Text, Reviews and Photos by John Szabo MS
John Szabo MS
This report offers the fourth and final look at new releases from Italy, the 2016 edition of Anteprima Amarone focusing on the excellent 2012 vintage. 2012 produced wines of great power, balance and longevity; I tasted through close to 80 wines in late January in Verona to sift out a top dozen worth tracking down, all destined for marathon ageing in the cellar. Did you have a child, or get married in 2012? These will make for great anniversary wines. And for more immediate gratification, I’ve pulled out a quartet of top Amarone currently in the market.
I’m also hugely enthusiastic about straight-up Valpolicella, which is for me (and many producers) the most authentic expression of wine from the slender hills north of Verona (heresy!). While big, powerful slightly raisined wines can be made in dozens of places around the world, there are far fewer regions that can naturally produce such delicate, vibrant, joyfully fruity reds as Valpolicella, from a collection of unique grapes. I list my top picks from the 2014 vintage, which put terroir and production skills under a magnifying glass.
The precise genesis of Amarone is a cause of contention. Some point to Bertani as the first producer to make dry wine from partially dried grapes, sometime in the 1930s or 1940s. Others tell the tale of a local cooperative in the early 1920s, where a vat of Recioto della Valpolicella, the sweet red wine produced from dried grapes with a 1500 year history at least in the Veneto, accidentally fermented all the way to dryness, much to the embarrassment of the cellarmaster.
Whatever story you choose to believe, one thing is clear: Amarone was essentially born as an accident, like so many of the world’s great ‘discoveries’. Until the second half of the 20th century, dried grapes were exclusively destined to produce sweet recioto wine. But as the market for sweet wines, especially sweet red wines, began to erode like a sand bar in a stormy sea of dry wines, the discovery that powerful dry reds wines could also result from the appassimento process turned out to be a very shiny silver lining indeed.
And as it turns out, the grapes used to produce Amarone – corvina, corvinone, rondinella, and to a lesser extent molinara – are particularly well suited to drying. Especially the first two, which account for over 2/3rds of a typical blend if not more. These grapes are relatively thick-skinned, and resist mould and rot in properly ventilated drying chambers over the three or four month appassimento period. They’re also absent the vegetal pyrazine character that makes other varieties, notably from the Bordeaux family, less suited to appassimento, since everything, green flavours included, is concentrated in the process. High natural acidity abetted by Valpolicella’s relatively cool climate, also concentrated in the drying process, promotes balance and freshness, no mean feat in a wine that typically contains 16% alcohol or more. These factors contribute to the uniqueness of Amarone, and the difficulty in replicating the process elsewhere.
High alcohol, high acidity and abundant tannins conspire to make Amarone particularly ageworthy; ten years is a good starting point for any top example. And 2012 is a fine vintage for the cellar.
Amarone in Canada
Canada has been identified by the Valpolicella Consorzio as a key target market, as the large contingent of Canadian wine writers discovered during the opening presentations of the Anteprima. Sales were up a modest 3% over the last five years, representing 13% of all Amarone exports, but are predicted to grow by a much more impressive 17% over the next five, outpaced only by China. And the bulk of those imports – nearly 50% – will find their way to shelves in Ontario and Quebec.
Why do Canadians swoon at a sip of Amarone? Is it our cold winters, when a soul-warming bottle is the order of the day? Our highly educated population? (One interesting statistic revealed is that over 30% of Amarone drinkers have a post-graduate degree.) Our love of all things Italian? The huge Italian community living in Canada? The Italian restaurant seemingly on every corner? It’s a little of all that I suspect.
The 2012 Vintage
2012 was a hot year in the Veneto, drawing early comparisons to scorching 2003. But there were a few critical differences that made 2012 much better balanced and ageworthy than 2003. A rainy spring charged soils with sufficient moisture to weather the extreme heat and dryness of June, July and August, though the drought was not relentless; there were rain events at opportune times throughout the summer. And even more critically, September was relatively cool, slowing ripening and thus promoting more even, thorough maturation of grapes. Sugar levels fell into a normal range alongside ideal phenolic ripening (ripe tannins), and flavours were neither green and vegetal nor raisined and baked. Bunches were also loose, favouring an easy, rot-free appassimento. The net result on the whole is ripe but well-balanced, concentrated wines, and although the most polished and supple versions are surprisingly almost enjoyable now, the majority of the top cuvees will benefit from a decade at least in the cellar.
Amarone styles across the region still vary considerably, in no small measure because of the significant impact that producer decisions have on the final product. Harvest time, and especially the length of the drying period and the location (more or less humid/ventilated/average temperature) are critical style factors. So too is subsequent ageing, with sharp divisions still drawn between the faction favouring large old casks with little impact of wood flavour vs. producers seeking the more flashy, polished style rendered by new oak barrels. There are successes in both camps, where balance is ultimately achieved.
A Top Dozen from the 2012 Vintage, plus Top Current Releases
2012 Corte Sant’Alda Amarone della Valpolicella
A savoury, succulent, juicy example of Amarone here. Firm, tight, well-chiseled, with excellent length and depth, high-toned but not excessively volatile. Complex and savoury, with fine-grained tannins. I love the vibrancy and freshness here – there’s genuine tension, energy and life, so often lacking in the appassimento style. A fine wine overall, and a reference for the region, from the biodynamic vineyards of Marinella Camerani. Tasted January 2016. Score 95
Marinella Camerani, Corte Sant’Alda
2012 Roccolo Grassi Amarone della Valpolicella
Tasted from a barrel sample, so take this review/score as provisional, but this is top quality Amarone. There are masses of fleshy dark fruit character and solid, real fruit tannins, succulent acids, and terrific length. A wine of genuine concentration and length. This is quality wine, which won’t reach full maturity for at least another 8-10 years. Tasted January 2016. Score 94 (via Trialto)
2012 Ca’ La Bionda Amarone della Valpolicella
A maturing, old school style Amarone in the best sense, sappy and resinous, savoury and complex. I love the earthy fruit, the dried herbs and tertiary oxidative notes creeping in, rendered in the traditional fashion and aged in large old wood. Exceptional length and genuine depth and complexity. Score 94 (via Le Sommelier)
2012 Fratelli Degani La Rosta Amarone della Valpolicella
This offers great aromatics, blending fruit, spice, herbs and wood in a harmonious ensemble, in a more forward and modern style, the top bottling at Degani. The palate is rich and dense, with exceptional extract and terrific length. Fine wine from the modern camp. Score 93
2012 Vigneti di Ettore Amarone della Valpolicella
A very densely fruity and spicy example, with sweet paprika and blue fruit, concentrated, dark, and fleshy. Wood is not a major influence, while length and depth are exceptional. Really fine example. Score 93
2012 Ca’ Rugate Amarone della Valpolicella Punta Tolotti
A shift to a more elegant style of Amarone has occurred at Ca’ Rugate over the years. This 2012 is not excessively ripe, nor overwrought, nor woody nor green, hitting a comfortable middle ground of intensity and balance. There’s a fine range of dark fruit flavours and suave tannins, and the length is very good to excellent. Relatively light at 15% alcohol. Score 92
2012 Cà Botta Amarone della Valpolicella
Bright, saturated red colour. Explosively aromatic, notably oak-infused but with plenty of red and some black fruit in support. This has plenty of sap on the palate, rich, dense, showing very youthfully at the moment, and surely a decade away from prime enjoyment. Exceptional length. Fine, modern-style wine. Score 92
2012 Fratelli Degani Amarone della Valpolicella
The more traditional style Amarone in the Degani range, this is nicely balanced, succulent and savoury, firm and well structured yet supple, with palate warming alcohol. Very good length. Fine wine. Score 92
2012 Fidora Amarone della Valpolicella
Sweet, natural fruit-scented, lightly oxidative (tasted from a barrel sample), but with great succulence and juiciness on the palate, a real and genuine mouthful of wine, made from ripe fruit from the start, nicely concentrated. This should evolve very favourably. Score 92 (via the Living Vine)
2012 Bennanti Amarone della Valpolicella
Heavy, coconut-inflected wood aromatics lead off, though the palate shows a better balance of fruit and oak on a mid-weight, firm and nicely chiselled frame. This appears to have the stuffing and the acidity to age gracefully, while length and depth are impressive. Best after 2020. Score 91
2012 Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella
A savoury and traditionally-styled Amarone, with intriguing resinous-herbal notes and nicely focused, daintily dried fruit character. The palate is well-balanced, firm but not hard, saliva-inducing and pleasantly saline. Excellent length. A fine, classically styled wine from one of the region’s historic producers. Score 91
2012 Gamba Amarone della Valpolicella
A rich and modern, densely extracted, chewy yet supple and voluptuous style here from Gamba. Alcohol is high, palate warming, but fits surprisingly well into the ensemble. A generous and widely appealing Amarone all in all. Score 91
A Top Quartet of Amarone In the Market
(Click on the links for reviews and availability)
Prà 2010 Amarone della Valpolicella
Masi 2009 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Campolongo di Torbe
Musella 2010 Amarone della Valpolicella
Masi Mazzano 2009 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico
For the Love of Straight-Up Valpolicella: 2014
2014 was a very cool wet vintage in the Veneto, posing many challenges for winegrowers, and the margin of error was ultra slim. As often occurs under such conditions, the best sites, farmed with attention and care, offered the most memorable results. It was a perfect vintage to get a grasp on the best terroirs and the best winegrowers.
A Top Half-Dozen 2014 Valpolicella
2014 Cà La Bionda Valpolicella Classico
Ninety percent corvina and corvinone. Open, fresh, aromatic, very lively and dainty, floral, pleasantly herbal. The palate is really fine and delicate, with beautiful strawberry-cherry flavours, and very crunchy acids. This is ultra-delicate and fine. Burgundy in Valpolicella. Score 91 (via Le Sommelier)
2014 Cà La Bionda Valpolicella Classico Casal Vegri
The cru Valpolicella from Alessandro Castellani, all guyot-trained vines aged 20 years on average, grown on limestone. Corvina 70%, corvinona 20%. Eighteen months in 3000l oak cask, bottled a month ago. Needs another year at least – the wood is noted in the perfume and taste, but this is still fine grained and elegant. Really fine and bright. Try again in 1-2 years. Score 91 (via Le Sommelier)
Alessando Castellani, Ca’ La Bionda
2014 Prà Morandina Valpolicella
This is a terrific Valpolicella from one of the most reliable, if relatively new, names in the region. The challenging 2014 vintage provided an opportunity to really shine with this ‘entry-level’ bottling, the sort of detailed and confident wine that can only be born from attentive viticulture and a deft hand in the cellar, rendered in a style for which Valpolicella should be better known, and a model to follow. This is all crunchy red fruit, mid-weight, fresh and lively, buoyed by fine, ripe acids and unhindered by either oak or excessive extraction – a pure pleasure to drink, especially with a light chill. This will bring to mind fine cru Beaujolais or Loire cabernet franc, for example, fruity but also gently leafy and lightly reductive. Score 90 (via The Vine Agency)
2014 Corte Sant’Alda Ca Fiui Valpolicella
Ca’ Fiui is the name of the property, probably from Casa dei Fiumi (House of Rivers), after all of the small rivers that form on this hilltop when it rains. 5% molinara. Pale colour, bright, very floral perfume, pleasantly grassy and lively, herbal, very gamay like, wild cherry, tart and bright, with a pleasant bitter almond note and saltiness on the lingering finish. Impressive complexity and depth for such a light (12%) wine. Everything that Valpolicella should be. Score 90
2014 Ca’ Rugate Valpolicella Campo Lavei
Mostly corvina with rondinella and molinara, of which 40% are given a short period of appassimento. This works nicely, ripe and satisfying, fullish, dark fruit, generous but ripe tannins, long finish. Fine stuff. Score 90
2014 Secondo Marco Valpolicella Classico
Crisp and crunchy, lightly herbal, lightly reductive. Lively acids, well-structured. Natural grape tannins. Plenty of tart red fruit and light pepper spice. Genuine density and weight, albeit on a classic, light Valpolicella frame. Bone dry. 6 months each in concrete and large wood. Great stuff. Structured. From Fumane. Score 90
Marco Speri, of Secondo Marco
2014 Novaia Valpolicella Classico
Intriguingly spicy, bright red fruit-scented, with firm acids, and light but grippy tannins. This needs another 6 months to a year for prime drinking, but it’s a succulent, transparent expression, sapid, salty and mineral. Score 88 (via B&W Wines)
2014 Marco Mosconi Valpolicella Montecurto
Pure corvina, no wood. Pleasant, light, crunchy red fruit, bright acids, solid length. I would happily drink this all night, even if it’s not the most complex or ageworthy example. Score 88
2014 Monte Del Frá Lena di Mezzo Valpolicella Classico
A bright, tart, crisp and highly drinkable expression of Valpolicella, the way it was meant to be. I love the fresh strawberry and red currant flavours, the absence of oak influence, and the bright, saliva-inducing acids. Lots of pleasure here. Drink lightly chilled. Score 88
If you missed my earlier reports on the new releases from Italy, you can find them here:
The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 1 Montalcino
The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 2 Montefalco
The “TreMonti” New Vintage Report: Part 3 Montepulciano
John Szabo MS
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Filed under: Featured Articles, Wine, ALL, Amarone, Appassimento, EN, John Szabo, John Szabo MS, Valpolicella