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.