Italy’s Gentle Giant
Canadians, apparently, are in love. The object of their collective swooning is rich, dark, noble, powerful yet gentle, and (of course) Italian. And it’s not, thankfully, Silvio Berlusconi. In fact, it’s not even a man or woman (or even a luxury sports car), but a wine. Yup, Canadians’ amore is for Amarone.
“Truly, this unique and exotic wine could have been made especially for Canadians: it’s rich and full-bodied (excellent in cold weather), but also unique, noble and elegant,” enthuses Sandro Boscaini, President and Owner of Masi Agricola and introduced to me by Tidings’ own Tony Aspler as “the Godfather of Amarone.” He’s also the president of the recently(ish)-formed “Famiglie dell’Amarone d’Arte” (Amarone Families), a group whose mission is to uphold the quality and status of this iconic wine.
“Amarone is strong, like a New World wine,” Boscaini continues, “and backed with European culture, just like Canadians themselves.”
Okay, the metaphor might be getting just a tad tired, but there’s no denying Canadians have embraced this wine as their own. In fact, more Amarone is exported to Canada than any other market in the world. Considering that 70 per cent of all Amarone is shipped abroad, Canada is basically Italy’s sister country as far as the producers of this iconic red wine are concerned. Amici d’Amarone, as it were.
But before we get too warm and fuzzy about the state of things, it should be pointed out that not all those making Amarone are completely content with what’s been going on back home. In fact, those who are members of the Amarone Families are worried that Amarone, as we’ve come to know it, is in peril. We’ll get to that. First, however, we should familiarize ourselves (or familiarize those who are not already smitten) with the wine itself, in order to best understand what’s got the producers in question so riled.
Amarone represents the top link in the Venetian red wine food chain. “The range starts with the simple and agreeable Valpolicella for everyday drinking,” Boscaini explains. “Then it goes on to the more structured Valpolicella Classico Superiore for slightly longer ageing followed by the more sophisticated, fuller-bodied [sic] Ripasso before finally culminating in Amarone, a gentle giant characterized by a unique combination of tradition and innovation. Last but not least comes Recioto, a red dessert wine of great charm that has almost been forgotten.”
Material published by Masi notes that “archaeological evidence exists which shows that Amarone and its related sweet wine, Recioto, have been produced in the Valpolicella region since Roman times (2000 years ago). The names of the wines refer to both the type of wine and its production techniques.”
And it’s probably the production method for Amarone (and the sweet Recioto) with which most fans of this wine are most familiar. Technically referred to as appassimento, it involves harvesting naturally ripe, healthy grapes and subjecting them to a drying regime that serves to concentrate sugar, glycerol, colour and aromatic compounds. Once harvested, the grapes are dried using a variety of methods from traditional hanging of clusters, to bamboo racks, to wooden boxes. The temperature and humidity of the drying rooms are now typically fully or partially controlled (Masi employs a system called the Natural Appassimento Super Assisted — NASA) and the grapes, by law, must undergo appassimento after harvest until at least December 15th.
This technique is not unique to Amarone, and Recioto and has been adopted to produce a range of dried grape wines in Italy and in many different countries (see “Concentrate,” Tidings, October, 2010). And this doesn’t bother the members of the Amarone Families one bit. Amarone’s popularity has also brought with it an influx of producers angling to get a piece of the action. Yet even this doesn’t faze people like Sabrina Tedeschi of Agricola Tedeschi or Pierangelo Tommasi from Agricola Tommasi, both “family” members.
“In the last 10 years about 30 wineries were founded in Valpolicella, but we are not worried about that,” admits Tedeschi. Tommasi echoes the sentiment. “The number of Amarone producers has increased in the past few years,” he concedes, “but this is not what has caused the significant increase in production. In fact, most of these ‘new’ Amarone producers/brands used to be just vintners/farmers who picked their own grapes and sold to bigger wine companies, but they have decided to launch their own brands with the new generations involved.”
What does worry them, and what led to the formation of the Amarone Families in the first place, is the trend of large cooperatives to harvest fruit from areas not, in the eyes of the members, particularly well-suited for high-quality wine. When push comes to shove, it’s the hillside vineyards versus those in the valleys.
“A few big players have increased their volumes significantly and are starting to source grapes from vineyards down in the valleys instead of focusing only on the vineyards up in the hills,” says Tommasi. Tedeschi puts a slightly sharper point on this idea. “The right way is to avoid any selection from flat vineyards and concentrate on the hillside vineyards.”
But Amarone, is, after all a DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) wine with production methods and geographic boundaries strictly controlled. So long as everyone is following the rules there should be no issues, right? Not according to the Famiglia. For its members, the situation is far more complex than simply following the rules, and it involves the uniquely European notion of “territory” (the French terroir being the most familiar expression) and adhering to the “minimum” requirements of the DOCG. More cynical observers (certainly not me) might opine that it’s simply about what everything seems to end up being about: namely, filthy lucre.
In fact, when you read the press release issued upon the formation of the Amarone Families on June 30th, 2009, you might be inclined to think that keeping prices jacked is the group’s sole motivation. “Our wine must remain expensive and rare,” trumpeted Boscaini. “Today a bottle of Amarone can be found at 10 to 12 euros, while an Amarone from Valpolicella worthy of this name can’t cost less than 25.”
The release (which admittedly seems to have lost — or perhaps gained — a fair amount in translation) flings around terms like “deep crisis,” “trade down” and “reckless actions,” and leads you to believe that the days of “authentic” Amarone are all but over. However, when you cut through the rather alarmist rhetoric, you do start to see the issues the Amarone Families have with DOCG regulations and current territorial boundaries. “The grandeur of this wine isn’t made up of a simple adoption of a certain oenological technique, but in the capacity to express a territory and history.”
In fact, it took some “15 years of battles between producers,” according to Carlo Boscaini of Agricola Carlo Boscaini, for Amarone and Recioto to elevate from DOC to DOCG status in 2009. The reason for the arguments, according to Tedeschi, was primarily due to disputes over territorial limits. “Few producers wanted to limit the DOCG to the classic, historic area,” she explains. “Other producers wanted the Valpolicella DOCG to be recognized everywhere. The best result for the image of our product and our territory would be to limit the zone of the DOCG only in the hills, but this was another battle between producers that would have further delayed the arrival of the DOCG.”
It should therefore come as no surprise that, as welcome as DOCG status was to the Famiglie dell’Amarone d’Arte, it did not, in their collective opinion, go far enough to ensure tradition and quality are upheld. “Let’s be clear right at the start that all Amarone on the market conforms to regulations, and is therefore legally entitled to be called Amarone,” Boscaini asserts. “But there are various reasons why mere respect for the law does not contribute to considerations of quality. This is quite normal in other aspects of life, of course; respect for the law doesn’t make a man either a saint or a gentleman!” He goes on to explain that, historically, the hillside vineyards were the only ones that would be considered for Amarone. According to Boscaini, it was “inconceivable that Amarone should be produced from grapes grown anywhere else but in the best hillside vineyard locations.”
In response, the Families adopted their own set of standards that adhere to the DOCG’s but up the ante a notch or two: an alcohol minimum level of 15 per cent (as opposed to the DOCG’s 14 per cent); a minimum of 30 months’ aging from the first of December of the harvest year (DOGC stipulates 24 months); a voluntary declassification of Amarone in poor vintages.
Whatever they are doing, the results speak for themselves. In a recent tasting of their wines I noticed a brighter level of fruit with more complexity and elegance and less overt “raisin” or “fruitcake” notes in practically all the wines I tried. Many also sported an assertive, spicy note giving them more of an impression of being “table wines” rather than just post dinner “meditation” wines.
“The phrase ‘gentle giant’ sums up the wine,” Boscaini concludes. “Complex and powerful with a long history, but at the same time well-balanced, elegant and refined, as befits a really noble wine.” Or, in the somewhat more romantic words of Tommasi, “Amarone for love, love for Amarone.”
Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2006 ($89)
Forward and intense with smoky black cherry, mineral and exotic spice notes bolstered by a whiff of port and fruitcake nuances. Rich, moderately tannic and chock full of dark berry fruit. The finish is warm, peppery and long.
Brigaldara Case Vecie Amarone della Valpolicella 2006 ($49)
Dried fruit on the nose hinting at sultana raisin with underlying sandalwood and leather. Spicy, mildly earthy blackberry fruit on the palate with rich chocolate and coffee undertones leading to a dark plum, mineral-tinged finish.
Masi Casal dei Ronchi Serego Alighieri Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 2006 ($49)
The precursor to dry Amarone, sweet Recioto is becoming more difficult to find. But the search is typically worth the effort. Masi’s Recioto delivers in-your-face aromas of raisin pie, baked black plums, dried violets and subtle leathery elements. Medium-sweet with ripe, port-like fruit, mild tannins and a bare hint of cherry liqueur, it is impeccably balanced and sweet without being cloying.
Tedeschi Amarone della Valpolicella 2006 ($39.95)
Earth, leather and sweet cherry are the initial aromatic impressions, followed by hints of violet, liquorice and blueberry. Powerful with a chewy black fruit core and a sustained, cherry-tinged, silky end note.
Tedeschi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Capitel Monte Olmi 2006 ($79)
Complex and powerful with an intriguing blend of leather, spice, blueberry, tar and wild herbs. Concentrated and rich with mouth-filling layers of sweet/spicy wild cherry. It boasts a multidimensional, very long finish with smooth, sweet tannins.
Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2006 ($49.95)
Classically styled with a slightly rustic, earthy element given some lift by tinges of anise, truffle and sultana raisin. Moderately tannic with dense layers of sweet dried berries combined with hints of mocha and green tea. Lingering fruitcake notes gradually fade on the extended finish.
Tommasi Vigneto Ca’Florian Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 1998 ($89)
Proving the age-worthiness of well-made Amarone, this single-vineyard offering has a typical run of less than 10,000 bottles. Forward and very ripe, it shows sandalwood, black cherry jam, dried flower petal and suggestions of new leather. Concentrated cassis flavours with a dollop of flint and mocha hang on the palate seemingly forever.