Pop quiz! Which vineyards, valued at four billion euros, are the most expensive in all of Italy? Most would fancy a guess down the path of Chianti Classico, Brunello or Barolo. All are logical choices, but believe it or not, the answer is Valpolicella. Now, some might think my fact checking is slightly skewed because of the low cost of basic Valpolicella wines. True, but one should not forget the high price fetched for the wine which is the driving force behind the appellation — Amarone, and to a lesser extent, Ripasso.
Of the close to 13 million bottles of Amarone produced annually, almost 80 percent is exported, with the big-boy markets being Germany, USA and Canada. As for the country with the largest increase, that honour rests with Russia. This trend will inevitably increase with the arrival of the 2011 vintage, which has earned a perfect five stars by the local Consorzio and is now in their books as one of the best ever.
Amarone, unlike other red table wines, requires the convergence of two factors to ensure a top-quality vintage. The first, a great growing season. The second, a great autumn to ensure a proper and a healthy desiccation period (appassimento), which usually lasts two to three months. In 2011, both were perfect.
the growing season
Following a wet winter, March arrived with above average heat, which started the sap flowing, ensuring an early bud break. With the turn of the calendar, the first 10 days of April saw the temperature increase once again, causing vegetation to develop. Unlike previous years, there was no rain, but that was mitigated by the extra water in the soil from the winter.
May also continued the theme of warmth, which contributed to the flowering that started on the 20th of the month, some 20 days earlier than the norm. June and the first half of July brought average to high temperatures, with just the right amount of rain. In the middle of July the temperature dipped, slowing down the advanced growth cycle.
August and September, the months which shape the quality, were warm as opposed to hot. August had zero precipitation and September just a smidge. These factors helped to create a long and leisurely ripening process, which produced small berries that were phenolically ripe, with skins that were 20 per cent thicker than normal.
appassimento and vinification
The grapes were laid on drying racks at the end of September. With the arrival of October, temperatures abruptly dropped to 14 degrees, with no humidity or rain. Coupled with the thicker skins, this ensured that the long drying process produced concentrated and healthy raisins. It is also important to note that the larger, more technologically advanced wineries have invested in temperature/humidity controlled rooms to ensure the same conditions, regardless of autumn climactic conditions. Vinification started in January and the minimum two years of aging soon followed.
This past winter, I was invited to Anteprima Amarone, the annual new vintage tasting in Verona, which showcased the wines of the 2011 vintage. After tasting over one hundred wines, I can say, without hyperbole, that the majority (there are always a few underperformers) were fabulous. They show ripe jammy fruit (red and black), concentration, polished tannins, and alcohol levels hovering around the 16 per cent marker. Most impressive is the fact that even though they are high-octane, the concentration holds the alcohol in check.
Below are my favourites. You will probably notice that some of the most famous names in Amarone are not present. The reason is that they have formed their own organization to promote their personal interests, and were not part of the Anteprima event. Based on what I tasted, I have no doubt that those wines will perform admirably. Prices for the wines listed below should be between 50 and 75 dollars when they hit our shores.
93 Accordini Stefano Acinatico
This wonderful ripe and polished Amarone shows layers of plum, cassis liqueur, raspberry, sweet dark cherry, vanilla, chocolate and spice. The 16.5% alcohol is nicely buried under the concentrated palate and long finish. This will easily age for 15 to 20 years.
This, along with the Accordini, was my favourite wine of the annual Amarone preview tasting. Made in an old-school oxidized style, this wine’s concentration and complexity is impressive. Cherry, raspberry, spice, tomato purée, raspberry, vanilla, cocoa, dried flowers and mint carry the superb finale.
This wine is slightly shy at this early stage, but you can see that there is greatness in the bottle. Graphite, plum, dark cherry, cocoa, earth, tobacco and violets all appear at this early stage. Cellar until 2018 and then drink over the subsequent 15 years.
91 Ca’ Rugate
At the low end of the Amarone alcohol spectrum (14.5%), this refined bottle serves up sweet cherry, plum, earth, vanilla, spice and cola. There is excellent length, some spicy alcohol and a slightly higher average residual sugar off 11g/l, which might irk some. This is made for braised lamb and beef dishes.
This small, artisanal family winery, which is located on the flatlands of Valpolicella, was one of my discoveries at this year’s Anteprima Amarone, in Veneto. It just goes to show that a great wine can be made outside the fabled Classico zone, when respect of the land, old vines (80 years here), and dedication come together. Concentrated, yet linear, this wine delivers the goods in the form of dark fruit, cherry, vanilla and black pepper. Give it another year in the bottle and then drink until 2027.
This Amarone beguiles with aromas of plum, vanilla, spice, cocoa, raspberry, vanilla and a most unusual edamame character. The same is found on the palate as well as a slight tinge of nuttiness. There is also some apparent heat as the fruit fades away.
Another old-school style that emphasizes number 2 pencil, spice, herbs, tomato vine, raspberry and cherry. The palate adds raisin, plum and cocoa, as well as great persistency. A complex and wonderful Amarone.
Explosive aromas of plum, dark raspberry, blackberry, spice, violets and earth also come out on the refined palate, which shows a sweet texture and a superb aftertaste. 15 years of longevity ahead.
91 Latium Morini Campo Leon
The fruit tingles on the overripe side. Plum, raisins, earth, cocoa and spice carry long into the sunset. Great juice that is a perfect foil for roast pork with a prune sauce or a steak with a rich demi-glace.
91 Roccolo Grassi
Starts with a dark fruit explosion and then the spice and cocoa kick in. Linear on the palate, the tannins are still forward, so age it for a couple years and then drink over the subsequent decade.
90 Gamba Le Quare
Robust, this modern Amarone doles out mocha, coffee, plum, dark cherry and spice. The palate is refined, with excellent length and a somewhat soft personality.
90 San Cassiano
The bouquet of cassis, coffee, toast, and vanilla finds its way onto the taste buds, where herbs, chocolate and red fruits carry the long finish. It will age well for 10 years.
90 Valentina Cubi Morar
A solid Amarone that reveals plum, raspberry, cherry, spice and cola qualities. Elegant, the fruit echoes all the way to the end. It should improve in the bottle.
90 Pietro Zanoni
Firmly tannic, this Amarone still needs some time. Vanilla, cherry, spice, violets and leather are in play in this wine. Hold until 2017 and then drink until 2028.
89 Tezza Corte Majoli
A slightly roasted nose of plum, cherry, spice and rubber greet raspberry, raisin, and earth on the taste buds. There is very good length and enough chutzpah to cellar for a decade.
A mid-weight Amarone with a profile of prune, cocoa, earth and spice. Solid length and ready to drink. It will not make old bones, but is certainly satisfying.
89 Pasqua Terre di Cariano
Here you will find a solid, straight up Amarone that doles out the plum, cherry, violet, dried earth, raisins and spice. Finishes warm and is ready to drink.
This is a rather simple and light Amarone, especially considering the greatness of the 2011 vintage. Fruit, earth, spice and an ever-present alcohol mandate early drinking.
88 Tenute Ugolini
Leans towards the red fruit spectrum, with dashes of cocoa and earth acting as an accent. Lengthy aftertaste and somewhat simple. Drink up.
88 Cantina di Soave Cadis
There is a dark ruby colour with a perfume of spice/pepper, dried flowers and cherry. Finishes dry, so pair with some braised lamb or beef stew.