Wine notes

Monday 19 October 2009


Oltrepò Pavese, located south of Milan in the south of Lombardy, remains one of Italy's most obscure wine regions. Sandwiched between Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna, and with the majority of its vineyards planted on the foothills of the Ligurian Apennines, it is responsible for 60% of Lombardy's entire DOC output. The region has consistently presented itself as bulk producer of international grape varieties with substantial plantings of Pinot Noir (some 3,000 ha at the latest count and going up) followed by Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio.
As the average quality of grapes grown on the hills can be quite high, Oltrepò Pavese has traditionally been the prime source for sparkling wine producers from outside the region, especially from Piemonte and Trentino. Only very recently has the region begun to market itself on its suitability for Burgundian varieties. Its Metodo Classico Oltrepò Pavese was promoted to DOCG status in 2007 and, beginning with the 2008 vintage, the regulations stipulate a minimum of 85% Pinot Noir, the balance being Chardonnay, while the still red wine Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Noir must be 100% of this grape.

While these measures aim at upgrading Oltrepò Pavese's reputation, they continue to ignore its own indigenous grape varieties. It seems that it takes an outsider to ignite an interest in Oltrepò Pavese's own grape varieties, and to save the rarest from oblivion. Dario Tiraboschi is such a person. He combines an administrative job in Bergamo, more than 170km north of Oltrepò Pavese, with running the Fattoria Mondo Antico, in the beautiful, secluded Rocca Susella.
Tiraboschi is a descendant of a family of cheesemakers, which has equipped him with a strong interest in anything agricultural, but he turned to wine by accident. Twenty years ago, one of Tiraboschi's relatives, who was living in Oltrepò Pavese, mentioned he was interested in buying a farm which came with a vineyard. The initial interest of his relative ebbed away, but Dario decided to buy the property himself after having seen the magnificent Collina del Pernione, a steep hill with perfect south to south-west exposition.

Dario proceeded to divide the steep 5-ha slope, characterised by white terra bianca soil, rich in limestone and not unlike those found in Jerez, into several blocks using the different expositions to suit his grape varieties' needs. The first is the south-facing slope planted with two local types of the Croatina variety, which Dario planted in 1993 to create Agenore, a wine which he wants to be a proper vehicle of terroir in a sea of indifferent Croatina blends pouring out of the region. Vigneto Chardonnay was planted the same year with the white burgundy grape and takes up the south-west-facing part of the hill producing. it produces Perpolio, an unoaked Chardonnay aged under the film-forming yeast flor (see your online Oxford Companion to Wine for more), while the top part is a minuscule 0.5 ha planted with four different clones of Pinot Noir.

Another plot of 1.7 ha right in front of the hill is the Vigneto Vigna Vecchia Rosso, a seemingly neglected vineyard full of old vines, most of them 60 years and older. Although its unkempt state would never suggest this, it is a true treasure trove of ancient and forgotten grape varieties. With the help of a viticulturist, Dario started to isolate, select and propagate the rarest and, from a quality point of view, most promising varieties.
The first grape he stumbled upon was the red Moradella. One of the region's oldest grape varieties. nowadays it can be found only in old vineyards because, owing to some perverse act of fate, the variety is not officially registered in the Catalogo Nazionale delle Varietà di Vite (Italy's official, but apparently not exhaustive, register of the nation's grape varieties) and is therefore absent from the DOC regulations. There is, however, a general assumption, that the typical OP reds, Buttafuoco and the sweet Sangue di Giuda, mainly consisting of Barbera and Croatina, were much more interesting in the past when Moradella was still included in the blend. According to Dario, the variety has a thick skin and therefore shows good resistance to rot, which it needs, being a late ripener picked normally at the end of October.

As well as Moradella, Dario discovered a superior clone of small-berried Barbera and also the red Uva Cascina, considered practically extinct. This variety is apparently almost the total opposite of Moradella, ripening a full three weeks earlier, giving very perfumed, full-bodied red wines. Dario is convinced that all three varieties are of high quality because of their small, but not-too-compact bunches with tiny berries resulting in a good skin to juice ratio in the fermentation tank. He plans to vinify and bottle the varieties separately as an ongoing investigation into their peculiarities, with the first bottlings not expected before 2010.

In this museum of grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir seem the odd ones out, and Dario is gradually replacing the 'too international' Chardonnay with the indigenous white Verdea, an ancient grape used in the past for making sweet wines, and Pinot Noir, for which he seems to have a genuine passion.

However, Mondo Antico's Chardonnay is most unusual, not just because of its complete absence of oak, but because of the flor that develops after fermentation on the surface of the wine, which is then aged under it for a year. Dario discovered this style by chance while visiting a wine fair in France's Jura. He followed the Jura practice by racking off the wine after fermentation and then leaving it in a vessel a third unfilled, in this case made of stainless steel rather than oak. After a couple of weeks, a fine film of yeast appeared on the surface. Normally when tanks or casks are not properly topped up, wine falls prey to oxidation and can turn into vinegar. Why this is not the case here, Dario is unable to explain.

It could be that part of the explanation for the occurrence of flor lies in the exceptionally white terra bianca, soil rich in potassium, phosphorus and magnesium, nutrients that yeasts thrive on. The high limestone content has excellent water-retaining capacity, soaking up winter precipitation. This forms a water reservoir the vines can dip into during the growing cycle, especially welcome on steep slopes. A disadvantage, however, is its low organic matter. To increase this, soy, mustard and fava beans are planted and then mowed in during the spring. This is complemented by spraying the biodynamic 500 preparation (the infamous dung-filled cowhorn) twice a year, in spring and immediately after the harvest.

Dario's unorthodox approach, saturating the wine with oxygen during the entire vinification, may also be part of the explanation of the flor riddle. Throughout the fermentation he racks frequently, whites as well as reds. As he explains, it allows for a steady and quick fermentation, without having to rely too much on temperature control, and he even allows the temperature to go up to 20-24 ºC for his whites. The reds are more or less left to their own devices, but as Dario vinifies them in small epoxy tanks, the heat developed during fermentation can escape quickly and the wine never exceeds 30 ºC.

Dario has started to produce a still, unoaked Pinot Noir. In his cellar, which is dominated by small stainless-steel and epoxy-resin vessels, a couple of abandoned barriques stand in the corner. Dario tried them but found that the resulting wine was dominated by the taste of oak and dry tannins. He is convinced that his Collina can produce great Pinot Noir, but, as if to prove his seriousness of intent, he declassified all his 2007 because he was not happy with the level of ripeness. And neither is there any of the 2006 maiden vintage left. It was snapped up by a German importer, who came across it at Prowein in Düsseldorf and, after tasting it, bought the lot without a second thought.

Mondo Antico, Perpolio 2007 Oltrepò Pavese Chardonnay 16.5 Drink 2009-10?
The name Perpolio comes from Latin and signifies something 'refined'. The yield per hectare for this wine was less than 40 hl. The wine is fermented in stainless steel. During the first month Dario does a closed remontage on the lees twice a week followed almost immediately by spontaneous malolactic fermentation. The whole process takes about four weeks, after which the wine is racked off the gross lees into another tank, which is filled to only 2/3 of its capacity, where after some 15 days a fine film of flor appears.
Light amber, indicating a late harvest of very ripe fruit and oxidative winemaking. At first intense apricot jam, with iodine notes and bruised apples, a touch creamy too. Less refined than its name indicates, but certainly fascinating, it has an almost wild quality to it. This also goes for the palate, showing opulent fruit with a fine citric edge and yeasty, bready impressions. Ends warm and a touch sweet (RS 5-6g/l). Very peculiar and in the 'love-hate' category. 13% (WS)

Mondo Antico, Sinodo 2006 Oltrepò Pavese Rosso 16.5 Drink 2009-12
From 60-year-old vines, this can be considered a classic Oltrepò Pavese blend uniting Barbera, Croatina, Uva della Cascina and Moradella, although this last is not officially allowed. The name of this wine comes form the Greek, meaning 'assembly' or 'meeting'. The grapes stem from the old, mixed vineyard. Owing to their different ripening times, several passages through the vines are needed to complete the harvest. The first two are done only by Dario's family, without the help of other pickers, as through experience they can distinguish the different varieties, and know what to pick and what to leave. The wine is fermented in steel and undergoes lots of remontages and déléstages. Regardless of whether alcoholic fermentation has been completed or not, the wine is racked off the skins after 12 days or so to prevent further tannic pickup. Once the fermentation is terminated, the wine gets one racking only to separate it from the gross lees, after which malolactic fermentation immediately starts, presumably because so little sulphur is used at this stage. Racking at regular intervals is done throughout the year to prevent reduction, which is a greater risk when using totally inert glass-fibre and stainless-steel tanks.
A deep crimson colour. Immediate, lifted, vivid nose with a touch of VA. Dark fruits with a layer of maraschino cherry and savoury notes, followed by a rustic, energetic palate of sweet concentrated fruit with crunchy, bitter tannins. Ends warm and rustic. Very animated and long. Seems quite young. RS about 5 g/l. 14% (WS)

Mondo Antico, Agenore Bonarda 2006 Oltrepò Pavese 16 Drink 2009-12
This wine is in fact a 100% Croatina. Bonarda is the local synonym for Croatina, and the Oltrepò Pavese Bonarda DOC requires at least 85% Croatina and doesn't allow the use of Bonarda Piemontese, a completely different variety. (If Dario wanted to label the wine Croatina, he would have to declassify it and label it IGT.) Bonarda Piemontese is apparently not present in Oltrepò Pavese. The wine's name is derived from the Greek, meaning 'virile' or 'strong'. Quite an apt name as it turns out.
Deep purple, with intense sweet forest fruit nose. Again a touch volatile and lifted, with layers of cherry liqueur and notes of garden herbs. On the palate, multilayered with just a touch of spritz and dark fruits with structuring acidity. On the finish, a bitter tannic twist offsetting all that dark-fruit abundance. Singular, with signature rusticity and not for the faint hearted. The wine's various components seem unsettled, suggesting further bottle age is needed. Great length, though. 14% (WS)


Last Monday 10 of Amarone's most illustrious producers assembled in London to attract attention to their collective attempts to halt the decline in price of what they consider one of Italy's most important and iconic red wines.
The group teamed up under the ambitious-sounding title Le Famiglie dell'Amarone d'Arte, abbreviated for the Anglo Saxon market to Amarone Families. On a decisively autumnal, rainy Monday, the group managed to attract a considerable crowd of wine professionals who, almost in vain as it turned out, sought information on the group's ambitious manifesto sent out some weeks before, declaring that the fall in price of Verona's most famous wine had to be stopped.

The Families' manifesto, promising increases in minimum total dry extract and ageing periods, offers many discussion points. The most obvious seems the stated restriction that only small- to medium-sized producers can be part of the group although curiously Masi, the estate of the group's president Sandro Boscaini (pictured), produces some 3.5 million bottles annually, a large quantity by anyone's standard.

Boscaini welcomed us by introducing the group, while extending an invitation to any producer who shares the same understanding of the production of Amarone. Tellingly, Boscaini spoke of 10 'brands' when referring to the members, something that would very much set the tone for the rest of the seminar.

According to Boscaini, Amarone enjoys the same kind of prestige in the international market as Barolo and Brunello and the 10 represent the historic producers of Amarone who aim at protecting the wine and promoting it collectively on the international market. Boscaini phrased this quite cryptically when speaking of their founding moment, now less than a year ago, when the members realised that there are different ways of 'understanding Amarone'. The moment coincided with a historic slump in prices, with the Consorzio trying to get the message through to its producers that the 15 million bottles projected for the 2009 vintage would be double the number that can realistically be sold. Earlier warnings issued by the Consorzio going back as far as 2006 had until now fallen on deaf ears, as Amarone seemed to promise such a secure cash return.

Boscaini continued by maintaining that Amarone is a legacy of their ancestors, although in fact the wine is a very recent phenomenon and before the 1960s Amarone was generally considered a Recioto gone wrong. For Boscaini, Amarone is the flagship wine of the whole Veneto region and in this role it also represents all other wines produced there, including Soave and Prosecco. According to him, all these wines can take advantage of what Amarone stands for. Unfortunately, until now both wines mentioned have mostly represented the cheapest of wines coming from the Italian peninsula, and have therefore benefited little from the alleged prestige of Amarone.

Boscaini continued by saying that the 10 wish to protect a wine which by its very nature is limited, at least if you want to make this wine in a proper way. The classic hillside vineyards are a prerequisite, although he hastily added that this is not always necessary. (Boscaini's correction was understandable as many of the larger members source fruit from outside the classic area in order to produce the volumes they require, or simply because they do not possess vineyards in the Classico hills.) A long period of grape drying and fermentation is needed, but this goes without saying for both modest as well as high-quality Amarone, and although Boscaini is generally right, the Families' manifesto does not truly impose much harsher production criteria than are already defined by law.

What is far more striking about the manifesto is its vagueness on yields and its reluctance to propose measures which will make an immediate impact not only on quality but on volume as well: reducing the very generous 70% of total grape production that may be turned into Amarone, and limiting the source of grapes to the hills, which historically have produced the best wines. But there appeared to be a certain unwillingness during the seminar to delve into these issues. The opinion on the general over-production of Amarone, as described by one of the group's members, is that it is actually 'not our problem'. Instead, it is the problem of the ones who jumped on the bandwagon, eager to take a share of the cake, and spoiling the international market with cheap dilute products bearing the same name.

In an earlier statement, the group had been quoted as saying that Amarone should have a retail price of at least €25, yet Masi’s Costasera Amarone is available on Tesco's website for just £20, or €22.48, at the time of writing.

When asked why so far only the largest producers are part of the new association, and how this chimes with the many fine, small, artisanal producers, Boscaini drew a parallel with the culinary world: La mama can make a great plate of pasta, but only a skilled chef can make something truly outstanding, the chef in this case being the Families.

Although the objective of the assembled Families seems logical, the main question I had, and one yet to be answered, is why single out just one specific wine style for protection? Why not try to upgrade and improve the wine output of the entire region, which seems a much more valuable long-term prospect, while at the same time allowing for the inclusion of many more producers. Especially in the light of the introduction of the OCM last August, with Italy's Consorzios losing their controlling and regulating function while trying to adjust to a marketing role, the foundation of the Amarone Families looks like a first distancing of producers away from the official Consorzio, resulting in a fragmentation of marketing efforts. If the region as a whole wants to promote its wine, its producers will need to work together. The Consorzio could play a far more inclusive role in this than any privately set up association aiming at a certain exclusivity, while blaming others for Amarone's devaluation.

Below are my notes on the 2000 Amarones tasted during the seminar, with the exception of Zenato's as at that point I spilled wine on my laptop, and the keyboard started to lead a life of its own. As it is now, it probably cannot be repaired, but I have tried not to get this incident colour the article.

Musella, Amarone 2000 Valpolicella 16 Drink 2009-14
Deep ruby with the beginning of orange in the rim. Marked by oak and spicy notes, this shows sweet amarena cherry, shoe polish too. Seems a bit tight, and needs decanting. Lively high acidity on the palate with enough fruit concentration. Bitter soft tannins matching the sweet fruit impact. Touch alcoholic on the finish, with astringent dry twist. Food compatible. 3.56 g/l RS, 16.9%

Speri, Vigneto Monte Sant'Urbano Amarone 2000 Valpolicella Classico 17 Drink 2010-2016
Aged in Allier tonneaux. Very dark ruby with the beginnings of age at the rim. Sweet, inviting cherry jam and dried fruit notes, at the same time still compact. Generous on the attack, with sweet cherry compote and bittersweet fine tannins on the finish. Closes up on the finish with firmer tannins coming through, suggesting further ageing needed. 14.9g/l RS, 15%

Nicolis, Ambrosan Amarone 2000 Valpolcella Classico 16.5 Drink 2009-14
Not destemmed before fermentation. Very deep dark ruby, almost impenetrable. Brooding, sweet, dried-fruit nose and oriental spice. Less fine on the palate but with lots of concentration and stalky persistent tannins. Bigger style. The sugar level seems high but is compensated for by flattering bitterness. Warm finish. 7.5 g/l RS, 16%

Brigaldara, Case Vecie Amarone 2000 Valpolicella 17 Drink 2009-13
Deep, dark, but quite youthful rim. Open and opulent with lots of dried cherry and distinctive Averna herbal liqueur, almost heady nose pushed by alcohol. Big, dried fruit with a touch of bruised apple, and angular but not astringent tannins. Sweet warm finish but with considerable length. Modern style and popular. 17.5%

Masi, Costasera Ultra Premium Amarone 2000 Valpolicella Classico 15.5 Drink 2009-13
Old-school nose with bruised apple and dried fruit. This seems an oxidative wine-making style, and quite mature and evolved. The nose seems to indicate the wine is at its peak. Dusty, grainy tannins support a somewhat underwhelming palate, followed by high acidity, making the wine more food compatible than the initial first impressions, but it lacks excitement. 15%.

Tedeschi, Capitel Monte Olmi Amarone 2000 Valpolicella 16 Drink 2010-2014
Deep mature ruby with orange reflexes. Balsamic nose, and although from colour the most advanced of the flight, surprisingly compact. More herbal than fruit at this stage. Intriguing, which is perhaps another word for lacking in definition. Initially more open on the palate, but firm tannins and compact fruit closes up on the finish, while persistent tanins seem to suggest that more is to come. 17%.

Tenuta Sant'Antonio, Campo dei Gigli Amarone 2000 Valpolicella 16.5 Drink 2009-14
Impenetrable dark, deep ruby, with very small rim. Intriguing nose of sweet dried cherry and fruitcake, maraschino too, with a touch of spice from the oak. Succulent sweet fruit palate lifted by acidity. The tannins seem a tad rustic, an impression heightened by the wine's alcohol. Warm, but long finish. Ends a touch sweet. 16%

Allegrini, Amarone 2000 Valpolicella Classico 17 Drink 2010-14
Very dark and deep ruby, quite youthful still. Curious, upfront cassis and cassis leaf and cherry juice nose. Talcum powder. On the palate more restraint with youthful, dominating tannins (oak?), and underlying, but concentrated fruit. Somewhat unapproachable at the moment with nose and palate sending out different signals. Finish shows drying oak tannins. Very modern. 15.4%.

Tommasi, Amarone 2000 Valpolicella Classico 16.5 Drink 2009-14
Mature looking ruby. A touch of horse saddle jumps up from the glass. Underneath, savoury plum and meaty notes. Quite sweet fruit palate harnessed by drying tannins. Long lasting, concentrated sweet fruit finish. 15%