Archive for the ‘Veneto’ 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.

 

Red Wines of Verona I: Valpolicella

March 9, 2017

Several weeks ago, courtesy of the Consorzio di Valpolicella, I was able to spend most of a week in beautiful, sunny-but-cold Verona, visiting producers of Valpolicella, Valpolicella Superiore, Valpolicella Ripasso, Amarone, and Recioto di Valpolicella.

Valpolicella vineyards

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It was an informative and illuminating series of visits. Even after all these years, it’s still something of a wonder to me that the same grape varieties, grown in the same fields, can produce wines as different as the light and charming Valpolicella and the full-bodied and impressive Amarone – to say nothing of the intensely fruit-sweet Recioto.

Those grape varieties remain local specialties, cultivated almost nowhere outside the Verona area; Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella are now the essential ones. In the past, Molinara was often included, but it’s now hardly used because it seems to contribute little beyond bulk. Some growers have become interested in reviving the indigenous Oseleta, which is also permitted within the Valpolicella Classico DOCG, but its use is not widespread, at least not yet.

Valpolicella was once one of the most popular Italian wines here in the States, but like many another wine, its own success almost destroyed it. To meet demand, more and more was bottled from grapes that were grown for quantity, not quality, and successive vintages of over-cropped grapes reduced an already light red wine to almost watery rosé. Its market collapsed, and that was all we heard of Valpolicella for quite a few years.

As the wine has improved on its home turf, with a renewed quest for quality, it has recently begun reviving on the market, but its problems aren’t over yet.

After a week of visiting, tasting, and talking, it seems to me that names and categories now form the nub of Valpolicella’s difficulties. This is a widely varied zone: In its five parallel valleys, some soils are volcanic, others are morainic, others rich in limestone – so wines bearing the same appellation may be very different from one valley to the next, making generalizations about the appellation iffy at best.
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valpolicella-map

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But in terms of nomenclature, that’s far from the worst of it. At even at the most basic level, simple Valpolicella, you have to start with the broad distinction, which many consumers seem not to grasp, between Valpolicella and Valpolicella Classico.

The latter wine originates in vineyards within the hilly traditional heartland of the appellation, the former comes from fields in the plains, to which the name Valpolicella was extended when the DOC designation was first granted, back in the days when Italy’s emphasis was on making a lot of wine, not on crafting quality wine. Wines from stony hillsides and higher altitudes are almost invariably much better that those from the usually warmer, wetter, more fertile plains. In the case of Valpolicella Classico, that is emphatically true.
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With the next category, Valpolicella Superiore, possibilities for consumer confusion increase further. The Valpolicella Superiore appellation requires that the wine reach a higher alcoholic level – 12° – and be aged for an additional year. That’s all. And that’s all that most producers do. But some are experimenting with drying some selected grapes (usually about 40% of the blend) for 40 days, an approach similar to what they do to the entire crop and for much longer to make Amarone.

For the special Superiore, they ferment these slightly dried grapes separately and then, before bottling, blend them in with their regularly harvested and fermented Valpolicella grapes. The resulting wine is still labeled Valpolicella Superiore, but it’s a whole other animal from the mass of Superiores: deeper, richer, more complex, and much more interesting. But the consumer can only know what sort of wine it is by carefully reading the back label – and how many of us actually ever do that?

Then we come to Ripasso, which consists of basic Valpolicella grapes, re-fermented on the lees of Amarone or Recioto, to produce a wine more robust and substantially higher in alcohol. This sort of wine was introduced – or reintroduced – by Masi back in 1964, and it still engenders serious disagreement in the zone. Some defend it as the revival of a traditional practice, others loathe it as a pure invention and a perversion of Valpolicella. Whatever the truth of that, it has proven popular on the export market, though locals still seem to prefer to drink Valpolicella pure and simple.

Among these three categories, I found a lot of well-made and enjoyable wines. But I can’t honestly describe everything I tasted that way: I was very surprised by how varied producers’ styles were and how uneven the level of quality was. I guess I’ve been spoiled by Piedmont, where – in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones at least – hardly anyone makes a bad wine any more. That said, the top level of winemaking in the Veneto is quite impressive, and the resulting wines totally pleasurable. Here are some of the ones I liked best.

From Stefano Accordini:

  • Valpolicella Classico 2015. The three traditional grapes from high altitude vineyards, fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel. An excellent example of classic Valpolicella, light and pleasing.
  • Acinatico Ripasso 2014. Sapid and round in the mouth; another excellent example of its kind.
  • Acinatico Ripasso 2008. Still live and fresh, with some mature flavors just emerging – proof, if any is needed, how well a good Ripasso can age. Accordini uses used tonneaux for his Ripasso, new ones for his Amarone, but not barriques, which he says are too strong for his wine.

From Albino Armani:

  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014. A very nice wine from a very difficult vintage. It needed a little time to open in the glass, but the wait was worth it. The winemaker says his 2016 is brilliant.
  • Ripasso 2013. Big and round, with excellent cherry fruit and a long licorice/tobacco finish. Very enjoyable.

From Boscaini:

  • Valpolicella Classico 2015. A very pretty nose, followed by a soft, almost strawberry-ish wine, with bright acidity. All stainless steel. Simply a great everyday wine from a very traditional producer whose whole line impressed me.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014. “Old style,” the maker says: It spends nine months in used Slavonian oak botti. Big tobacco-inflected nose, rich fruit on the palate, tobacco/cherry finish.
  • Ripasso 2013. Two years in oak botti. This is an excellent example of Ripasso, but my heart is really with Boscaini’s Superiore.

From Ca Rugate:

  • Valpolicella Classico Ripasso 2014. Biggish – 14.5° alcohol – and deeply flavored, but very easy on the palate, with a long tobacco-and-tar finish. Quite fine. In the States, this producer is best known for its fine Soaves (the vineyards straddle both zones), but its Valpolicella was very stylish and pleasing.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014 Campo Lavis. A cru wine, with some of the grapes reserved and dried, then fermented and blended in with the rest of the harvest. The process yielded a smoky, dried grape nose and a big round wine, rich with cherry fruit and ribbed with tar and tobacco, as well as a long black cherry finish. A really intriguing wine.

From Fumanelli:

  • Valpolicella Classsico Superiore 2014. This wine spent 8 to 10 months in tonneaux, so it showed a slightly woody nose but the palate was just fine – classic Valpolicella cherry flavors. This is a small producer who has no desire to get bigger: “We make the wine we like to drink,” the young winemaker says. They sell off half their grapes, keeping the best half for themselves.
  • Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2014 Squarano. This Superiore is made with 40% of the grapes dried for 8 to 10 weeks before fermentation. The house doesn’t make a Ripasso, preferring the richness of this Superiore, which struck me as very polished, very balanced, and very structured – and therefore probably very ageworthy, if you don’t drink it all up right away.

From San Cassiano:

  • Valpolicella 2015. Vivid proof that there is good wine outside the Classico zone, this small winery turns out excellent, basic Valpolicella.
  • Ripasso 2013. Big tobacco/berry nose; round on the palate, with soft tannins, savory and well balanced.
  • Valpolicella Superiore 2012 Alene. Part of the harvest was separated and dried for 40 days before fermentation. Some of the wine also had barrique aging. The result is a big wine that could legitimately be called a baby Amarone.

From Santa Sofia:

  •  Valpolicella Classico 2015. The three traditional varieties, in stainless steel – that adds up to textbook Valpolicella. This producer has been on the American market for decades and has always offered a top-quality wine.
  • Valpolicella Superiore 2014 Montegradella. A wonderful example of the depth and complexity that results from blending the juices of 40-days-dried grapes into the juices of conventionally fermented grapes. A delightful wine, and great with food.

santa-sofia-vineyard

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Part Two of this post, concerning Amarone, will be online in about a week.

 

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.

trebicchieri-2017

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 . . .

 

 

Valpolicella: Of the People, By the People, For the People

November 14, 2016

Valpolicella is a simple wine, a wine for pleasure, not for analysis. Grown over a wide zone by more than 2,000 farmers, vinified by who knows how many winemakers, bottled by more than 200 firms for commercial sale, and happily drunk in 85 countries by many thousands of people, of whom probably only a tiny fraction would consider themselves connoisseurs for doing so, Valpolicella is the most democratic of wines, a true wine of the people. It goes with everything, from hors d’oeuvres to meats to cheeses. It even partners decently with fish, because it has the brisk acidity necessary for the job.

What prompted this post was the Wine Media Guild’s November tasting luncheon, which consisted of a presentation by the Valpolicella consortium of a dozen representative examples of the breed – all charming, all thoroughly enjoyable by themselves or with food, and most retailing for under $20. For a reliably quaffable wine with everyday meals, that just can’t be beat.

Valpolicella originates in a fairly large zone – 7,600 hectares under cultivation – in the western part of the Veneto region, just north of the lovely city of Verona, and not far from Lake Garda.

Valpolicella vineyards

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The lake has a great moderating effect on what would otherwise be a continental climate, since the vineyards lie along a series of sub-Alpine hills, with north-south running valleys. Even though the zone is large, it is relatively homogeneous, with vineyards planted on south-facing slopes and relatively uniform soils. The greatest variable is altitude: The best wines always come from the hills, which top out at about 700 meters above sea level.

valpolicella-altitudes

Valpolicella is blended from three native grape varieties: Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. The once ubiquitous Molinara has all but disappeared from the blend, and international varieties have never made much headway in this zone – simply because the indigenous varieties have so much character and charm and are naturally capable of elegance. The latter quality shows best in the more sophisticated wines made in the zone – Valpolicella Ripasso and Amarone – but in good vintages even the simplest Valpolicella has its share of it.

And that is what I’m talking about here: the most basic wine of the region. Most of it is made at a very respectable level of quality. Sure, you can get a bad bottle now and again, from a producer more interested in quantity than quality – but as the Italian and international wine market has changed over the last 20 years, most producers have seen the handwriting on the wall and have opted for quality over quantity. Particularly with wines from Valpolicella’s two labeled sub-zones – Classico and Valpantena, the historic heartlands of the Valpolicella appellation – even the most naïve shopper can buy with confidence of getting an enjoyable bottle of wine.

doc-zones

Certainly there are variations from producer to producer and vintage to vintage – but to my palate, they are very slight. Valpolicella is a pretty uniform product. That may detract from a wine’s status for alberto-brunelliconnoisseurs, but it’s a distinct advantage for a wine that is quintessentially a companion for everyday meals. The WMG’s tasting included wines of the 2014 and 2015 vintages, which were very different from each other. As the consortium enologist Alberto Brunelli reported, 2014 was cold and rainy and yielded wines of low alcohol and high acidity, while 2015 was hot and dry and produced rounder, warmer, more balanced wines.

I tasted reasonably carefully, and I’ve got to report that yes, by concentrating I could discern differences, but they were very slight from producer to producer and vintage to vintage. All the wines were enjoyably drinkable, and part of their charm was that I could drink them without having to pay a lot of attention to them. If even an old wino like me can take pleasure in a wine like that, how much more so the large numbers of people who only want a nice glass of wine with their dinner and not a workout for their palate?

For your information, here are the wines the Valpolicella consortium showed us at the tasting that prompted this post.

  • Buglioni Valpolicella Classico 2015 Il Valpo
  • Cantina Valpolicella Negrar Valpolicella Classico DOC 2014
  • Gerardo Cesare Valpolicella Classico DOC 2015
  • Fattoria Valpolicella DOC 2015 Col de la Bastia
  • Massimago Valpolicella DOC 2014
  • Monte Zovo Valpolicella DOC 2014
  • San Cassiano Valpolicella DOC 2014
  • Santa Sofia Valpolicella Classico DOC 2014
  • Scriani Valpolicella Classico DOC 2015
  • Vigneti di Ettore Valpolicella Classico DOC 2015
  • Vigneti Villabella Valpolicella Classico DOC 2014
  • Villa San Carlo Valpolicella DOC 2015

 

Bolla’s Back!

February 26, 2015

Long ago, when I was young and serving my time deep in the heart of Woody Hayes country, I used to revere the Bolla company. Bolla’s wines were then the best-known and best-distributed Italian wines in the US, and in the Midwest were often the only drinkable wines I could get. So I blessed their makers and drank a lot of them – Bardolino and Valpolicella and occasionally Amarone (I wasn’t earning much money back then) and of course the firm’s Soave, so well-known, so popular, and so reliably good that it practically became one word: Soavebolla.

That, of course, eventually became its undoing: Popularity led to increased demand led to overproduction led to decline in quality led to, eventually, a watery, characterless Soave and red wines that, if not following down the same road, at very least shared a fallen reputation. Sic transit gloria mundi, and Bolla went from being a dominant figure in the American wine market to playing a very marginal role in the Italian wine boom of the 70s and 80s.

Well, Bolla’s back, and that is welcome news. The source of the firm’s original quality lay in the fine vineyards it held in the heart of the Veneto’s prized wine zones. Those are still in place but under new management, so to speak.

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Vineyards

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ScrinziIn 2008, Bolla was taken over by a joint venture of the Italian GIV group and the American Banfi firm. Christian Scrinzi, who had been winemaker with Bolla since 2001 and in 2006 had been appointed director of oenology, then began a complete renewal of Bolla’s winemaking – everything from vineyard management to cellar equipment and procedures – with the goal of restoring Bolla’s premium quality and consequent reputation.

Lots of firms announce goals like that. With its new ownership, Bolla seems to be achieving them. My interest – and that opening fit of nostalgia – was originally kindled by drinking a bottle of its Amarone Le Origini 2006 some weeks back, as the holiday season dwindled down to its end. That bottle of Amarone provided closure for the holidays and opening for my curiosity. It was lovely and thoroughly classic: suave and deep and velvety, and drinking beautifully despite its – for Amarone – extreme youth. If Bolla was making wine that good again, I had to find out more.

To that end, I tasted through half a dozen of Bolla’s line. Here are the wines and my reactions to them, with all my usual caveats about the limitations of tasting notes.

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Bottle lineup

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2012 Soave Classico DOC
Light floral/mineral nose, medium body, showing nice white fruit (mostly undifferentiated, in the apple/pear range) and some minerality: The Soave zone is Italy’s northernmost volcanic terroir. The same generalized white-fruit finish. A very pleasant, enjoyable wine, with no sign of fragility or fading.

2013 Bardolino DOC
Here’s an old friend back after a long absence. Bardolino for some years just about disappeared from the American market, which was a shame, because it’s a charming wine with a real niche of its own. This one is a fine example of a lovely, slightly old-fashioned (thank god!) style of wine: light garnet in color; raspberry/blackberry notes in the nose; light body with berry-ish flavors and just a hint of tobacco (toasted oak?); good acidity; and a pleasant almost blackberry finish. Thoroughly enjoyable, and a perfect light lunch wine.

2013 Valpolicella DOC
In style, this simple Valpolicella is similar to the Bardolino. Berry/tobacco nose again, and the same notes on the palate. Slightly heavier in body than the Bardolino, with good acidity, and a longer, dried-fruit finish. Not complex, but very enjoyable.

2011 Le Poiane, Valpolicella Ripasso DOC
The ripasso technique referments Valpolicella on the lees of Amarone: It’s like giving the wine a dose of steroids. Very dark in color and in style. Earth, black plums, and tobacco (definitely toasted oak) aromas. Obvious tannicity, tasting of grape skins, earth, and black fruit, with a long, drying finish. For my palate, too much evidence of wood throughout makes this wine a little clumsy.

2009 Amarone Classico DOC
Very dark garnet. Mostly wood on the nose, with black, plummy fruit well underneath. The same dark fruit shows through on the palate, but there is still an abundance of tannins. Good black fruit again in the very long finish, which bodes well for this wine, but it needs years yet. As it opened, however, the up-front fruit got very sweet and even more forward, so it will please greatly those who drink Amarone young (fruit nuts, I say).

2011 Creso IGT
Markedly different aromas here from the rest of the wines. I smelled wood and Cabernet and Merlot as almost separate strands, but I was wrong about the Merlot. This wine is vinified from 65% Corvina (both fresh grapes and some partially dried ones) and 35% Cabernet sauvignon, and it sees a lot of barriques. On the palate, Creso shows sweetish black fruit (plum from the Corvina, I suppose): It’s big, soft, and slightly tannic, with a long, tannic, black-fruit finish. This wine is very well done of its kind, though this international style is far from my favorite in Italian wines.

All in all, coupled with that classic Amarone Le Origini, this lineup of wines shows that Bolla has terrific versatility and is turning out very enjoyable wines in a variety of styles. I’m a traditionalist, so I like best the wines that hew closest to the tastes of yesteryear – which is probably why I’m so inordinately pleased by the return of Bolla Bardolino.

 

Amarone: From Novelty to Tradition in 55 Years

November 7, 2013

The shortest road from novelty to tradition is extraordinary quality, and there are two outstanding examples of that in Italian wine, two appellations with – by the Italian time scale – very short histories: Brunello, created 150 years ago, and Amarone, created about 60 years ago; both now prestige wines with their own established character and passionate defenders. Most wine aficionados know the story of how Brunello came to be, but how Amarone came into being is a much less familiar tale, and one that, despite the wine’s youth, is still not entirely clear.

Andrea Lonardi

I started thinking about this because of an Amarone tasting I attended two weeks ago at the Ai Fiori Restaurant in New York. Andrea Lonardi, the young winemaker for Bertani, presented a lovely vertical of the firm’s Amarones, a tasting that came close to being a whole history of Amarone.

As we tasted six Amarones running back from 2006, the current release, to 1964, one of Bertani’s earliest releases, Lonardi remarked, “Amarone was born in 1958, and it was born at Bertani.”

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Vertical

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Well, yes and no: Bertani certainly originated Amarone as we know it, and Bertani unquestionably marketed the first commercial bottlings of “Reciotto della Valpolicella Amarone,” as the wine was then called, in 1958. That made 2013 the 55th year of its production, and the vertical tasting Lonardi was leading close to a capsule history of the wine.

But surely, Amarone didn’t suddenly, in 1958, spring fully mature from Bertani’s cellars, like Athena from the mind of Zeus. For instance: Masi some years later released its 1957 vintage as Amarone, and Bolla may have done a one-time-only release even a few years earlier. Surely something like Amarone had to have existed before, or the Bertani brothers, like the Biondi-Santi ancestors in Montalcino, had to have spent some time in developing it. There seem to have been sporadic appearances of big, Reciotto-like-but-dry red wines in the Valpolicella zone for decades, perhaps for centuries, before Bertani’s breakthrough. The question becomes, what was different about this time?

Over the years, I’ve heard several different versions of the origins of Amarone. They differ in details, but they agree in two fundamental points: Its ancestor was the lusciously sweet Reciotto della Valpolicella, which was then the Valpolicella zone’s most prestigious wine; and the discovery of Amarone was an accident. Reciotto certainly provided the base from which Amarone could develop. Its vinification involved the passito process, in which selected bunches of grapes are allowed to dry for some time – days, weeks, sometimes months – to concentrate their sugars before being pressed and fermented. This much of the process Reciotto and Amarone still share.

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Grapes drying 2

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According to one version of the story, an unnamed wine maker – presumably a Bertani or an employee of the family’s, since no one disputes its key role in the development of Amarone – neglected to rack off a barrel of what was intended to be Reciotto. Racking is done to draw off yeasts and stop fermentation at a modest alcoholic level, leaving the necessary degree of residual sugar for a classic dessert wine. Omitting that step allowed the fermentation to carry on to complete dryness, so that when the wine was finally tasted, it was first judged to be a dismal failure – amaro, bitter – and only later determined to be something really good: not Reciotto, but another wine entirely, a big dry one, Amarone.

The other most common version of Amarone’s origin that I’ve encountered involves a run-away fermentation, a fermentation that simply couldn’t be stopped until the yeasts had exhausted all the grape sugars and fermented the wine to total dryness, with, once again an apparently ruined Reciotto being discovered to be a whole new kind of wine.

Both those stories, and all the other slight variations on them I’ve heard, beg the fundamental question of how you get from a one-off accident to a process that reliably yields the same wine every time. Just one problematic instance: the yeasts. As I understand it, the alcohol that the yeasts create out of the sugars they consume is also their death knell, and most yeast strains can’t survive in the kind of alcoholic stews that produce Amarone. If that is so (and I would appreciate some knowledgeable person illuminating me about this), then somewhere along the line someone had to isolate a strain or strains of yeasts that would do the job for Amarone on a consistent basis.

Then there is also the question of the blend of grapes that goes into the wine: Not just any grapes will yield a wine as distinguished as Amarone. In the past, Rondinella was the dominant grape in Valpolicella, both the zone and the wine, but from the beginning the Bertanis had focused on Corvina, which, with its sibling Corvinone, is now recognized throughout the zone as the most important variety for both Valpolicella and Amarone.

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Left, Corvina. Right, Corvinone.

Left, Corvina. Right, Corvinone.

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That doesn’t sound like another accident to me: It sounds more like someone who had been thinking along the lines of developing a serious dry wine in the zone for some time, and consequently experimenting with the properties of the different native varieties. But if so, why has no one stepped up and taken credit for that foresight? An odd situation, for sure, and a murky one, for so recent a development as the modern advent of Amarone.

In any event, what we do know of Amarone’s modern history leaves the Bertani firm (which, for the record, is no longer owned by the Bertani family) in the same relation to Amarone as the Biondi-Santi family is to Brunello. Each created the wine as we know it now and has overseen its progress from oddity/rarity to international darling.

Like the Biondi-Santis, Bertani has not been happy with what other producers have done with the wine at every stage of that development, particularly at attempts to restyle it to international tastes and passing fads. These include some misguided experiments with barriques (which even Bertani tried for a few years), as well as exaggerated alcohol and residual sugar levels, which are characteristic of too many Amarones today. This is far from saying that Bertani is the only good maker of Amarone; happily, there are many excellent ones – Masi, Allegrini, Quintarelli, and Dal Forno, to name only a few.

All those fine makers share with Bertani a commitment to preserving the character of Amarone as what the French call a vin de garde, a wine that deserves and wants long cellaring in order to reach its peak of velvety perfection. To demonstrate that was indeed the point of the vertical tasting that precipitated all this subsequent rumination about Amarone’s orgins.

From the current vintage to the oldest, the Bertani Amarones showed themselves to be enjoyable drinking at every stage – 2006; 1991; 1990; 1981; 1973; 1964. But there was a definite intensification of the taster’s pleasure and the wine’s subtlety and complexity and depth at each increase in age. The tasting group was unanimous in opting to keep the oldest wines to drink with lunch – in fact, the only real disagreement was about whether the ’73 was a better vintage than the ’64. I couldn’t make up my mind, because the two harvests gave such different wines. Here is a condensation of my notes on the two:

1973: Lots of fruit and a little alcohol in the nose. On the palate, round and soft (acid a touch lower than usual), tasting like a mouthful of walnuts and dry sherry. Extremely long-finishing, with lingering flavors of dried black cherries and concentrated raspberries. A lovely wine.

1964: Harvested late October; crushed in January/February; bottled 1983. Beautifully balanced – round, bright (excellent acid), with mature, almost-sherry-like fruit. Like all the Bertani Amarones, very long finishing. It cries for big roasts and the best cheeses. A classic wine.

1964By the way: That ’64 Amarone was aged in chestnut for four to six years before bottling, as was normal practice back then. In the past decade, Bertani has been returning to the use of chestnut, and also occasionally cherry wood, for maturing its wines. Chestnut used to be the most common wood for barrels and vats in many parts of Italy, and it does different things to wine than oak does. Cabernet likes oak, but a lot of Italian varieties don’t. In the past few years, I’ve tasted both new wines and old ones aged – and occasionally vinified – in chestnut, and I’ve liked very much what that wood does. It often confers a velvetiness that tames the sometimes harsh tannins of many Italian grapes. In Bertani’s case, the return to using chestnut is part of the firm’s admirable effort to maintain and carry forward the style of wine that originally – and justly – made it famous.

Native Uprising

January 17, 2013

My book-writing days are probably behind me, but if I were to write a new wine book, I know what I’d call it – Native Uprising – and it would focus on the ascent of indigenous Italian grape varieties. Italian winemaking has made fantastic progress in the past 50 years (yes, my memory goes back that far, more’s the pity), and, while that progress may have been turbocharged by the phenomenon of the so-called supertuscans and the brief prominence of “international” (meaning grown in France and California and Australia) grape varieties, the real motor that has propelled it all along has been the native grapes of the many Italian wine regions.

Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo

It’s probably a clear indication of the deeply ingrained chauvinism of the wine world that we continue to speak of “indigenous” or “native” Italian grapes, with often enough an implication of quaintness and lesser standing and quality, while no one – myself included – ever speaks of Cabernet and Merlot and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, or even Syrah or Sauvignon, as indigenous French grapes – which, of course, they are. The fact that Nebbiolo and Sangiovese – not to mention Barbera – are now grown around the world hasn’t made them “international” varieties: they remain humble, indigenous – to Italy – grapes.

Sangiovese

Sangiovese

So a good part of my reason for once again taking pen (keyboard?) in hand would be counter that notion of inferiority. It shouldn’t be too difficult. The strides that Piemontese and Tuscan winemakers in particular have made, and especially their success in drawing publicity, have certainly raised the visibility and the status of Nebbiolo and Sangiovese for any wine drinker who has gotten beyond an introductory level of wine knowledge. Other noble Italian red wines lag that level of recognition, but Aglianico and Amarone (not a grape variety, I know, but bear with me) are not far behind.

White wines may be a little trickier, because so many of the fine whites of northern Italy are vinified from “international” varieties that have been cultivated in Friuli and Alto Adige for almost two centuries. (Which raises the interesting question, how long must a variety be grown in an area before it becomes native? And where did the ancestors of those “indigenous” French varieties originate?) The excellence of many other Italian white varieties is only beginning to be discerned. The process is slow because so many of them are in the south, which for many wine lovers, and even for many Italians, is terra incognita.

Which brings me to what would be the second purpose of the book I’ll probably never write: to call attention to the cornucopia of interesting-to-distinguished varieties awaiting their moment in the south of Italy. In a rather haphazard way, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past two or three years in southern Italy, and every visit has been a revelation. Maybe a learning experience is a better way to put it: not only have I been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines, but I have each time encountered grape varieties previously unknown to me. Even more important, these varieties have not been simply quaint survivors of another age, but grapes with real wine-making interest and potential.

Susumaniello

Susumaniello

For example, let’s consider Puglia, which I’ve written about recently both here and in Decanter. Almost everybody knows about Primitivo, the cousin of Zinfandel. There are some excellent ones, but in my opinion Primitivo is far less interesting than either Negroamaro or Uva di Troia, or even Susumaniello. These are red grapes of distinctive character, and in the hands of careful producers they are already capable of making long-lived, high-quality wines. With more clonal research and more attention from more producers, their future is wide open.

z-bombino bianco

Bombino bianco

Puglia shows less impressively with white grapes, but even there some bright spots appear: Bombino Bianco, Verdeca, and local clones of Greco have promise. And of course, throughout the rest of the south, white grapes shine: In Campania, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino lead the way, but those two varieties do quite well on volcanic soils all through the south. (The Soave zone in the Veneto is the northernmost of Italy’s volcanic regions, and its prized Garganega, which makes Soave Classico, is probably a descendant of, if not the same as, Greco.)

Nerello mascalese

Nerello mascalese

And in Sicily, the hyper-volcanic slopes of Etna already yield world-class wines, whites from the native Carricante and reds from Nerello mascalese, which also forms a major portion of what is probably Sicily’s most distinguished red wine, Palari, from the nearby Faro DOC.

That’s far from the whole story even for the south: The white Falanghina is fine and getting better all the time, and the red Piedirosso, a long-time blending companion of Aglianico, is undergoing a significant revival. Even the once lightly regarded Coda di Volpe is rewarding serious attention from winemakers.

Timorasso

Timorasso

Nor is the north of Italy exempt from this growing wave of attention to each region’s viticultural heritage. In Piedmont, Rucché and Timorasso – red and white respectively – lead the contingent of reviving varieties, with the whites Favorita and Nascetta getting more attention every year.

Colorino

Colorino

.In Tuscany, Merlot is losing ground to Colorino and Mammolo as the blending grapes of choice in Chianti, with several experimental bottlings of monovarietal wines – especially of Colorino – already available.

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Schioppettino

In the Veneto, the once-scorned local clone of Trebbiano is achieving real importance in the Soave zone. And Friuli is a minestrone of local varieties, especially of red grapes: Schiopettino, Tazzelenghe, and Pignolo, to name only the currently most important. This is by no means exhaustive: there are many, many more potentially noble varieties out there.

So there is definitely a book to be written, and a lot of fascinating – and delicious – research to be done. I’m not feeling overly ambitious these days – grey winter weather always has that effect on me – but maybe I’ll do it yet.

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.

There Is Beauty in Extreme Old Age

August 25, 2010

With a nod to the sagacity of Gilbert & Sullivan – neither of whom, I think, would have minded being linked with wine – the sheer pleasure of really mature wine is probably the most underappreciated aspect of that noble beverage in our time. Saintsbury and other tipplers of his and G&S’s era routinely drank their wines older than we are for the most part accustomed to. They assumed that laying down a few dozen bottles was what you routinely did with a wine you liked in a vintage of merit, and you didn’t disturb their rest until they had pulled themselves together.

I’ve made no secret of my liking for mature wines,  but I was reminded of the wonderful truth of just how beautiful old age can be in a wine, on two very different occasions recently.

The first involved a wine that always rewards aging, despite the current fad for drinking it young: Amarone. This is a wine that is deliberately built for aging: very ripe grapes are placed on mats or hung in cool, drafty halls high in the Veronese hills and allowed to dry for months before pressing, after which they ferment very, very slowly at low temperatures all winter long until all their sugars have been converted to alcohol (Amarones run almost the strength of fortified wines) and all the possible flavor has been soaked from their skins. At that point, Amarones are fruit bombs – thus the current passion for drinking them young – and like all such wines one-dimensional: alcoholic grape juice, and apparently very appealing to the chocolate-martini crowd. Let them rest in your cellar, however, and the brashness of the fruit subsides and a host of secondary flavors – fruity, nutty, earthy – start coming to the fore. The longer you leave a properly made Amarone alone, the more complex and velvety it gets.

A few weeks ago, in the course of trying to squeeze a few more bottles into my storage space, I came upon a bottle of 1986 Masi Amarone whose cork had been leaking. The level of the wine was dipping down the shoulder of the bottle, and my first thought was that the wine was probably dead, oxidized beyond drinkability. My second thought was Hold on: It’s Amarone, and they are tough to kill. I remember, back when I was researching and writing Mastering Wine, I found several times that half-empty bottles of Amarone tasted better even after a week. So I thought I would give this bottle at least a chance with that night’s dinner: it might be still drinkable.

Well, it wasn’t just drinkable: it was wonderful. Not oxidized at all. The fruit was still alive, though much matured (as indeed it should have been at 24 years old) and interlaced with delightful earth and forest floor and mushroom and cooked meat notes. On the palate, it felt soft and smooth with just a hint of chewiness, and the finish went on and on. It was a glorious wine, and if the leaky cork had done anything at all, it seemed to have advanced the wine’s maturation a few years, for which in fact I was grateful – a lucky accident for me. O felix culpa!

The second occasion was an assembly – maybe I should say a feeding frenzy – of the group of  wineloving friends fondly known as the Gang of Six at La Pizza Fresca restaurant in Manhattan. As is our custom, we all brought wines, and it was no shabby collection that we enjoyed with our lunch – a superb 1996 Henriot Champagne, a ’96 Corton Grand Cru, a 1990 Borgogno Barolo (gorgeous!), a 1988 Grato di Grati 100% Sangiovese.

My own more modest contribution was a 2000 Bucci Verdicchio, to honor a special request for an aged example of that wine and grape. Ampelio Bucci makes what I think is the most distinctive Verdicchio in the Iesi zone, maybe in all of Italy’s Marche region. Deeply flavored, always balanced and beautifully structured, his wines regularly take Tre Bicchieri and really set the benchmark for the kind. I was a bit distressed to discover that I had finished up my older Bucci riserva bottles and all I had left were a few of his basic Verdicchio – wines I really should have drunk a few years ago, since they weren’t vinified, as the riserva is, for long aging. But a promise is a promise, so I chilled the 2000 and brought it along.

When we opened and poured, its deep gold color seemed to show that it was too old – oxidized and probably dead. It didn’t have much aroma, and its flavor seemed tired. So I just set it aside. I kept going back to it as we ate and tasted our way through the long lunch – and it kept getting better and better. Its flavor kept opening and its aroma expanding, especially in the mineral flavor range. After two hours, it was tasting positively Burgundian, to my and Ed McCarthy’s and Charles Scicolone’s delight. Valuable lesson here: never underestimate what well-made Verdicchio (this had seen no new oak, only large, old botti) is capable of. This is a variety, and the Marche is a zone, that have not yet realized all their potential.

What both these instances showed me was that many Italian wines have an aging-and-enduring capacity that I haven’t yet fully explored. Clearly, there’s still a lot to learn. My hunch is that it’s the marked acidity of many Italian wines that keeps them alive beyond the life span of many seemingly similar sorts of wine. That’s a project for investigation that I hope will keep me happily busy for many years yet.