Amarone is a blockbuster Italian red wine that is worth splashing out on, writes Christine Austin

‘We check the grapes every day – they are like babies’, said Andrea dal Cin, director of winemaking at Masi, Valpolicella producer in northeast Italy.

Andrea dal Cin, director of winemaking at Masi

These ‘babies’ are not grapes that are still hanging on the vines.  They have been picked and instead of being immediately made into wine, the bunches have been laid on bamboo racks and placed in drying lofts.  There is a constant noise in these lofts as large fans circulate the air at the correct temperature and humidity to allow the grapes to desiccate slowly.  ‘The whole process is computer controlled, and takes the ambient conditions into account,’ said Andrea.  ‘We want the process to last around 90 to 130 days, to allow the right flavours to develop. This means that there are still racks of grapes in lofts at the start of the New Year.’

Valpolicella may not be the first name you think of when you contemplate quality Italian wine.  That’s because the name was devalued decades ago by overproduction of low-quality wine so now many of us think of ‘Valpol’ as a thin, cheap, acidic red to be knocked back with a bowl of pasta in the local trattoria.

Amarone is a completely different wine, made from grapes that have been allowed to dry to concentrate flavours.  It is a technique that has been used for centuries, but Sandro Boscaini, President of Masi and the sixth generation of his family to run this company has done more than anyone to bring this technique up to date.  He is widely known as Mr Amarone, a reference to the way he has steered the production of these classic wines away from quick-drying techniques into a method that encourages, not just concentration of grape flavours but evolution of complexity derived from gradual drying and ageing.  ‘During the drying process, known as ‘appassimento’, various genes are switched on in the grapes, which give different flavours. This is much more than straight concentration,’ said Mr Amarone.

Sandro Boscaini, AKA Mr Amarone

The region of Valpolicella stretches back into the hills behind Verona, spread across the valleys of Fumane, Marano, Negrar, Grezzana and Mezzane which run north south, like the fingers of a glove.  Soils vary from the rich loam of the valley floors to almost pure white limestone on the hills.  The main grapes of this region are Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara but Masi has re-introduced Oseleta, a variety with small tight bunches that was almost extinct in the 1970’s.  Big pips and small berries gave a low yield of juice which meant that it was left behind but now it is being revived and replanted.  Of just 30 hectares of Oseleta variety in the region, Masi own half and it is now a vital part of the whole Masi experience.

Oseleta grapes have dense black fruit flavours

I tasted a 100% Oseleta wine, made experimentally, just to discover its taste and it has a dense, dark colour with black fruits, firm acidity and an edge of bitterness that provides structure and complexity. It went wonderfully with a traditional dish of the region, a plateful of mixed roast meats.

There are four main wines from this region.  Grapes for Valpolicella are picked and fermented in the normal way, making a light, cherry-fruity wine, vastly improved from the bad days of over-production yet still carrying the fresh flavours which makes the wines enjoyably gluggable.  Valpolicella Classico Superiore comes from the heartland of the region, a real step up in quality and often made using a ‘ripasso’ method which involves adding some partially dried grapes towards the end of fermentation.  This gives a kick-start to complete the fermentation and results in a more concentrated, complex wine.  Amarone is made from grapes which have been dried for several months, so they have lost at least 30% of their weight and have become shrivelled. They ferment slowly to give a deep-flavoured dry wine which is aged in barriques or larger vats for at least two years.  The alcohol level of Amarone is high, with a minimum of 14% and the wines generally keep well for several years, developing complexity and silkiness with time.

Recioto is also made from dried grapes but fermentation is stopped while natural sugar remains in the wine.  This makes a fabulous sweet red, which seems to have been specially made to go with chocolate desserts.  Its name comes from the Italian word for ‘ear’ because only the ripest top parts of the bunch, ‘the ears’ are used for this wine.

Ageing takes place in a range of large oak barrels, according to the needs of the wine. Amarone wines can be aged for over 3 years.

I spent two days tasting the wines of Masi and their associated companies which even includes guesthouse, La Foresteria Serego Alighieri where you can stay in the midst of the vineyards.  If you haven’t tasted wines from this region since a minor encounter over a bowl of spag bol, then now is the time to try them again.

Masi Bonacosta 2017, Valpolicella Classico, £14.72, Tannico (0113 467 9393)

No appassimento for these grapes, they are fermented straight from the vine and aged in large Slavonian oak. Even so, this wine is a huge step up from supermarket Valpol with deep black and red cherry fruit with supple tannins and a long, savoury finish.  Try this with a savoury, mushroom rich, chicken dish.

Masi Campofiorin 2015, Rosso Veronese, £14.99 (£11.99 on a mix six deal) Majestic, also at Waitrose (£12.99)

A blend of freshly fermented grapes plus 30% partially dried grapes for the ‘ripasso’ process. Definitely dark cherries on the nose with raspberry notes, savoury tones and cinnamon spice on the finish.  Perfect with cheese and seared beef.

Masi Costasera  2013, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, £37 (£33 on a mix six deal) Majestic

Proper amarone, made from grapes that have been dried for several months then aged in large oak barrels for 30 months.  Dark cherry aromas, layered with savoury, mushroom notes, hints of chocolate and spice. Perfect with game.  This is delicious now, but it can age for another 20 years if you have the time.

 

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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