An Auspicious Year for Amarone

Above: the Masi tasting last week featured Campolongo di Torbe 1988 and 1983, top vintages for Amarone.

Dr. Sandro Boscaini (left, owner of Masi) paid a visit to New York City last week to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of his winery’s single-vineyard Amarone, Campolongo di Torbe, a bottling believed by many to be the first Amarone cru.

Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella are unique appellations in the panorama of Italian enology and they arguably represent its most misunderstood. They are made from blends of dried Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes grown in Valpolicella in the province of Verona (Corvina is the primary grape and other grapes, including international varieties, are allowed by the appellation). Although vinification practices vary significantly, fermentation is stopped sooner in the case of Recioto, resulting in a sweeter flavor profile; longer fermentation creates a drier flavor profile for Amarone. Sometimes winemakers use a process called ripasso, literally “second passage,” whereby the wine is aged with the skins and lees (dead yeast cells) leftover from previously vinified wine.

Masi’s wines are made in a modern style (as Dr. Boscaini is proud to point out) and the oaky flavors of the younger wines are a big turn off for me (we tasted a horizontal of the winery’s four 2001 crus and a vertical of the Campolongo di Torbe). The 1983 and 1988 — outstanding vintages for Amarone — were however fantastic and the 1988 in particular was stellar. Boscaini noted that 2007 will be a great vintage for these wines and will rival 97, 88, and 83.

But the 2001 Vaio Armarone was a pleasant surprise: this wine, made in collaboration with the Serego Alighieri winery, is aged in cherry-wood casks, and even at a young age, showed beautiful natural fruit. It stood out against the other young wines and weighed in at a slightly lower price point ($75 retail). Serego Alighieri — pronounced seh-REH-goh AH-lee-GHEE’eh-ree — was purportedly founded by Dante’s son Pietro Alighieri in the mid-fourteenth century: following his exile from Florence, Dante Alighieri (left) found his “first refuge” in Verona and his son ultimately settled there. (See Purgatorio, XVII, 70. Check out the awesome Princeton Dante Project to read the line in context — in Italian and translation — and commentary.)

Dr. Boscaini — “Mr. Amarone,” as he likes to call himself — spoke at length about his family’s decision to “modernize” the winery in 1983 (the same year that Veronelli implored Italian winemakers to revisit their growing and vinification practices; see my post on Veronelli). He sought to eliminate “oxidation” and “unpleasant aromas” in his family’s wines, Boscaini told the group of journalists who had gathered to taste the wines. In doing so, he claimed, he single-handedly created a market for Amarone in the U.S. (an assertion we should take cum grano salis since it was a combination of modernization, more aggressive marketing, and renewed interest in Italian wine that opened a new market for Amarone in the U.S.).

I found his lecture fascinating and he made a number of points I found interesting and topical to understanding Amarone in a historical perspective:

  • Recioto, Recioto Amarone, and Amarone are names for a wine that has always been made, he believes, in a dry and sweet style (many believe that Amarone was vinified as a dry wine for the first time in the twentieth century);
  • botrytis or noble rot, he claimed, is a key element in Amarone and gives it an “illusion of sweetness” (many would counter this claim; he showed data to support it but it wasn’t clear how the information was gathered);
  • only Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara should be used to make Amarone, he said (others would say that true Amarone is made from “field blends,” i.e., where Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara are the primary grapes but others are used — sometimes even unspecified and/or grapes growing spontaneously in the vineyard);
  • the term Recioto probably comes from the Latin name for wine produced in Valpolicella, reticum, rather than the commonly accepted recia, Veronese dialect for “ear” or “top bunch” of grapes (I believe he’s right: recioto could very well be a metathesis of reticum);
  • the term Amarone could come from Armaron, a toponym, name of one of the appellation’s oldest growing sites (if this were true, it would indeed bolster his thesis that the wines were always made in a dry style since it would weaken the theory that the wine is called amarone — a linguistic combination of amaro or “bitter” and the augmentative suffix -one — due to the fact that it is dry as opposed to sweet);
  • one of the earliest appearances of the term Amarone on a label was on Masi’s 1948 Recioto Amarone (although he acknowledged that the term appeared as early as the 1930s on bottles produced by the Cantina Sociale Valpolicella).
  • I certainly couldn’t drink Masi’s wines every day: they’re too modern in style for my palate. No matter what the price point (and these wines are expensive), I want to drink something more food friendly (he claimed exactly the opposite: because they are made in a “contemporary style,” he said, his wines are more food friendly). But the wines are very elegant and I can see they can appeal to the modern-style lover while retaining a sense of place.

    If you’ve read this far, then you, too, would have enjoyed Mr. Amarone’s prolixity. I’ll taste his wines with him — however modern they may be — anytime.

    3 thoughts on “An Auspicious Year for Amarone

    1. I agree that Masi’s wines are too modern in taste. Interestingly, there is a smaller winery almost completely surrounded by Masi’s — the entry gate is across the lane from Dr. Boscaini’s — and that is Villa Monteleone, whose wines are much leaner and, dare I say, more elegant. Cost less too, it goes without saying.

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