Wine notes

Monday 19 October 2009


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%