously: seemingly fully integrated, with its fruit still revealing some freshness in the midst of a whole bevy of maturing flavors. It demonstrated how much more the ’01 had to develop, and therefore why I could say that wine was going to become great, and not great already, so that’s one small point cleared up.
Next, the 1980: if I thought the ’98 was fine, this wine raised the stakes still higher. It was ready: fully mature, rich with plummy/pruney fruit, soft, velveteen tannins, a wonderful balance of them and acid and alcohol, so that you didn’t even notice how hefty and muscular it was – and, with all that, still tasting young, leaving the distinct impression that it had many years of life and development before it.
The 1975 again compounded my problem and forced me to modify my opinion. If I had thought the 1980 was ready, how could I describe the 1975? Certainly not over the hill: it seemed to be in its prime – completely mature, balanced, full, lively. This wine for sure was ready.
Or so I thought until I tasted the 1967. Its aroma was huge, its palate amazing, round and at the same time acidic and live, its fruit mature – dark, pruney, smoky, leathery – and withal still – still! – fresh.
So where did all that leave me, with regard to my opening question? Actually, pretty well off. It has become clear to me that greatness in a wine resides not in a single factor but in a package of elements. Some are more or less objective: balance, scale, the harmony of those components, the maturity of the fruit, their integration with the tannins and acidity, and – above all – the fidelity of an individual wine to the profile of its kind, so that the individual delivers what is appropriate to its species. (I can’t stress this enough: A wine can be an interesting wine and still be a poor example of Amarone or Barolo or Musigny or St. Estephe.)
And then there are the very subjective components of greatness: the kind and intensity of the flavors a wine delivers, the degree of pleasure a taster derives from them and from the other, more objective elements of the wine.
But above all, what these lovely Bertoni Amarones showed me about greatness is that, when everything that I’ve enumerated above is in order, greatness results most importantly from a dual subjective perception or response to each wine. One half is the pleasure of recognition: “That is definitely what Amarone at its best is supposed to taste like!” The other half is the pleasure of surprise, a new awareness that doesn’t contradict, but widens, the scope of the first perception: “Oh wow! Who knew Amarone could taste like that?” A great wine delivers both of these, and maybe a few more pleasures that I haven’t identified yet – but I’m working on it.