Archive for the ‘Amarone’ Category

Red Wines of Verona II: Amarone

March 16, 2017

Amarone is enjoying a surprising degree of popularity in the United States – surprising especially for a wine that many wine experts think is too big, too austere, too overpowering to match comfortably with any part of a meal except a course of strong, old cheeses. I strongly disagree. I’ve long been a proponent of Amarone: I love its heft and complexity, and I think it partners beautifully with equally hefty meats – unctuous prime rib roasts to be sure, and almost any game dish you can name, but also lamb roasts, or long-cooked braises of all sorts, as well as any number of cheeses. A well-made, well-balanced Amarone has no problems with any dish that can match it in scale.

We winos don’t talk very much about scale, but its importance can’t be overestimated – and it’s almost self-evident, as soon as you stop to think about it. A light wine can be as elegant, or complex, or balanced, as acidic or as tannic, as a big, full-bodied wine, but you would match it with different foods because of its size, its scale. It’s not just the meshing or counterpoint of flavors that makes a good wine-and-food match: It’s also important that, like boxers, the wine and the food belong to the same weight class. With as authoritative a wine as a great Amarone, that element of the match is crucial, lest the wine appear bullying and brutal.
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We’ve been very lucky here in the US in that we have for years been receiving steady supplies of some of the very best Amarones, largely from a group of producers who were not represented in the blind tasting of 2013 Amarones that climaxed my week in Verona last month. (The producers who call themselves the Amarone Families withdrew from the Consorzio a few years ago. Allegrini, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Masi, Speri, Tedeschi, Tommasi, and Zenato are the best known here.) Consequently, I had what was initially the very welcome opportunity to taste wines from more than 80 producers, most of whom were unknown to me.

It quickly became clear that this was a mixed blessing. The 2013 vintage was sound but not great – a wet spring, followed by a hot, dry summer, followed by colder than normal weather during Amarone’s crucial drying period, resulted in wines with high acidity (normally good for Amarone) but also lots of tannins. (For what makes Amarone different from other wines, see here.)
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Additionally, many of the wines in the tasting were barrel samples, and many of those that were in bottle had either been specially bottled for this tasting or bottled only a few weeks ago. A good many simply hadn’t pulled themselves together yet. Trying to judge wines this young is always an exercise in crystal ball gazing, and it is particularly difficult to judge anything definitively about a wine as long- and slow-maturing as Amarone. We tasters weren’t even dealing with infants but, for the most part, with premature births.

That said, and my expectations tempered to that reality, I was still very distressed by a lot of the wines I tasted. To put it bluntly, far too many wines tasted far too sweet to suit my expectations of Amarone. A few samples had so much sugar that I thought I had mistakenly been given a Recioto to taste.

This is a serious problem. The DOCG regulations for Amarone specify that the finished wine can contain a maximum of 12 grams of residual sugar per liter. For my palate, that is already high. I checked with a few of my wine colleagues (Michael Apstein, Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone) about sugar levels in Champagne, just to provide a baseline for comparison. They all agreed: 5 g/l is above the detectable level of sweetness: 12 g/l is the highest limit of Brut Champagne. So 12 g/l is moderately sweet, but a drinker’s perception of that sweetness will depend both on other factors in the wine (acids, tannins, alcohol, etc.) and subjective factors (personal tolerance of sugar, e.g.). I’m not very fond of most sweet wines, and I can’t tolerate a sweet dinner wine, so 12 g/l is really pushing the envelope for me, and I consequently found many of the Amarones in the blind tasting well above my threshold for sweetness. I don’t think I’m way off base on this, so if my palate is any reflection of what the market for Amarone wants, there are serious problems here.

Having said all that, I have to stress that the total picture was not all negative. Even in the blind tasting of these unformed embryos, I found some wines that showed real Amarone character – and of course I tasted yet more mature examples on my round of winery visits. Here are the ones I liked best from both venues (unless otherwise noted, all are 2013 vintage):

From Stefano Accordini:

  • Amarone Acinatico. A forceful, grapey nose, followed by a big mouthful of fresh fruit. Very young but well structured. Will be excellent.
  • Amarone Acinatico 1981. The winemaker poured this to make a point, which he did indeed. A big, soft, delicious wine, marked by mushroom and earth flavors and great depth. It kept changing in the glass, getting even richer as it opened – as great Amarone always does.

From Albino Armani:

  • Amarone Cusianus. Good dry Amarone nose, slight sweetness on palate, with just softening tannins; should develop well. (Barrel sample)
  • Amarone Cusianus 2011. A big, well-balanced wine, with excellent fruit, maturing exactly as it should.

From Bennati:

  • Amarone. Tobacco, black pepper, and dark fruit in the nose and on the palate, coming together in a fairly classic way.

From Bertani:

  • Amarone Valpantena. Very closed on the palate, but the absolutely classic aromas and finish indicate it will be fine. Bertani is, of course, one of the pioneers of Amarone, and its older vintages are benchmarks for Amarone ageability.

From Carlo Boscaino:

  • Amarone San Giorgio. A still closed barrel sample, but like the Bertani wine, the nose and finish promise excellent future development.
  • Amarone 2012. An almost smoky, grapey nose; tobacco and berry palate; balanced, while still forceful and elegant. Aged 30 months in big old barrels (botti). Very traditional, very fine.

From Ca’ Botta:

  • Amarone Tenuta Cajò. Classic, dry Amarone nose, big fruity finish. Another fairly tight sample, but showing the proper signs: should pull together and start opening in a year.

From Ca’ Rugate:

  • Amarone Punta Tolotti. Needs lots of time to pull together its rich components – tobacco, tar, mushrooms, mineral, black fruits – but in a year it should start to be wonderful.

From La Collina dei Ciliegi:

  • Amarone L’Amarone. Tobacco, pepper, and earth, both in the aromas and on the palate; long finishing. Very characteristic and promising.

From Corte Sant’Alda:

  • Amarone Valmezzane. Fruity, peppery nose, lightish on palate. Still coming together, but should be fine.

From Corte Rugolin:

  • Amarone Monte Danieli. Despite being a barrel sample, this wine impressed me as very correctly made and properly developing. It needs time, but should be fine.

From Corte San Benedetto:

  • Amarone. Very like the preceding wine. Still slightly closed, but showing all the right signs in nose and finish.

From Fumanelli:

  • Amarone. Cherry and tannin all through. Big, fresh, and structured. It seems likely to develop very well.
  • Amarone 2011. A classic Amarone – very soft on the palate, with lots of fruit and lots of structure. The tail is still tannic, but it will soften in a year or so.
  • Amarone Riserva Octavius 2010. A huge wine, with an intense stemmy/tobacco nose; round in the mouth, with loads of soft tannins, smoky cherry, tobacco, and hints of chocolate. Still young, but balanced, on a big scale.

From San Cassiano:

  • Amarone 2012. Very young, with tons of fruit and tannins, plus excellent minerality and nice acidity. Needs lots of time: The producer says to give it five years.

From Santa Sofia:

  • Amarone 2011. Just lovely – austere and rich at the same time. Structured to go on for years. A fine traditional Amarone.

From Sartori:

  • Amarone Corte Bra 2006. At 10 years old, this classic Amarone was just entering maturity. Perfectly balanced, it felt light on the palate despite its rich fruit and impressive structure. Just fine.

 

2017 Tre Bicchieri Winners

February 16, 2017

On the day of our heaviest snowstorm so far this year, the annual New York presentation and tasting of Tre Bicchieri award-winning wines took place just about half a mile from where I live.

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So I slogged through the flying snow and the street-corner slush to take advantage of what I hoped would be a sparse crowd and a lot of idle winemakers, thus allowing me to actually taste some wines. For the first hour, I was right, and I did have the opportunity to taste some remarkable wines – but then the storm let up and the hordes came in, and my chances for thoughtful tasting ended. I’m happy for all those hard-working winemakers that the Tre Bicchieri tasting is such a popular event, but as a hard-working journalist I do most seriously wish there was some better way to experience and evaluate these wines.

But you’ve heard that lament from me before, and are probably quite tired of it now. Besides, the key thing about this particular tasting is how many top-flight Italian wines it gathers in one room, and I don’t want to let the circumstances of the tasting obscure that. My palate and the collective palate of the Tre Bicchieri judges don’t always agree 100%, but those guys sure get an awful lot right, so a collection of almost 200 top-ranked wines amounts to an event to pay serious attention to, no matter how many people you have to elbow aside to do it.

Not that even under the best circumstances I could manage to taste all 200 in one afternoon, but I did my best to get to a reasonable assortment of old-favorite, regular prize winners and some of the new kids on the block. I was impressed by everything I tasted, without exception. I don’t get the chance to say that often, so let me repeat it: Every single wine I tasted that snowy afternoon deserved its Tre Bicchieri designation. Here are the ones I tried: first reds, then whites.

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red-wine

 

From Basilicata

Re Manfredi’s Aglianico del Vulture Manfredi 2013, a wonderful example of a grape I love

From Piedmont

Elvio Cogno’s Barolo Bricco Pernice 2011, another masterpiece from winemaker Valter Fissore

Bruno Giacosa’s Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011, one of Barbaresco’s finest crus, beautifully rendered

Elio Grasso’s Barolo Ginestra Casa Maté 2012, benchmark Barolo, as always from this estate

Giacomo Fenocchio’s Barolo Bussia 90 Dì Riserva 2010, macerated 90 days on the skins, with consequent depth and intensity

Oddero’s Barolo Bussia Vigneto Mondoca Riserva 2010, a classic Barolo of a great vintage

Vietti’s Barolo Ravera 2012, a lovely, beautifully balanced wine with potentially great longevity (and I also liked Vietti’s very nice but not prize-winning Barbera d’Asti La Crena 2013)

From Sicily

Palari’s Faro Palari 2012, year after year the best red wine made in Sicily, in my opinion (and the 2012 Rosso del Soprano is right on its tail in quality: It got Due Bicchieri)

Planeta’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico Dorilli 2014, a lovely light-bodied wine, refreshing and vigorous

From Tuscany

Boscarelli’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Il Nocio 2012, as always an elegant, complex wine

Castellare di Castellina’s I Sodi di San Niccolò 2012, graceful and lovely Sangiovese from winemaker Alessandro Cellai

Castello di Volpaia’s Chianti Classico Riserva 2013, medium-bodied, perfectly balanced, with the elegance that always marks Volpaia

Il Marroneto’s Brunello Madonna delle Grazie 2011, as always from this remarkable cru and maker, a very great wine

Mastroianni’s Brunello Vigneto Schiena d’Asino 2010, maybe the best Tuscan wine at this gathering of greats

Ricasoli’s Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Colledilà 2013, a luscious, juicy wine that drinks far too easily

Terenzi’s Morellino di Scansano Madrechiesa Riserva 2013, very young Sangiovese, with this maker’s trademark balance and elegance

From the Veneto

Allegrini’s Amarone 2012, already big and textured

Bertani’s Amarone 2008 and 2009, both still young and evolving, with great depth and the promise of decades of life

Masi’s Amarone Vaio Armaron Serègo Alighieri 2011, a stunning wine from a great site

Speri’s Amarone Vigneto Monte Sant’ Urbano 2012, another fine example of what seems to be a great year for Amarone

Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Amarone Campo dei Gigli 2012, an infant Hercules

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I doubt anyone is surprised by the fact that Italy is producing so many fine red wines, but for me the best news of the day was how superior so many white wines showed themselves to be. Every single one I tasted had distinct varietal flavors joined to genuine goût de terroir. This for me was the most fun of the afternoon, and I kept switching from big reds to whites of every kind to keep my palate fresh. (It worked for a couple of hours, then I gave out.)

white-wines

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From Alto Adige

Abbazia di Novacella’s Valle Isarco Sylvaner Praepositus 2015, a stunning, fresh, and vigorous wine from a grape of usually no great distinction, this year slightly better than the Abbazia’s normally superb Kerner Praepositus

Produttori San Michele Appiano’s Pinot Grigio St. Valentin 2014, high-altitude, rounder than usual PG – a real dinner wine

Produttori Valle Isarco’s Sylvaner Aristos 2015 – this seems to have been Sylvaner’s year; a lovely, lively wine

From Campania

Marisa Cuomo’s Costa d’Amalfi Furore Bianco 2015, a lovely, fragrant dinner wine coaxed from postage stamp-sized terraced vineyards along the steep Amalfi coast

Fontanavecchia’s Falanghina del Sannio Taburno 2015, lovely, characteristic Falanghina, invigorating and lively

Pietracupa’s Greco di Tufo 2015, medium-bodied and deeply flavored, with strong mineral accents, a fine wine, almost as good, in my opinion, as the same maker’s Fiano di Avellino, which didn’t get Tre Bicchieri

From Friuli Venezia Giulia

Livio Felluga’s Bianco Illivio 2014, a masterful blend of Pinot bianco, Chardonnay, and the native Picolit, sapid and intriguing

Primosic’s Collio Ribolla Gialla di Oslavia Riserva 2012, one of the briefly fashionable orange wines, but better than simple fashion: intense, distinctive, rich, and with the right food incomparable

Russiz Superiore’s Collio Friulano 2015, a lovely medium-bodied, deeply flavored (hints of almond) example of Friuli’s native grape

Torre Rosazza’s Pinot Grigio 2015, what PG used to be, fresh, vigorous, almost rambunctious

From Lazio

Casale del Giglio’s Antium Bellone 2015, distinctive, flavorful wine from an almost disappeared variety that merits preservation (Charles Scicolone has written about this estate here)

From the Marches

Cocci Grifoni’s Offida Pecorino Guido Cocci Grifoni 2013, a lovely wine from a variety that had been in danger of disappearing

Velenosi’s Offida Pecorino Rêve 2014, another fine example of the same grape variety, medium-bodied and mouth-filling; very enjoyable

From Sardinia

Vigne Surrau’s Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Sciala 2015, textbook Vermentino, fresh and bracing

From Sicily

Cusumano’s Etna Bianca Alta Mora 2014, capturing beautifully the volcanic nuances of Etna’s slopes

Tasca d’Almerita’s Sicilia Carricante Buonora Tascante 2015, a very characteristic version of Etna’s great white grape

From the Veneto

Pieropan’s Soave Classico La Rocca 2014, always the finest cru from this consistently great producer

Graziano Prà’s Soave Classico Staforte 2014, one of many excellent cru Soaves from this producer, all fresh, enjoyable and very age-worthy

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There were many more wines to taste, but I had about reached my limit for tasting accurately and for elbowing, so I trudged my way back home through the remnants of the snow storm. I wish I had had the capacity for more, because I’m sure there were more discoveries to be made and reported on. Ars longa, vita brevis. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Non sum qualis eram, etc. You get the idea: I’d do more for you if I could, but . . .

 

 

Collectible Italian Reds

December 3, 2015

In the December 1 issue of the Wine Enthusiast, Kerin O’Keefe published an article called Italy’s Most Collectible Wines. Focusing exclusively on red wines, she surveyed the last approximately 20 years, singling out the best vintages and producers for each of her chosen great denominations – Barolo, Barbaresco, Amarone, Brunello, Bolgheri, and Taurasi – and offering a single exemplary bottle for each vintage.

okeefe page

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Given the ever-irksome space limitations of print publication, which are immensely burdensome to any writer with something to say, she did a great job with so potentially huge and shapeless a subject. Very few American wine writers – very few writers in English, in fact – know Italian wines as well as KO’K, and she nailed the important vintages exactly for each of her wines. No one – not even a notorious carper like me – could find fault with her chosen examples either. I wish she had had room for more individual producers’ names, and I’d bet KO’K does too – that’s where those space limitations really hurt. “Here’s your assignment: Tell us all about the great vintages and producers of Barolo (don’t forget to explain what Barolo is) in 250 words.” As the immortal Alfred E. Neuman was wont to say, Aaaarrrrggghhh!

For those who don’t follow WE, here’s a brief summary of what O’Keefe fitted in:

Barolo
Vintages:  1999, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2010
Producers:   Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Mascarello, Brezza, Massolino, Paolo Scavino

Barbaresco
Vintages:
  2001, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010
Producers:  Produttori del Barbaresco, Cascina delle Rose, Giuseppe Cortese, Roagna, Gaja

Amarone
Vintages:
 2000, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010
Producers:  Giuseppe Quintarelli, Tommasi, Cesari, Tedeschi, Masi

Brunello
Vintages:  1995, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2010
Producers: Col d’Orcia, Lisini, Costanti, Biondi Santi, Il Marroneto

Bolgheri
Vintages:
 2001, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2012
Producers:  Le Macchiole, Michele Satta, Antinori, Ornellaia, Tenuto San Guido (Sassicaia)

Taurasi
Vintages:
 1997, 2001, 2004, 2008, 2010
Producers:  Mastroberardino, Contrade di Taurasi (Lonardi), Guastaferro, Terredora di Paolo, Feudi di San Gregorio
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My only serious quibble with this list is with Bolgheri and its profusion of French varieties, of all of which I am far less a fan than the vast majority of wine journalists – though I am pleased to see the inclusion of the first-rate winemaker Michele Satta. I would rather have used the limited space available for a few off-the-beaten-track great wines – some Gattinaras or Caremas, for example, or Chianti Rufina, especially Selvapiana, or Sicily’s Palari or some Etna wines. But this is a small area of disagreement with a very authoritative listing of Italy’s red crème de la crème – if that isn’t too repulsive a metaphor for what is meant to be high praise.

Bertani: The Old Shall Be New Again

March 9, 2013

The prestigious Bertani firm, famous as a pioneer of Amarone, has recently undergone a major reorganization. A large part of the operation has been acquired by Tenimenti Angelini, which holds several important properties in key wine zones in Tuscany. The Bertani family, headed by Gaetano Bertani and actively led now by his sons Giovanni and Guglielmo, has retained the famous Villa Mosconi and key vineyards in the Valpolicella, Amarone, and Soave zones of the Veneto. These amount to some 124 acres, making them not only one of the largest single landowners in the Veneto, but also one of the few winemakers in the region able to supply all the grapes they need directly from their own vineyards. That – along with their 300 years of winemaking experience – guarantees that they will continue to be major players in the northern Italian wine scene.

Left to right: Giovanni, Gaetano, Guglielmo

Left to right: Giovanni, Gaetano, Guglielmo

Giovanni Bertani was in New York recently to explain the new arrangements and to introduce some of the family’s new labels and wines. The Bertani family wines will now appear under the Tenuta Santa Maria alla Pieve label, and they will continue to be overseen by consulting enologist Franco Bernabei and his son Matteo, an arrangement that now extends into its third generation the links of the Bernabei and Bertani families.

Giovanni explained that his father has long been in love with Merlot and other French wines, so the vineyards around the Villa Mosconi winemaking facility are planted with more French varieties than Veneto natives – Garganega for Soave, but also Chardonnay and Merlot, as well as small amounts of Cabernet franc, Sauvignon, and even Syrah. The Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, and Molinara necessary for Valpolicella, Ripasso, and Amarone come from their vineyards in the heart of the Valpolicella zone.

Nine Tenuta Santa Maria wines were presented at the event, starting with a very nice and quite characteristic 2011 Soave Lepia, a wine that gave the lie to the claim that a Soave must be a Classico to show real typicity. In its modest way, this wine demonstrated the quality of Bertani’s vineyards and vinification.

Then followed a 2008 Chardonnay Pieve, medium-bodied, round and soft. Despite time in barriques, the wine happily showed no wood at all, but instead a concentration of pleasing white fruit and citrus flavors, suggesting a rather Burgundian approach to Chardonnay.

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The red wines started with 2010 Rosso Veneto Pragal, a blend of Merlot and Shiraz. The Shiraz definitely showed in the slightly peppery finish, but what I was mostly aware of in tasting this young wine was the kind of elegance that only generations of experience can give.

The second red was a much more traditional and regional wine, 2009 Valpolicella Ripasso, and it was excellent, a lovely, soft wine with a big and very long dry fruit finish – black cherry and funghi porcini. It wouldn’t be wrong to describe it as a modestly scaled Amarone – and I definitely mean that as a compliment.

Decima AureaNext came a mini-vertical of Gaetano’s pet project, Merlot vinified in a modified version of the Amarone method – grapes picked ripe and allowed to dry for some months before crushing, and then fermented long and slow at low temperatures. The wine is called Decima Aurea, and the 2007, 2004, and 2002 were offered. I’d say the experiment was a glorious success. The Amarone process makes Merlot into a more substantial wine than one usually encounters, and does so without losing character, fruit, or softness. These three were fine wines across the board, with the ’02 impressing most – in part because it was the most mature, and in part because it was such a fine wine from what was a pretty dismal, wet year throughout Italy.

Giovanni also showed a 2007 Amarone, about which I’ll reserve judgment. It’s very difficult to tell how so young an Amarone will develop. This one was quite accessible, but didn’t seem fully balanced – a problem that may resolve in a few years, or a few decades.

acinaticoThe final wine of the day was a rarity that showed the continuity of Bertani tradition – a 1928 Acinatico. Acinatico is the old name for what is now called Recioto, a wine ancestral to Amarone. The wine offered at this tasting was one of a small trove of bottles hidden behind a farmhouse wall during WWII – when the wine was already 15 years old – and forgotten until rediscovered during restoration work in 1984. Its storage conditions turned out to have been ideal: the wine is live and fresh and completely mature without any sign of tiredness. It was the tawny brown color of old Madeira, and had a huge aroma of cherry liqueur. The palate was rich and intense – semi-sweet black cherry and chocolate – followed by a very long finish of the same flavors. Lovely and very much alive, it was a pleasure and a privilege to drink.

When a family can make a benchmark wine like that Acinatico, you have got to hope that the genes and the genius, in the vines, the land, and the people, persist for many generations more. Good luck, Giovanni.

Bertani Family's Villa Mosconi

Bertani Family’s Villa Mosconi

Wine Age, Our Age, Dotage

February 6, 2013

A pair of provocative articles, published recently by a pair of old pros whose work I respect and admire, Alfonso Cevola and Matt Kramer, questioned the value of cellaring wines nowadays. As one who dotes on the taste and complexity of mature wines, I was naturally intrigued by their consideration of the pros and cons – largely cons, it seems – of aging wines.

Matt KramerI’ve long thought Matt’s pieces almost the only thing in The Wine Spectator worth reading, and as long as I’ve known Matt I’ve known him to relish as much as I do the glories that mature wine can offer, so when I hear him saying that it’s hardly worth cellaring wine anymore, I pay attention. Here’s the core of his argument, in his own words:

In recent years it’s become obvious that an ever greater number of wines that once absolutely required extended aging no longer do.

Simply put, most of today’s fine wines—not all, mind you—will reach a point of diminishing returns on aging after as few as five years of additional cellaring after release. Stretch that to a full 10 years of additional aging and I daresay you will have embraced fully 99 percent of all the world’s wines, never mind how renowned or expensive.

He is careful to point out that this doesn’t mean today’s wines are better or worse, just different. He credits the difference to, or blames it on, the now-universal practice of green harvest (and also climate change, I would think), which assures (?!) a concentrated crop of perfectly ripe grapes nearly every harvest. That means that today’s wines are accessible sooner (by and large, I agree) and that they mature sooner, reaching their peak, beyond which they won’t improve, in five or ten years at most (here’s where I disagree). Again, I’ll let Matt speak for himself:

My hard-won experience with aging wines has now answered to my satisfaction the question about the absolute need for long aging; namely, that the great majority of wines today, in the great majority of vintages, don’t really reward that “expensive” extra five or ten years beyond the five or ten years of aging you’ve already bestowed.

I am now convinced that today’s wine lover is well advised to buy fine wines, cellar them in a cool space for five years—ten years, tops—and then drink them in secure confidence that the great majority of their full-dimensional goodness is available to you.

After that, it’s all just fantasy—and the very real likelihood of an increasingly diminishing return on your already delayed gratification.

CevolaTo this argument, Alfonso adds a stress on the subjective side: We too have changed. Our palates have changed – we want younger, fresher wines now – and we want to drink different wines than the kinds we stored away years ago.

I go into my little walk-in closet and look at all the things I thought would be important to drink in 10-20-30 years and I often find myself walking out and going to another rack of newer wines; fresher, lighter, unencumbered by the dust of time. Oops.

In looking over my little tribe of wines that huddle together in the closet, there are all kinds of strange bedfellows. What are all those sweet wines doing in there? Will it ever get cold enough to drink all the Port that has been gathered? Are those Super Tuscans really prettier when they age, or were they at their best when they were young and willing and tight and bright?

A lot of this is incontrovertible. Our palates and our desires do change over time. Not all wines, even under the best cellar conditions, cooperate by aging and maturing in an interesting manner. And winemaking most certainly has changed, and very dramatically, in ways that must have an effect on the age-ability of wines.

For instance: I recently tasted a very large number of classified growths of Bordeaux, vintage 2010, and found myself vastly underwhelmed. This is a vintage that Parker and others have hailed as great: I believe the Bordelais consider it the third “vintage of the century” so far in this young century. It is already remarkably accessible, compared to the initially tough but long-aging Bordeaux vintages of half a century ago, on which I learned my vinous ABCs.

Parker and others think 2010 will be very long-lived, because it has big tannins, lots of acidity, and pretty high alcohol (at least compared to vintages such 1955 and ’59, ’61 and ’62, ’64 and ’66 – my vinous elementary and high school). Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn whether 2010 Bordeaux ages well or not: I found most of the wines I tasted unbalanced and unintegrated (leading me to think that in fact they won’t age well) and – most damning for Bordeaux – inelegant, bordering on vulgar. These wines certainly show the effects of the green harvest that Matt talked about, and in a thoroughly deleterious fashion: not wines I’d want to keep around at all.

Maybe for many wines ripeness isn’t all? Maybe – for Cabernet sauvignon especially – ripeness can easily be overdone, and a little under-ripeness, with consequently initially tougher tannins and higher acidity and a lot less forward fruit, can be better? Vinous heresy for sure, and be careful who you say it to, lest you be declared pariah and driven out of your tasting club.

I’d certainly agree that there are many occasions on which I actively desire a younger, fresher wine. But that hardly means that there aren’t times when only a mature wine will do what has to be done: charm, seduce, overwhelm, overflow our sensory apparatus and our store of synonyms for great.

I’ve been putting wines away as long as Matt has. Many are from the ‘90s and before, but also with a healthy selection from the first decade of this century (especially from Burgundy and the Piedmont, the Veneto and Campania). Yes, over the years, a few bottles have disappointed, but many have been glorious – and the ones I cellared in the 1990s are doing just fine, thank you. I have equally high hopes for my wines from the first decade of this century: I just hope I’m still around to enjoy them.

MasiA few weeks ago, Diane and I shared a celebratory meal with old friends Betty and Livio at Danny Meyer’s Roman-style restaurant Maialino. To mark the occasion – two of us were turning 75 – I brought a 1986 Masi Amarone Campolongo di Torbe, which we decanted as soon as we were seated and drank about an hour later. I’m not even going to try to describe it, because its complexity was so great and so steadily evolving through the meal. It was, simply, a one-bottle proof of the wisdom of cellaring wine. I only wish I had more of it, and that I might live long enough to experience it at its peak. People do change, and wines do change – and many times, both are for the better.

There are still many kinds of wine that respond very well indeed to aging. Whether the 2010 bottles of Bordeaux will last 20 or 30 years, I doubt, and I’m not going to be around to find out – but I’m willing to bet that a large number of recent vintage Châteauneuf du Papes will, and an equally high percentage of Barolo and Barbaresco (Conterno and Mascarello are shoo-ins), Amarone and Aglianicos and even a few Sangioveses (Biondi-Santi! and Selvapiana’s Chianti Rufina Riserva Bucerchiale). I’m probably not going to cellar any of them myself, but that’s a decision based on the actuarial tables, not the quality of the wine.

Postscript, February 11:

selciaiaYesterday I opened a bottle that I had lost track of, 2001 Selciaia, a simple Rosso di Montepulciano from Fassati. I never meant to keep it so long, and I didn’t know what I’d find when I pulled the cork. I more than half expected it to be dead. Well, it wasn’t. In fact it was fine: mature and claret-like, very drinkable and enjoyable. Just goes to show: Some high-end wines can’t cut the mustard, while some simple ones age beautifully. It depends more on the combination of grape, vintage, and maker than any simple formula.

Annals of Antiquity

July 14, 2012

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?

Sartori: What An Enologist Adds

May 9, 2012

Andrea Sartori

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.

Franco Bernabei

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.

What Makes A Wine Great?

March 30, 2011

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.

Cristian Ridolfi

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.

Stefano Mangiarotti

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.

Amarone grapes drying

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.

The Triumph of Age and Cunning

November 22, 2010

Tasting new releases, as anyone in the wine business knows, is a rarely a pleasure – more of a necessary evil. Especially in these days of intense market pressure, most new releases aren’t ready to drink, and the best of them – wines of texture and complexity – may be years or even decades from their peaks. But science is a cruel mistress, and to keep abreast of the flow, to have an empirical base from which to make judgments and reasonable predictions, a writer has to taste a lot of young wines – many hundreds of them, every season.

That’s why it’s crucially important to drink mature wines at every available opportunity, to remind yourself of what this whole process is all about. It sure isn’t about discriminating between an 88.5 and an 89 point infant Cabernet, whatever the blurbsters may lead one to think: It’s about sipping nectar and being transported, not spitting raw grape juice until they carry you out.

So my cunning plan (as Black Adder used to say) for avoiding that fate consists  partially of trotting out to Brooklyn for dinner at Tommaso’s, which is one of the few places in New York where I can afford to order older wines. (During a recent visit for his seasonal-special white truffle dinner, Diane and I drank his last bottle of Dessilani’s lovely 1970 Gattinara, a dream of silk and subtlety.)  But mostly it consists of raiding my own oldest stock and serving selected bottles to friends who appreciate them as much as I do, partnered with the fine dinners orchestrated by my partner Diane. This fall, we did two such morale-and-palate-saving evenings, extravaganzas approaching caloric megadeath (you can always eat salad tomorrow, or all next week if it comes to that).  The food was wonderful, and the wines played up to the dishes.

For the first dinner, Diane prepared a Piemontese feast for four friends – Charles and Michele, Ernie and Louise – who were about to visit that white-truffle-blest paradise. We didn’t have any truffles, but we tried to give them dishes that would ring true to what lay in store in Italy. I pulled out of my “cellar” (euphemism or metaphor at best) Deutz Champagne brut nv, 1989 Prunotto Barbaresco Montestefano, 1989 Vietti Barolo Lazzarito, 1982 Ceretto Barbaresco Bricco Asili, and Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti nv.  Ernie, bless his soul, provided a 1990 Aldo Conterno Barolo Gran Bussia and a 1958 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino.

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All the wines were in excellent condition – not a cork problem or bad bottle in the lot – and each showed the elegant depth and heft and complexity that uniquely belongs to mature Nebbiolo of fine vintages. We didn’t drink them in order of age but as I felt their body and power and relative vigor or fragility matched with the food.

The Champagne accompanied some light hors d’oeuvre (toasted hazelnuts, some salume) and continued with an antipasto of fennel spears wrapped with prosciutto and roasted.

Tagliarini with a sauce of wild mushrooms and veal called for first the 1990 Gran Bussia, then the lovely ‘58 Monfortino, both of which provided the elegance and restraint that sauce wanted. The two ‘89s, both big-bodied and vigorous wines, and the 1982 Bricco Asili, fully evolved and very complex, accompanied roasted squabs stuffed with chestnut puree and afterward a plate of cheeses.  Finally the light and charming Moscato, a refreshing palate-cleanser after all that impressive Nebbiolo, paired beautifully with a pear timballo topped with mascarpone cream.

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Opinions were pretty evenly divided as to whether the wine of the day was the ’89 Vietti for its concentrated power or the ’58 Conterno for its elegance, but the entire group of wines counted as champions. Truth to tell, it was really one wine too many. They were all so good that they began to interfere with each other. They gave my palate and aging brain almost too much to deal with. I think less would have been more: One fewer bottle – though which of those gems I would omit I can’t imagine – would have focused us better.  A valuable lesson, that, and one I will bear in mind in the future.

In fact, I did bear it in mind for our second dinner. This was less tightly regional, though largely Italian again, for four Italophile friends, Livio and Betty, and John and Vicky.

Here are the wines for that dinner: Roederer Estate Brut nv; 1997 Nipozzano Chianti Rufina Riserva; 1982 Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva; 1991 Serego Alighieri Amarone Vaio Armaron; Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti nv.  Unquestionably, fewer wines worked better: the matches of food and wine just sang.

Once again our sparkling wine went from hors d’oeuvre through roasted prosciutto-wrapped fennel (when you find a good thing, stick with it). The characteristically Rufina earthiness of the Nipozzano played beautifully with bucatini all’amatriciana (made with la vera cosa, real Italian guanciale). The ’82 Brunello – in that vintage, this wine would have been made from Banfi’s oldest vines, the former Poggio alle Mura vineyards – showed its lively Sangiovese acidity and freshness with a pork loin roast that had been lacquered with Dijon mustard, brown sugar, and chopped pistachios.  At the same time, the wine displayed its velvety Sangiovese tannins with the vegetal bite of the contorno of braised Swiss chard and mustard greens.

With the cheese, that glorious Amarone gave us not an aria but the whole opera, opening different facets of its enormously complex personality with the different cheeses – Gorgonzola dolce, Chabichou, Brunet, aged Gouda. This wine demonstrated conclusively what nonsense is the belief that Amarone can’t accompany a meal. Nothing could have completed the substantial courses of this dinner better.

Finally, the same lovely Moscato as in the previous dinner worked just as effectively with a featherweight pumpkin chiffon pie.

Readers of my earlier rants know just how deeply I love older wines. Dinners like this are the reasons why. If anyone thinks it’s too much trouble to lay wines down and wait for them, I have only one thing to say to you: You’re wrong. It is hardly any trouble at all: the biggest difficulty is to keep your hands off them long enough for the wines to evolve.  The times we live in aren’t conducive to patience. But it is worth acquiring the discipline, because the pleasures properly aged wines afford – as I’ve tried to give some inkling above – are of a wholly different order from, and light years beyond, the best that young wines can do.

Family Matters

November 11, 2010

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 Felluga

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.