Vineyards at Negrar (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
I’ve just returned from a two-week trip to Collio in the Friuli region as well as the Soave and Valpolicella zones in the Veneto region. I’ll write a bit about all these areas; today I begin my accounts with Valpolicella, where several wines, including Amarone – one of Italy’s most iconic reds – are produced.
One of the purposes of my journey was to research the 12 producers that make up the Famiglie dell’Amarone (Amarone Families) project. I’ll be writing a feature article on this group for the Autumn issue of Quarterly Review of Wines – look for this issue in mid-September.
More on Amarone in a bit, but let me first discuss the Valpolicella zone, located just north of the splendid city of Verona. Valpolicella literally means “valley with many cellars” – it’s a district with hundreds of producers squeezed in a relatively small area. The western half is the DOC area, while there are many fine producers who make wine from the eastern section as well. The western part is comprised of three valleys: Fumane, Negrar and Marano; in addition, important towns for production include San Pietro in Cariano and Sant’Ambrogio. Many of the most famous producers of Valpolicella and Amarone are located here; these include Masi; Allegrini; Begali; Brigaldara; Venturini; Nicolis; Tedeschi and Tommasi. Excellent producers in eastern Valpolicella include Musella and Tenuta Sant’Antonio.
Valpolicella is a blend of several grapes, the most commonly used being Corvina and Rondinella. Molinara is still used in some wines, but it is not as popular as in the past. Other grapes include Corvinone (larger bunches than Corvina), Dinadarella (incorporated in a few blends, but often better used to produce a rosato, as with the example of Brigaldara), Negrara and Croatina. A few years ago, the DOC regulations for Valpolicella were changed and small percentages of non-local varieties are allowed; I sampled two different bottlings of Valpolicella with 5% Sangiovese, if you can believe it!
The major varieties – Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Croatina – are also used to produce Amarone; a final variety that is being used by a few producers today is Oseleta, a grape type that adds color and tannins to the final wine along with good natural acidity. What makes Amarone so special and so different from a normal bottling of Valpolicella is the winemaking process. The grapes for an Amarone are picked one week prior to those for a Valpolicella and these grapes are then allowed to dry in special rooms – either on bamboo racks or in plastic trays called cassette – for anywhere from three to four months. This process of naturally drying the grapes takes place before fermentation and is known as appassimento. During the 90-120 days, the grapes shrivel and lose 20%-30% of their natural water, resulting in extremely concentrated grapes. As the natural sugars increase during this drying period, this means that a typical Amarone will have between 15% and 15.5% alcohol and in some years, even as much as 16%.
A third wine between Valpolicella and Amaone is Ripasso. Literally meaning “repass”, the original production for this wine included passing fresh grapes over the skins of the previous year’s Amarone skins. This would give a more “raisiny” character to a traditional Valpolicella, resulting in something of a “baby Amarone” for lack of a better term. Today other methods are often used and the wines range widely in style, from elegant and fruity (such as the wonderful bottlings from Begali or Brigaldara) to a more powerful, Amarone like wine (such as those from Masi, Allegrini and Tommasi).
Finally, there is Recioto della Valpolicella, which is sweet. This is the traditional wine produced for more than one thousand years in this area; the dry Amarone is a recent innovation, having only been produced since the 1950s. The sweet Recioto – and versions vary from off-dry to medium-sweet, offer gorgeous aromas of black raspberry and dark chocolate and are ideal partners for a variety of foods at the end of a meal, from a chocolate dessert to aged blue cheeses. I love Recioto and drink it whenever I can- it’s really a shame this isn’t a greater success in the market. One producer told me that when producers in the Valpolicella area get together, they all want to try each others’ Reciotos, which should tell you how seriously they view this wine. Among my favorites on this recent trip included Allegrini, Masi (two very different bottlings), Speri, Brigaldara and Tenuta Sant’Antonio.
Getting back to Amarone, I entitled this piece “A new found love.” It’s not that I abandoned Amarone, for I’ve always loved it, it’s just that after visiting twelve outstanding producers in four days, my love was rekindled. This was especially true of the 2006 vintage, which the producers there rated as great. Now I have read enough reports of so-called “great vintages” from all over Italy (as well as the rest of the wine world) and I’m usually a bit skeptical. These great vintages often result in wines that are too intense, too tannic, too oaky, etc., etc. – you get the picture. But not so with the 2006 Amarones, as these wines offer impressive concentration, remarkable fruitiness and beautiful balance. Given the press, many of these wines were already gone during my tastings, but I did taste several that I rated as outstanding, the four finest being the ultra-elegant Speri, the beautifully structured Riserva from Musella, the polished and very approachable Zenato and the sublime Begali “Monte Ca’Bianca”.
The 2007s are now upon us and I was very satisfied with the Tommasi, a classic style made in a traditional manner- the tannins are polished and there is excellent acidity- the wine is a beauty! I also enjoyed the more modern, powerful Allegrini as well as the Masi “Costasera”, which is more of a middle ground as far as style. I also tasted a few Amarones from 2005, with the Tenuta Sant’Antonio “Campo dei Gigli” offering the best balance and complexity.
Finally, there were a few special older bottlngs. Everyone knows that with a powerful wine such as Amarone, several years are needed for the wines to display their finest characteristics. This was certainly true for the 1999 Tedeschi “Capitel Monte Olmi” and the 1997 Venturini. For these wines, aromas of molasses, dried cherry and tobacco were among the most common and the wines had a more refined quality about them. But new release or 12 or 14 year-old bottle, my thoughts this past week with Amarone were all about love.