Posts tagged ‘amarone’

2009 Amarone – a Preview

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Tiziano Accordini, Stefano Accordini winery (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

A few weeks ago, I made a quick trip to Verona to attend the annual Amarone Anteprima event. These  anteprima tastings, which are held in various wine zones in Italy, are preview tastings for journalists, who are presented with the opportunity to taste new releases several months before the wines are released.

Of course, Amarone is a wine that takes years to display its complexities, so it’s important to remember that when tasting wines that are not yet available in the market. This year, it’s especially important, as the wines we tasted were from the 2009 vintage, a warm, sometimes hot growing season that produced big, forward wines that are not typical for this area.

That’s not to say they’re not good, as I tasted several excellent wines. But keep in mind that 2009 followed 2008, which was a stellar vintage. The 2008s have not only excellent concentration, but also very good acidity and marvelous structure – some of the top examples of 2008 Amarone will be at their peak in 20-25 years, something that I doubt will be the situation with the 2009s.

Also when passing on my judgment of the best wines I tasted during this event, I have to note that some of the finest artisan estates were not participating for various reasons. I do think that given the vary nature of Amarone as a wine that requires patience on the part of the drinker, there are some producers who simply believe that showing their new Amarone in January won’t be of any use, as they would prefer to wait at least six months or longer to taste out their wines with critics and consumers.

That said, 2009 could shape up to be a very nice vintage, though it will probably be one that will be overlooked, especially given the classic style of the 2008s as well as the powerful 2006s, many of which are still on the market.

Here are the best examples of 2009 Amarone I tasted at the anteprima tasting in January:

Stefano Accordini “Acinatico” (always a fine wine with good typicity)

Zecchini (particularly excellent with admirable restraint)

Cantina di Soave “Rocca Sveva” (another fine Amarone from this producer – ripe and tasty)

Corte Sant’Alda (nice structure and impressive complexity)

Cavalchina (lovely freshness; strawberry and cherry fruit)

Monte del Fra (nicely balanced with good typicity)

I Scriani (very impressive balance and persistence)

Novaia ( elegant and delicious with beautiful complexity – a lovely wine!)

Look for these bottlings of 2009 Amarone to appear in the marketplace in the fall of this year.

February 10, 2013 at 10:52 am Leave a comment

Ca’ La Bionda – Top 100

 Alessandro Castellani, Ca’ La Bionda (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

My list of the top 100 wine estates in Italy contains some very famous names as well as some that deserve to be better known. What all of them have in common is a track record of producing wines that are elegant, display notable varietal character and offer a sense of place. Of course there are other factors in the wines that I look for such as pleasure as well as finesse. On all these counts, Ca’ La Bionda is a Top 100 producer.

Located in Marano in the Valpolicella Classico zone, Ca’ La Bionda is a family-owned estate that was established in 1902; Alessandro Castellani, representing the fourth generation, is the winemaker. The family owns 75 acres of vineyards and produces approximately 10,000 cases per year.

Every wine made at Ca’ La Bionda is made in a traditional style and made with great care. Start with the base Valpolicella Classico and you find a wine displaying fresh red cherry and currant aromas with a hint of red pepper backed by good concentration, round tannins, good acidity and persistence. Aged only in steel, this is a model for what a Valpolicella normale should taste like. It’s a lovely food wine – it is a fine partner for everything from salumi to lighter pastas – and the current 2010 bottling will drink well for 2-3 years.

Move up to the Casal Vegri Valpolicella Superiore and you have a wine with more intensity and complexity, while still maintaining a great deal of elegance. There are more floral aromas here with the 2009 bottling, while the 2008 also has a distinct note of tar in the aromas. By the way, Alessandro is more of a fan of the 2008, which he labels a more “typical” vintage than 2009, which is riper and a bit fatter on the palate. Both wines however have ideal acidity, which maintains freshness and balance. These are wines that should be enjoyed over the next 3-5 years.

When I visted the cellars in January of this year, Alessandro opened the 2001 Casal Vegri Valpolicella that he had recently bottled, as the wine spent 10 years in wood! Named “Decenalle” this is a remarkable project and wine – I have heard of producers keeping their Amarone in casks for an extended time frame, but a Valpolicella? The wine displayed amazing freshness with perfumes of maraschino cherry, myrtle and tar and offered a generous mid-palate, very good acidity and excellent persistence – here is a wine that not only perfectly displays the local terroir, but also a Valpolicella with more character and complexity than some of the more expensive Amarones I have tasted. That a ten-year old Valpolicella, only recently taken out of wood, can be this good is a testament not only to the quality of the vineyards and the farming by the Castellani family (as well as the class of the outstanding 2001 vintage), but also the winemaking philosophy here as well – restraint and minimal interference to let the varietal character shine through. This is a marvelous wine I highly recommend!

Of course, the star at any winery in this area is the Amarone; the current 2005 Amarone “Vigneti di Ravazzol” Riserva is an outstanding wine that as aged for five years – more than the minimum regulated by DOC laws – in large 30HL casks. Displaying aromas of maraschino cherry, currant and clove, this has a generous mid-palate and a long, long finish with excellent persistence. The balance on this wine is marvelous with round tannins, subtle wood notes and very good acidity. This is a great example of how an Amarone can be powerful and graceful all at once; this is quite approachable now, but will display more complexity over the next few years and be at its best in 12-15 years. By the way, for all you who are slaves to vintage charts and read that 2005 was an average vintage – throw out those charts! This is an outstanding offering that proves that when it comes to judging the overall character of a wine, the producer carries a lot more weight than a vintage report.

Finally, there is the Recioto “Le Tordare” from the 2008 vintage. I love Recioto with its rich raspberry and cassis flavors and light sweetness; I only wish more consumers would try this type of wine, as I’m sure they’d love it. Again as with every wine at Ca’ La Bionda, this has excellent freshness, so the wine has a clean finish, tasting less sweet than it actually is. Enjoy this lovely jewel over the next 7-10 years by itself after a meal or with some bitter chocolate.

What I truly admire about the wines of Ca’ La Bionda is the humility of Alessandro Castellani. When he comments about his products, there is never a mention of points, ratings or awards. He simply lets the wines do the talking and what they communicate is winemaking brilliance!

March 17, 2012 at 11:04 am 2 comments

Romano Dal Forno – Top 100

Romano Dal Forno (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

In many wine zones throughout Italy, there have been a few individuals or families that have made a tremendous impact in how that area’s wines are perceived. It makes no difference if you like the style of their wines or not; what’s important is that these vintners have brought a significant amount of acclaim and attention to their area through their tireless efforts to truly make the best wine possible. There is no question that in Valpolicella, Romano Dal Forno has done just that.

For more than 30 years, Dal Forno has been producing deeply concentrated Valpolicella, Amarone and Recioto at his estate in the Illasi Valley of the Valpolicella zone; this valley is situated in the eastern part of the district. The key here lies with the remakably small yields in the vineyards. During a recent visit to the cellars in Cellore, Romano’s son Michele told me that for the vines used for their Amarone, there are two bunches per plant and that at the time of green harvest, they completely cut one of the bunches. The final result is that it takes nine vines to produce one bottle of Dal Forno Amarone!

 Michele Dal Forno (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

While Valpolicella is often an easy-going, medium-bodied wine at many estates, it is a powerful wine when produced at Dal Forno. Also produced from very small yields, Dal Forno takes the unusual step of drying all the grapes for his Valpolicella Superiore; several producers will dry a percentage of the grapes for their version, but almost no one else goes to this extreme. Thus the Dal Forno is much more like an Amarone than a Valpolicella; deeply concentrated with outstanding persistence, this wine drinks well for 12-15 years and often longer than that.

The Amarone is a step up; a massively concentrated wine, it is not released for almost ten years after the harvest. Aged solely in new barriques, there is more than sufficient fruit to balance the wood. The persistence is amazing as is the complexity; this is a wine with powerful cherry fruit along with notes of tobacco and sage, that tends to drink well some 20-25 years after the harvest. One could probably age a Dal Forno Amarone for 30-40 years, but this is only an educated guess, as there have  not been that many releases of this wine, since it is not produced every vintage. The current release is the 2004; I tasted the 2008 from barrel, a wine that will be released in 2016 or 2017.

Romano Dal Forno cellars (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The third wine produced at Dal Forno is called Vigna Seré; this is a Recioto that cannot be labeled as such. Michele explained to me that when this wine was presented to the board that decides on whether to award a DOC designation or not – a process that is usually a rubber stamp sanction – this wine was not given approval. When Romano and Michele asked why, they were told that it “tastes different.” I asked Michele exactly what that meant, as different could be perceived as good or bad. He laughed and told me that he honestly didn’t know, so they label this wine as a Passito Rosso Vino Dolce. I acquired a bottle of the current 2004 Vigna Seré, which is produced entirely from one of their finest vineyards; the wine is a brilliant example of what is basically a Recioto. Bright purple with aromas that are the essence of black raspberry and plum, the wine is full-bodied with a powerful finish, a light sweetness and outstanding complexity. I noted 10-12 years for peak drinking, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this wine was still enjoyable in 20 years.

Toward the end of my visit, I asked Michele about pairing Valpolicella and Amarone with food and his answer was clear. “If I had to choose between a Valpolicella and an Amarone with food, I would definitely choose the Valpolicella.”  For Michele, his Amarone is a wine that would overwhelm most foods. It also means the Amarone is clearly meant to be enoyed on its own, a true vino da meditazione.

One final note about the obsession with perfection at this winery. I tasted the 2008 Valpolicella from barrel – you do not taste wines from the bottle at Dal Forno, as I learned from Michele. He drew two ounces of this wine from a barrel with a thief and poured it in my glass; he immediately topped up that particular barrique with the same wine from an unmarked bottle he had ready for such a purpose. That’s not something you see everywhere, but Michele took the extra step of injecting gas into the barrel to displace the miniscule amount of oxygen that has escaped when he removed the bung. I had never seen that before- now that is attention to detail! Is it any wonder, given the fastidious work in the vineyards and in the cellar that the wines of Romano Dal Forno are extraordinary?

February 21, 2012 at 9:33 pm Leave a comment

Amarone 2008 – A First Look

(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I recently joined a group of journalists from around the world who were invited by the Consorzio Valpolicella to take part in the annual Anteprima Amarone event in Verona. This tasting is an opportunity for writers specializing in Italian wines to taste the soon-to-be-released examples of Amarone from several dozen producers; this year the featured vintage was 2008.

As in many wine districts throughout Italy, temperatures have been increasing slightly over the past several years; in the Valpolicella district, just north of Verona, this was certainly the case in 2006 and even more so in 2007. Thus a cool – read more typical – growing season with moderate temperatures that characterized 2008 in this area was a welcome change to most producers. This has resulted in wines that have very good acidity, impressive concentration and beautifully defined perfumes. Stefano Cottini, proprietor of Scriani in Fumane in the Classico zone of Valpolicella, says that 2008 was “a very easy year. Nature gave us a beautiful growing season. All we had to do was wait for the grapes to come in.” Cottini believes that his 2008 Amarone will age longer than many recent vintages thanks to the ideal structure of the wine.

Tasting through more than 40 different examples of 2008 Amarone, I had mixed feelings about the wines. Indeed these wines do have very good acidity and with some of the wines, excellent structure. This is not a vintage for short-term enjoyment such as 2007, but one that demands time in the bottle; I’m guessing that many of the finest Amarone from 2008 will peak in another 12-15 years. This estimate on my part (some wines tasted here were barrel samples) means that 2008 is a middle-weight vintage, not as rich as 2006 or 2001, but one that offers better aging potential than 2007 or 2005.

A few highlights of this tasting. First and foremost are the wines of Antolini, a small estate in Marano, operated by brothers Pier Paolo and Stefano. I first tasted these wines four years ago at the Anterprima event and placed their 2004 Moropio bottling as my top wine; this was also the case this year with their 2008 version – talk about consistency! The 2008 Ca’ Coato Amarone is a beautifully made wine with lovely aromas of red cherry, strawberry and red roses with excellent persistence and very good acidity, while the 2008 Moropio takes things up a notch. This offers similar aromas – there are strong notes of strawberry preserves- along with perfect harmony of all components as well as outstanding complexity. This is already an impressive wine and should turn out to be a great wine!

The Stefano Accordini “Acinatico” displayed its usual excellence; black cherry, myrtle and sage aromas are backed by excellent depth of fruit and persistence. The 2008 Bertani “Villa Arvedi” has lovely fruit and tobacco aromas with very good concentration and impressive persistence with an elegant entry on the palate. Note that this is not the traditional Bertani Amarone – that 2008 version will not be released for another three years.

The Ca’ La Bionda Ravazzol is a first-rate wine with notes of cherry preserves and a hint of chocolate; there is excellent depth of fruit and persistence with very subtle oak and elegantly styled tannins. This traditional producer is one of the most underrated in this zone and after meeting proprietor Alessandro Castellani, it is easy to understand why as he prefers to talk about his land and his wine rather than awards or points. What a refreshing attitude!

Two other excellent wines that are definitely worth seeking out are the 2008 Corte Sant’Alda and the 2008 Massimago. Both wines are from the eastern reaches of the Valpolicella zone near the town of Mezzane, outside of the Classico district and interestingly, both estates are managed by women. Marinella Camerani is the boss at Corte Sant’Alda and has been crafting lovely Amarone for 25 years now; her 2008 has inviting aromas of morel cherry, violets and red plum and has a generous mid-palate, excellent persistence and beautiful structure. Look for this wine to be at its best in another 12-15 years although it will probably drink well for another few years after that. Camerani did not produce a 2007 Amarone, so her selection process is strict and it shows in this wine.

Camilla Rossi Chauvenet, Massimago (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

At Masimago, 27-year old Camilla Rossi Chauvenet has made quite a name for herself in this area, even though she only started producing wines from the 2004 vintage. I was impressed by the roundness and varietal character of her 2007 Amarone, but her 2008 is a better wine, with better integrated oak as well as a longer finish and greater overall complexity. I told Camilla that I thought her 2008 was an improvement on her 2007 and she agreed with me, stating that this is undoubtedly a better Amarone. Keep an eye out for this producer, as her wines will be available in the US very soon.

Finally, high marks as well for the 2008 Amarones from Scriani, a medium-full wine with lovely balance along with the bottlings from Valentina Cubi and Santa Sofia; the former a ripe, forward style of Amarone with elegant tannins while the latter is a more subdued version that is one of the best I’ve tried from this long-standing estate in several years.

One final note on this tasting. There were almost two dozen of the best producers that are members of the Valpolicella Consorzio that did not participate in this event. While each winery had their reasons for not showing their wines (the wines not being “ready” was the most common I heard), it is a shame that this tasting did not represent the majority of the finest producers of Amarone. While I did taste some impressive wines at this event, I hoped for more. Let’s hope this situation can be rectified for next year’s anteprima.

February 6, 2012 at 9:37 am 1 comment

Amarone’s Glory Days

Gian Paolo Speri, Az. Agr. Speri, Pedemonte in Valpolicella (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I recently visited the Valpolicella area for the second time this year and of course, focused quite a bit on Amarone. I am happy to report after tasting examples from 15 different estates that Amarone is now at an extremely high level of quality, joining wines such as Barolo and Brunello as one of the finest, most complex and just as important, one of the most consistent red wines in Italy, thanks to a recent string of notable vintages as well as first-rate winemaking. These are the glory days for Amarone.

Now of course, not every Amarone is outstanding (this is true with famous wines everywhere in the world). There are producers who are doing all they can to make as affordable a wine as possible, but let the buyer beware. Amarone (or more formally Amarone della Valpolicella) is produced by an expensive process known as appassimento, in which grapes are naturally dried in special rooms for three to four months. This is a costly, time-consuming method, but it’s what gives Amarone its unique qualities. This is not a process that can be rushed, so the producers that want to find an easy solution are not crafting the best wine they can. Quite simply, there are no shortcuts to greatness.

In fact, 12 producers recently founded an organization named Le Famiglie dell’Amarone, meant to protect the special qualities of classic Amarone. Members of this group include some of the finest in the area, including Masi, Allegrini, Speri, Brigaldara, Tedeschi, Musella and Tenuta Sant’Antonio. You can read my article about this group here.

Vineyards at Negrar (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

One of the reasons I am so excited about Amarone these days is the shift in style. Amarone has always been a powerful wine and remains such, but in the past, the wine was too brooding, a heavy wine that emphasized strong raisiny and herbal characteristics. But with the experience of the past two decades, the wines as a whole are much more elegant and emphasize fruit and complexity, all the while in a package that is 16% or 16.5% alcohol. Yes, Amarone is a big wine, but it is not a monster.

Recent vintages combined with a more refined winemaking style have given us elegant Amarones; one taste of the 2005 Zenato Riserva is brilliant evidence of this. 2006 was proclaimed a great vintage in the Valpolicella area (where grapes for Amarone are grown) and there are dozens of excellent examples; while many are sold out, the 2006 Buglioni and Masi Costasera Riserva are two first-rate bottlings from this vintage that are currently available.

As for 2007, one generally does not expect two great years in a row, but this indeed appears to be the situation for Amarone. “Early on, 2007 did not look like a special year, but now I think it is a fantastic vintage,” notes Sandro Boscaini, technical director for Masi. Boscaini, truly one of the most influential individuals of Amarone over the past 40 years, thinks 2007 could be one of the all-time great vintages. I’ve tasted a few of the 2007s and find beautiful definition and finesse in these wines; among the finest are those from Allegrini; Tommasi; Tedsechi; Masi (Costasera normale and riserva); Tenuta Sant’Antonio (selezione Antonio Castagnedi); Massimago; Musella and Speri, this last a superb wine.

Semi-dried Corvina grapes at Masi (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Then there is the most recent growing season, 2011. This was a slightly cool, rainy year throughout June and July. But then in mid-August, conditions changed as temperatures soared and stayed warm throughout September, assuring “perfect ripening” in the words of Gian Paolo Speri, producer from Pedemonte in the heart of the production zone. “2001 will be a very great vintage,” says Speri.

The wines from 2011 will not be released until 2014 at the earliest, with most being available on the market in 2015 or 2016. Until then, consumers can enjoy the outstanding offerings from 2006 and 2007 with other beautiful wines from 2008 (slightly lighter wines, but with beautiful aromatics and acidity), followed by the ripe, intensely flavored 2009s and the beautifully balanced 2010s. As I wrote earlier, these are the glory days for Amarone.

November 22, 2011 at 9:16 am 3 comments

Appassimento

Bamboo racks at Masi used for appassimento (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I recently visited the Valpolicella district (see vineyard photos here) and was able to see up close the appassimento process at several cellars. This process is the method in which two of this district’s most iconic red wines – Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella – are produced.

The production method is simple. Grapes meant for these two wine types are harvested about a week before those destined for a traditional Valolicella (similar grape varieties, such as Corvina, Rondinella and Corvinone are used.) The grapes are then placed in a temperature and humidity-controlled room where they will be dried for a period of three to four months. During this period, the grapes will shrivel in size, losing 30-40% of their natural water. These super concentrated berries will then be the basis for Amarone and Recioto – Amarone being dry and Recioto being sweet.

Semi-dried grapes in a cassette (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Traditionally, the grapes have been dried on bamboo racks (or racks made from other wood); Masi is the most famous producer that continues to use these containers. However many wineries have now switched over to plastic boxes (usually yellow or brown) known as cassette. These boxes can be easily stored one on top of the other and are placed in a warehouse where giant fans dry the grapes. This is more cost effective  and many producers prefer this, as they believe this will avoid mold on the grapes.

Whatever option a producer selects, the appassimento process delivers a wine of great concentration and richness on the palate – a typical Amarone is 15.5% to 16.5% alcohol – that results in a singular wine that can be paired with particular foods (veal or game birds are ideal with Amarone, while the sweet Recioto can work with blue cheeses or blackberry or raspberry tarts) or enjoyed on its own, a style of wine known in Italy as a vino da meditazione.

Corvina grapes during appassimento (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

November 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm Leave a comment

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