Amarone Anteprima 2007: On assignment in Verona (February 17, 2011)
The Successful Collector – by Julian Hitner
How Amarone is made
Delving through and carefully labelling the photographs from my latest international excursion of the vinous persuasion – this time to Verona and the world-famous Valpolicella winegrowing region in north-eastern Italy, there to examine one of the country's most prestigious types of wine: Amarone della Valpolicella – I promptly realize that in order to properly discuss a wine of such monumental importance, one must first go over what exactly "Amarone" is. In short, what is this wonderful, velvety smooth and ever-powerful wine that over the past dozen years has captivated the hearts (and gullets) of wine enthusiasts all over the world?
Referred to (in full) as Amarone della Valpolicella DOC (to be upgraded to DOCG status as of the 2010 vintage), "Amarone" is a type of wine crafted within the demarcated Valpolicella winegrowing region that undergoes a most peculiar winemaking technique, otherwise referred to as the "appassimento method." At its simplest, this refers to the process by which grape bunches that, having been picked fairly late in the winegrowing season, are subsequently left to dry on straw or bamboo mats – usually in small huts or attics, now more commonly in large, temperature-controlled warehouses – for several months (sometimes into the following year) prior to fermentation. The result of this technique is that the grapes lose more than a third of their weight, becoming extremely concentrated and more flavourful in the process. After this, the wine is fermented to full dryness and aged (most commonly in Slavonian oak barrels) for around 30 months, after which it may
be aged in bottle for a while longer before release.
Of grapes used in the Amarone blend (and don't be surprised if you've never heard of any of them), the Corvina Veronese varietal is the most common (though it is usually simply shown as "Corvina" on wine labels), representing around 40–70% of the total blend; this said, growers are also allowed to use an entirely separate varietal called Corvinone as both an additional grape and substitute – though growers in the past used to grow these two grapes in the same vineyard and vinify them together. The second-most prominent grape is Rondinella, typically composing about 20–40% of the blend. This is usually followed by the Molinara grape, which is typically used in only minimal amounts, mostly around 5–10%. Other permitted grapes are Croatina, Oseleta, Dindarella, and Forsellina, as well as (up to 15%) Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Rossignola, Negrara, Barbera, and Sangiovese.
Changes in the Amarone style
Without question, the past several years have witnessed several notable developments within the Valpolicella winegrowing region concerning the production of Amarone, some considered positive, others negative. First and foremost, while most producers are more than happy at the fact that Amarone (not to mention Ripasso) has gained so much in popularity over the past decade – with overall annual production logging in at a staggering 13 million bottles – many more conscientious producers are becoming increasingly concerned about ensuring that Amarone retains its reputation as a premium product. With far more Amarone being produced than ever before, growers focusing on the premium end have become convinced that it is imperative for quality to remain high, despite the fact not all producers might be crafting as quality-sound Amarones as their neighbours, selling in bulk to European supermarket chains at low prices, thus depressing both the overall perceived reputation of Amarone
and its median price.
Another growing concern regarding the production of Amarone relates to how many producers are increasingly changing the style of the wine to reflect a greater desire for more oak aging (in French oak barriques), higher alcohol, and ever-smoother mouthfeels. Indeed, the use of French oak can be easily seen in the production of many estates, resulting a clearly perceptible difference between more "modern" Amarones and those that have only been aged in large neutral-flavoured Slavonian casks. From a personal point of view, however, I have typically found (albeit with several major exceptions) little amiss with the judicial use of French oak, so long as the regional character of the Amarone wine remains unaffected and the wine stays fresh and essentially true to its origins; and yet it there is no mistaking the fact that there are still many traditional wine growers (not to mention enthusiasts) that have come to lament the fact that too many producers seem to be using French oak
(not to mention immoderate extraction techniques) to excess.
Put together, these two factors have led many producers throughout Valpolicella to press for stricter regulations concerning the production of Amarone, which has unquestionably become the most celebrated wine in the Veneto. In the meantime, however, one thing is certain: Amarone has never been more popular, with production likely to continually increase (though perhaps on a more gradual level) in the many years to come. As for whether or not its overall quality is enhanced or diminished, one can only hope that the good times (rather than the bad) remain unabated.
The geography of Valpolicella
At this juncture, it seems only fitting to make proper mention of the incredible landscape of the Valpolicella region, as well as the vineyards that constitute the crafting of the area's most premium wine. At its simplest, the "classic zone" of the Valpolicella DOC (as will be indicated on the label by the use of the term "Classico") is made up of five notably distinct valleys (or production zones): Sant' Ambrogio, San Pietro in Cariano, Fumane, Marano, and Negrar. Indeed, the region of Valpolicella is well suited for the cultivation of vines, protected by the Lessini to the north and being situated (on average) several hundred metres above sea level. At present, the total area of the entire winegrowing region of Valpolicella under vine is approximately 6,300 hectares, increasing at a rate of 200–300 hectares a year, largely attributable to the ever-increasing demand for Amarone.
In the past, virtually all vines in Valpolicella were planted as pergolas, cultivated upwards (about 2.5 metres) and then spread out like an awning. Nowadays, however, an increasing number of producers are switching over to Guyot-styled vines, which tend to be much better suited for controlling yields (among other things) and thus producing a higher-quality crop. As one might expect, those more eager to switch to Guyot plantings are the same growers who tend to use more French oak in the cellar. Rather predictable, when you think about it.
The persons and the cuisine (both exceptional)
Credit where credit is due, the growers of Valpolicella easily rank among the most delightful, kind-hearted souls I have ever met in my many wine-touring travels, almost generous at times to a fault. As a poignant example, it seldom occurs that I am forced to refuse bottles to take home as gift (wanting in luggage space and disheartened by Canadian border officials possibly charging me duties); but this is exactly what happened at the house of Pietro Clementi, where I was essentially offered as many bottles of Amarone as I desired. For the record, I only accepted two: the '04 and the '06, my two favourites I'd tasted that late afternoon. A day earlier, I was given a beautiful (wooden) two-bottle case at Rubinelli Vajol, where traditional methods are espoused and French oak is entirely avoided – very fine wines!
Switching (reciprocally) to magnificent edibles, let me just say that all things good were in appropriate abundance throughout both Valpolicella and the remarkable dining establishments of Verona, from beautiful, thinly-spliced "speck" (a type of prosciutto) and regionally-flavoured salamis to first-rate local oils, cheeses, and breads. Not to be missed were also the risottos, a speciality of the area, commonly prepared (at least for wine writers) with Amarone. As for main courses, there are simply too many to mention, so I will leave it to people's individual imaginations as to what I was privy to partake at such galas as that held at the Sala Bouvette, located in the glorious Palazzo della Gran Guardia in downtown Verona. Indeed, the life of an international wine writer does have its perquisites.
The 2007 vintage and final thoughts
Contextually speaking, I would have to say that the '07 vintage – which I was able to extensively review at the 2007 Amarone Anteprima event (held on 29–30 January) – for Amarone wines, while most certainly impressive in its own right, was not as fine as the vintage preceding it. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that many wines simply tasted too powerful for their own good, compared with many of the '06s I tasted throughout the course of my winery (and restaurant) visits, the latter of which commonly tasted more singular and better balanced. Another problem was that many of the '07s have only recently been bottled, thus still suffering from noticeable (in some cases troublesome) bottle shock. Hence, one ought not be surprised to learn that most of my top recommendations from this assignment come from vintages other than 2007. This said, there were still plenty of '07 wines that performed with absolute splendour on being examined, carrying great firmness
of tannins, soundness of structure, and exactness of power. Ultimately, for my fellow wine writers and me, such wines were unquestionably worth seeking out, as well as exploring the Valpolicella winegrowing region as a whole, a part of the vinous world where there is truly a great deal to offer for wine lovers everywhere.
A few gems for collectors
Antolini 2006 Morópio, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: Unquestionably modern (yet not in the least bit unbalanced or over-extracted) in style, the 2006 Morópio is guaranteed to please collectors to no end. Brilliant, opaque-ruby in colour, the wine revels in truly beautiful aromas of toasted oak and mocha-covered black cherries, which later give way to "smooth" red currants and plums, tar, graham crackers, forest floor, and a just hint of minerality, vanilla, and spice. Complex and seriously satisfying, offering gorgeous fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a very refined, yet powerful hint of smooth mocha, graham crackers, and plumy red currants on the finish. Exceedingly well done, with even a trace of Bordelaise-style minerality about it. Now–2020. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
94 Price Unavailable Tradesa Corp. (Private Order)
Antolini 2006 Ca' Coato, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: Almost equal in quality to the Morópio, collectors will find the '06 Ca' Coato crafted in a more generous, rounder style, making for an unmistakably delicious wine. Brilliant, opaque ruby in colour, the wine starts off with intense notes of French oak that later seem to drift away to reveal a gorgeous array of fresh mocha, plums, currants, blueberries, violet cherries, tar, vanilla, and spice. Complex and deliciously velvety, carrying really great fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a very long, smooth hint of mocha and violet-like plums on the finish. Very rich and modern in style, yet undeniably well balanced, structurally sound, and harmonious. Now–2018++. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
93 Price Unavailable Tradesa Corp. (Private Order)
Pietro Clementi 2006, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: Superlative wine from the soft-spoken, exceedingly generous estate of Pietro Clementi, the 2006 Amarone is not to be missed for any excuse. Brilliant, opaque ruby in colour, the '06 boasts moderate toasted oak and reveals truly tempting aromas of dried cedary black mocha and plums, leather, forest floor, espresso, and a hint of vanilla and spice. Complex and powerful, with a gorgeous personification of fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a lengthy hint of dried black mocha and plums (extremely delicious) on the finish. Sumptuous, powerful, well-balanced Amarone – sincerely exceptional. An ideal candidate to seek out while abroad, as it is currently unavailable in Canada. Now–2020. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
93 Price Unavailable Not Available in Ontario
Monte Faustino 2005, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: An Amarone any fine wine collector would be proud to call their own, the 2005 Faustino is well worth the effort of attempting to procure. Brilliant, opaque red-garnet in colour, the wine offers beautiful overtones of elegant cedarwood, switching to cherries, leather, sandalwood, chestnuts, thyme, and spice. Complex and simply delicious, displaying beautifully focused, refined fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a lingering hint of cedary cherries and walnuts on the finish. In the end: a wine of superb precision, freshness, and (more) traditional style. Now–2018. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
93 Price Unavailable Not Available in Ontario
Le Marognole 2007 CampoRocco, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: Exemplary offering from winemaker Fabio Corsi, the 2007 CampoRocco will give collectors much pleasure throughout the rest of the decade. Brilliant, opaque ruby in colour, the wine, after revealing its fair share of finely toasted oak, offers enticing aromas of fresh walnuts and plums, leather, forest floor, a little smoke, mocha, vanilla, and spice. Complex and fresh, with downright delicious fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a lengthy hint of smooth plums on the finish. In the end: a remarkably pure, powerful wine, with a very long life ahead of it. Now–2020+. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
93 Price Unavailable Not Available in Ontario
Corte Campagnola 2007 Gli Archi, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: Excellent traditional-style Amarone, the 2007 Gli Archi is certainly one of the highlights of the vintage. Brilliant, opaque ruby in colour, the wine is finely toasted and offers truly tempting aromas of baker's chocolate, blackberries, dark plums, tar, undergrowth, and a hint of vanilla and spice. Complex and deliciously fulsome, with outstanding powerful fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a long hint of (dark) baker's chocolate and plums on the finish. Weighty, powerful wine, with a really delicious, regional personality about it. Now–2018+. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
92++ Price Unavailable Not Available in Ontario
Pietro Clementi 2005, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: A real treat for lovers (and collectors) of a more "ruggedly styled" Amarone, the 2005 Clementi will leave a wonderful impression on all those privileged enough to try it. Brilliant, opaque ruby in colour, it boasts a marvellous nose of cedary cherries and plums, undergrowth, tar, abundant roasted meat, and a hint of "herbed" currants and spice. Complex, with delicious, finely integrated fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a truly lovely, lingering hint of roasted cedary meat on the finish. Excellent, pure "rugged" personality. Wonderfully traditional. Now–2018. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
92+ Price Unavailable Not Available in Ontario
Sartori 2006 Reius, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: From one of the largest estates in Valpolicella comes the superlative 2006 Reius, innately ideal for collectors of premium Amarone. Brilliant, opaque ruby in colour, the wine offers enticing aromas of finely toasted oak that shortly give way to engaging "cherried" mocha, (mild) currants and plums, leather, walnuts, tar, and a hint of vanilla and spice. Complex and truly delicious, offering great fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and an assertive hint of smooth plums on the finish. Powerful, persistent Amarone. Definitely one for the cellar. Now–2018. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
92 Price Unavailable Woodman Wines & Spirits
Rubinelli Vajol 2007, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: Exceptional offering from Alberto Rubinelli, one of the more traditionalist-oriented producers in Valpolicella. Brilliant, dark-opaque ruby in colour, the '07 reveals really beautiful aromas of delicate toasted oak, switching to subtle cedary red plums, a little leather, thyme, and spice – very pure aromatics. Complex and amazingly fresh, with splendid cedary fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a truly lovely hint of smooth cedary red plums on the finish. Decisively traditional, yet undeniably delicious. What it lacks in power, it makes up for in elegance and harmony. Now–2018. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
92 Price Unavailable Not Available in Ontario
Speri 2007 Monte Sant' Urbano, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: The flagship wine of Speri and unquestionably worthy of procurement for collectors and Amarone lovers, alike. Brilliant, opaque ruby in colour, the '07 Sant' Urbano is decidedly toasted, with exceedingly beautiful aromas of baked walnuts and plums, switching to currants, leather, baker's chocolate, vanilla, and spice. Complex (yet very focused in terms of primary aromatics), offering smooth, powerful fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a lasting hint of velvety plums and walnuts on the finish. Sumptuous, strong wine (yet only logging in at 15% alcohol). A serious winner in my books. Now–2018++. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
92 Price Unavailable Lifford Wine Agency
Pietro Clementi 2007, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: From a standpoint of sheer quality, the '07 Pietro Clementi is only less refined than the past several vintages by just a whisker of two, making for a truly desirable wine in its own right. Brilliant, dark ruby in colour, it starts off with a lovely display of toasted oak that shortly gives way to expressive dried mocha and wild red plums, black cherries, tar, leather, cedar, and spice. Complex and quite powerful, offering deliciously (albeit somewhat "heated") fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a long hint of baked cedary plums on the finish. Boisterously delicious and large, yet seemingly crafted in a more traditional style. In the end: not to be missed. Now–2018+. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
91++ Price Unavailable Not Available in Ontario
Arduini Luciano 2007, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC, Veneto, Italy: Superbly traditional Amarone, the 2007 Luciano will give collectors great pleasure over the more immediate-to-medium (as opposed to longer) term. Brilliant, dark ruby in colour, the wine reveals splendidly delicate scents of toasted cedar, red plums, light mocha, leather, spicebox, and just the subtlest hint of fruitcake. Complex and deliciously reserved, displaying beautifully elegant fruit, firm tannins, balanced acidity, and a truly lovely, lingering hint of smooth cedary plums on the finish. Invariably traditional, more approachable (even in youth) style. Exemplary effort. Now–2016++. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, January 2011)
91+ Price Unavailable Not Available in Ontario