One of the advantages of living in New York is that you don’t always have to travel to the wine country to taste wines or interview producers; often enough they come here, bringing with them a range of wines for tasting and talking about. Recently, Andrea Sartori was in town. He is the fourth generation of the Sartori Amarone family, which by itself was enough to catch my interest (regular readers will already know my veneration of Amarone) – but what made the visit even more interesting was that traveling with him was his enologist, Franco Bernabei, one of the most respected practitioners of that exacting craft in Italy.
His being here was unusual because, as Andrea aptly put it, Franco is the very opposite of a “flying enologist.” He restricts his practice to Italy and his clients to a small number in the key zones. To each of these he devotes generous time and attention, years of experience and expertise, and a passion for wine that has never flagged in all the decades I’ve known him. For those of us outside Italy, his reputation probably rests most firmly on his work in Tuscany, but he was born and grew up in the Veneto, so has felt very comfortable working with the Verona-based Sartori family for the past ten years.
Bernabei is a firm believer in the importance of terroir, but even more fundamentally he believes in the crucial importance of matching the right grape to the right soil. To that end, one of the first things he did, on assuming control of Sartori’s winemaking, was to spend a lot of his time (and Sartori’s euros) making a complete study of all the vineyards. About ten years ago, Andrea Sartori undertook a joint venture with the Cantina Colognola di Colli co-op, which gave him exclusive rights to the grapes from the members’ 5,000+ acres. The growers agreed to follow Sartori’s directions on fieldwork and cultivation, making Sartori one of the largest Veneto winemakers and giving Franco Bernabei access to a wide range of high-quality grapes.
We tasted several results of his work, all impressive tweakings – ever-so-slight variants – of very traditional Veronese wines.
First was 2009 Ferdi (Bianco Veronese IGT). Bernabei crafts this white wine from 100% Garganega, the grape variety of Soave, which has belonged for centuries to the hills around Verona. His tweaking consists of partially drying a portion of the grapes before fermentation. This appassimento, as it is known, is also traditional to those hills – but it’s usually reserved for red grapes. The process, combined with long lees contact, produces a white wine distinct from the Veronese norm – bigger, rounder, fuller-bodied, very long finishing – a real dinner wine rather than a light aperitif wine.
Next came 2007 Regolo (Rosso Veronese IGT). A red wine, it’s vinified from Corvina, the most prized of the three varieties that go into Valpolicella – but it’s vinified only from Corvina, making it a very rare monovarietal red in this traditional land of blending. Bernabei observes tradition by giving Regolo the classic ripasso – a second fermentation, in the February following harvest, on the lees of Amarone. This beefs up the wine substantially, intensifying its color, its aromas, its fruit, and its body. This particular example had classic Veronese acidity, which kept it sapid and long-finishing and very adaptable with food. It remained limber and in no way muscle-bound, despite the almost-steroid kick ripasso can give. Bernabei was adamant that he used very little ripasso: “I’m not trying to make a baby Amarone.”
By now, we had arrived at the big guns: 2008 Amarone and 2006 Amarone Corte Bra, the latter a single-vineyard wine made only in the best vintages.
The goal, Bernabei said, was to make “a quality table wine. I hate jammy wines.” That remark, for those not familiar with the world of Amarone, damns most of the popular, relatively inexpensive Amarones now being marketed. There is nothing wishy-washy about Bernabei. He is devoted to native Italian grapes – “the world cannot be full of Merlot,” he says – so it is worthy of note that he blends a tiny amount (5%) of Cabernet sauvignon in with the traditional grapes (Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella) of his Amarone. I couldn’t detect it, unless its effect was in the slight zing of live tannins. But this was a very young Amarone, and some still-firm tannins are only to be expected, even in a wine as precociously big, soft, and round as this one was.
The Corte Bra, two years older, tasted like classic Amarone, deep and velvety on the palate, already composed and elegant. Bernabei’s little tweak here is to out-tradition the tradition by including not Cabernet but 5% of Oseleta in the blend. Oseleta is a very old Veronese variety that had all but disappeared until some devoted growers began cultivating it and pushing its virtues. Again, I couldn’t discern it in the blend, unless it was contributing to the conspicuously attractive mouth feel of the wine.
The final wine of the day was a 1995 Amarone, and here it became clear just what an enologist – or at least, what this particular enologist – adds to a wine. Regular readers know that I consider a not-quite-20-year-old Amarone as just about leaving infancy and just about ready to drink, so I was very happy indeed to see this dark-hued wine in my glass. The flavor was spot-on: big, dark fruit, with the acidity needed to keep the fruit and the abundant alcohol (all the Amarones clocked in at 15°) in equilibrium. That’s what the best Amarones do: They achieve balance on a large scale, but balance so graceful that you don’t notice the scale.
A lovely wine from the pre-Bernabei days at Sartori, the ‘95 provided a great opportunity for comparison with the younger vintages, to see just what had changed. The answer was startlingly clear: the younger wines, despite being so much less evolved, tasted more elegant, more polished: sophisticated in the best sense of the word. Side by side, the ’95 – which, let me stress, I enjoyed thoroughly – tasted just a bit rustic, a bit less complete than the wines from the hand of a master. And that, I thought, is what an enologist really adds. Lesson learned.