For our 43rd anniversary, Diane and I dug out our oldest bottle of wine. Even though 43 is a high number as anniversaries go, it’s not a significant one – but there are no guarantees that we or the bottle would get any older, and almost certainly we, at least, won’t get any better. So I pulled the cork – very carefully – on my last bottle of 1962 Bertani Amarone. No point beating around the bush: The wine was spectacular.
1962 was close to Bertani’s first commercial release of Recioto di Valpolicella Amarone, as it was then known. Their very first was 1959, which may well be the first commercial release of Amarone, period. The wine was a rarity then, the result of a strain of super-heroic yeasts that could handle the high sugar levels of grapes that normally made the sweet Recioto di Valpolicella and convert them to the high alcohol levels of a fully dry Amarone – 15% in the case of our bottle of ‘62. That conversion, by the way, is where the name Amarone comes from: The wine was once thought of as a freakishly bitter version (amaro, in Italian) of the Verona area’s traditional Recioto. That sweet wine is still made, and it’s still lovely and much beloved in and around Verona – but in terms of serious wine quality and complexity, it isn’t a patch on Amarone.
In the decades since 1962, Amarone has become an important wine in volume and reputation, with the inevitable result that only a handful of the many wines now on the market that bear the Amarone label carry on the tradition of true Amarone. By the way, Bertani continues to market older vintages; some back to 1960 are still commercially available.
For my palate, the real Amarone is one of the world’s greatest wines – period, no qualifications. Vinified from carefully selected, patiently-dried-until-they-are-half-raisined bunches of the same traditional-to-Verona varieties that make Valpolicella (Corvina, Rondinella, and – less and less – Molinara), Amarone ferments on its skins slowly, slowly over the winter, the process usually only finishing around Easter. That produces a wine extraordinarily rich in extract and high in alcohol, with velvety tannins and generous acidity and mouthfuls of fruit, a wine with the structure to last for decades and the abundance of flavors to clothe that structure with alluring and steadily evolving flavors.
Enter my 1962 Bertani.
Though all of 50 years old, it had the color of a young Barolo – deep garnet shading to an orange edge – and a panoply of flavors running from youthful fruit to mature and earthy minerality. This bottle just blew away the dinner we’d built around it. We drank Veuve Clicquot brut with our first course, a truffle omelet made with some jarred black truffles I’d purchased in Alba back in May (privileged beyond belief, Alba gets black spring and summer truffles, too, in addition to its more famous white ones). For our main course we were trying Scottish grouse, a variety of game bird we’d never tasted before, and we made a classic French preparation for them out of a usually reliable Raymond Oliver cookbook. Alas, this was a total failure – not Oliver’s recipe, but the birds themselves. Grouse, it turns out, taste of heather and resin, flavors that could not be rescued even by Oliver’s interesting bread sauce. I’m not sure what you could do with grouse to make them palatable (to me, at least), so I guess in the future I’ll stick to partridge and pheasant and – if I could ever get them again – woodcock. Diane has written in greater detail about this dinner: connect here.
Despite the bizarre flavors of the grouse, the Bertani was lovely: rich, deep, and still youthful tasting, with a flavor that challenges my 30+ years of wine writing experience to describe – black cherry fruit, to be sure, and tobacco, with rich mushroomy/earthy flavors as well. But that’s far from all. Complex is the inadequate shorthand for it.
With cheese – a wonderfully runny Robiolo Bosola – the wine changed in a totally unexpected direction. Usually cheese brings up a wine’s fruit. In this case, our cheese evoked the Amarone’s mature, evolved flavors, very seriously deepening its already great complexity – and putting even more strain on my supply of adjectives. I can’t parse fruit flavors and herbal notes to the fineness that many of my wine-writing brethren and sistren can (for example, do you know what cloudberries taste like?), so I’m really up against my limitations here in trying to convey the myriad facets of this wine.
Even after the cheese, as we sipped the last of the Amarone by itself, it kept getting more intriguing and less susceptible of description. I can’t give you an approximation of it, because it was more than any of its identifiable parts: The whole was simply elegant and profound, unquestionably one of the greatest wines I have ever drunk. It was as intellectually challenging as it was sensually satisfying. The main course may have been a disappointment, but the main wine more than made up for it.
I acquired this wine about ten years ago, and it has lived since in my less-than-optimum storage conditions – but then, so have I. Gives a whole other dimension to “wine is a living thing,” doesn’t it?