Wine notes

Monday 10 August 2009


Ten of the most influential producers of Amarone have teamed up to reverse what they call the 'trading down' of one of Italy's most important wines, Amarone. The producers have formed an association, Le Famiglie dell'Amarone d'arte or Amarone Families, to voice their concern over what they see as the wine's increasing loss of identity.

In recent years, Amarone has become an international success to such an extent that production figures have tripled over the last 10 years, from 2.3 million bottles in 1999 to more than 8 million in 2007, resulting in lower prices and lower quality overall.

The mission of the 10 families - Allegrini, Brigaldara, Masi, Musella, Nicolis, Speri, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant'Antonio, Tommasi and Zenato - is to keep prices as well as quality up. Or, as their press release states: 'Our Amarone must remain exclusive, precious and correctly priced'. Masi's Alessandro Boscaini, president of the newly founded association, argues that Amarone must remain 'rightly priced to stop low cost logics and the standardisation of taste'.

To this end the association has set up the following list of criteria and requirements. Wineries must be small or medium sized as well as family led. They must grow at least some of their own grapes - although the proportion is not specified. They must also have a history of producing Amarone for at least 15 years, of which total sales must be at least 20,000 bottles per year, and the Amarone of each member must be available in at least five foreign markets.

Furthermore, the wines must have a minimum alcohol content of 15% rather than the legal minimum of 14%, with a minimum dry extract of 30 g/l (cf 26 g/l by law) and must be aged for at least 30 months from the 1 Dec following the vintage (by law this is 24 months). But the most important, and the most drastic, rule is that members of the association promise to declassify their fruit should the vintage not allow for an optimal product.

The concern of the Amarone Families seems genuine enough, even if it may be inspired by the fact that the estimated 15 million bottles of Amarone that may be released in 2011 are likely to be nearly twice as many as the market can absorb, but they themselves seem to struggle to comply with the regulations of their own manifesto. Masi, producing 3.5 million bottles a year, Zenato with 1.2 million bottles and Tommasi with 900,000 bottles can hardly be considered 'small- to medium-sized wineries'.

Instead it would appear that the most internationally visible Amarone producers have decided to combine their strength to stop prices falling. But with their considerable total weight they should certainly prove an effective challenge to the generous production rules of the Consorzio of Valpolicella, the producer association. Currently, the Consorzio's rules allow up to 70% of DOC Valpolicella grapes to be turned into Amarone, which, combined with strong demand for the wine, provides very little incentive to select only the best fruit.

Traditionally the production of Amarone, which involves a mandatory period of grape drying, was confined to the hills, because autumn fogs increased the risk of rot on the plains, but the enlargement of the classic zone when the DOC was introduced in 1968 and the introduction of modern technology to control humidity and temperature has resulted in a dramatic increase in Amarone production.

So far, proposals to limit Amarone production to superior vineyards have, perhaps not surprisingly, gained little ground. Improvements in quality, accompanied by price stability, could also be achieved not only by restricting which grapes may be dried but also by mandatory bottling within the DOC zone, and restricting grape varieties to the superior Corvina and Corvinone (which may currently constitute no more than 80% of the total blend) and prohibiting the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon currently allowed.

The 10 members of Amarone Families, which already represent 40% of the value of total Amarone sales, are keen to stress that the Association is willing to extend membership to all of those willing to comply with its rules.

Sunday 2 August 2009


The recent decision of Bruno GiacosA not to bottle any of his Barolo or Barbaresco of the 2006 vintage has caused quite a stir in Italy. After the announcement, the estate's English importer Armit was quick to point out that a stroke Giacosa suffered in the same year made it impossible for him to be in the vineyard or the cellar, suggesting his poor health was the main reason for the allegedly unusually low quality of the wines resulting in this financially tough decision.

This explanation did not go down well with some of Italy's most prominent wine critics, who argued that Giacosa's action not only tarnished the reputation of the 2006 vintage generally, but also openly suggested some connection with the recent departure of Dante Scaglione who had been Giacosa's winemaker and right hand for more than 16 years and was considered instrumental to the high quality of the wines.

While speculation circulated online, Giacosa denied that Scaglione's departure had anything to do with the decision, but refrained from shedding more light on whether the quality of the grapes or Scaglione's work had been the main reason for the declassification of the vintage.

With 2006 Barbaresco already released on the market, to be followed by 2006 Barolo next January, the situation has triggered a potentially damaging debate on the quality of the 2006 vintage, which was halted only after one of Italy's prominent wine critics, Franco Ziliani, asked Piemonte's most knowledgeable oenologist, Armando Cordero, for his opinion. While admitting he had not tasted Giacosa's 2006s, Cordero came out in favour of the vintage in general.

He has now been joined by the Consorzio of Barolo and Barbaresco, which has sent out a press statement maintaining that 'the 2006 vintage is a very good one, with some exceptional peaks'. To back up their assertion, they have issued the following vintage report:

In order to highlight the great value and quality of the 2006 vintage for both Barbaresco and Barolo, we hereby summarize the climatic conditions which characterized that year.

During 2005/2006 winter it snowed a lot, but springtime was not very rainy, thus causing some risks of water shortage. Rain luckily fell in the second half of June.
Even though the summer started with thunderstorms, it quickly turned to dry weather. Actually, July 2006 was one of the hottest Julys in history. Rainfall around mid-August refreshed the air, mitigating the pre-maturity in the development of grapes caused by the dry July.

The climatic trend in September - usually the crucial month for the final quality of the Nebbiolo grapes used to produce Barbaresco and Barolo - was very favourable: warm but rather windy during the day and fresh during the night. These conditions allowed the grapes to ripen correctly.
Even the rain that fell between 24 and 26 Sep did not create any problem to the quality of grapes. At the most it determined a short interruption in harvesting, which nevertheless ended up with general satisfaction. Therefore, 2006 vintage has been characterized by a standard rhythm, with harvesting of Nebbiolo grapes - healthy and of excellent quality - taking place between the end of September and the beginning of October.

As far as the wines are concerned, both Barbaresco and Barolo 2006 show great structure, full body and roundness. Even if young, both are elegant. The garnet colour is intense, in some cases still with ruby-red highlights. The perfume is full-bodied, with clear fruity hints and the first hints of spices. The taste is full and persistent.