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.