Valpolicella is as Italian as Spaghetti. So why has top Veneto winery Masi Chosen to transport the style to Argentina? Brian St Pierre finds out
On a clear day, the Pianura Friuliana, a flat and broadly sweeping plain on the northwestern edge of Italy’s side of the Adriatic Sea, seems to go on forever, barely contained by a low line of mountains on the horizon. Even the sprawling vineyards on all sides are only minor interruptions in this vast open space. At midday, with the sun bearing down, I am grateful for the breeze. The landscape seems placid, belying the fact that it is the platform for an innovative transcontinental experiment by the Masi winery, based next door in the Veneto.
Friuli was once the northernmost outpost of the Roman Empire, and its wines were highly prized in Rome, especially the local red, made from the Refosco grape. It was a medium-bodied, tart, plummy pick-me-up; and persisted as a Roman favourite for 1,000 years or so. But it reverted to being a local speciality as Friuli was invaded by nearly everyone in Europe over succeeding centuries. One name for the grape is Refosco Nostrano, meaning ‘home-grown’, or ‘our own’, and for a long time, that was its fate.
Recently, though, Refosco has started turning up more widely in export markets, in more full-blooded iterations enabled by appassimento. This technique – vinifying grapes that are partially dried – is still an experiment for many. But Masi, its pioneer over 40 years ago, has fully taken the plunge. It has used the technique to establish a template for what it calls a ‘super-Venetian’, by blending Refosco with Corvina – the mainstay of Valpolicella – and Carmenère, transplanted to Friuli from France after phylloxera devastated Italian vineyards in the 19th century, and misidentified for 120-odd years as Cabernet Franc. This blend, known as Grandarella, is a lot more well knit and direct than its cast of diverse characters would suggest.
‘The technique goes back to Roman times, [so its] one of the oldest traditions of winemaking,’ says Sandro Boscaini, Masi’s president. ‘It was a way of enriching wine and also protecting and preserving it. The methods for drying the various grapes may have been different in different places, but the winemaking was essentially the same – the grapes dried, crushed and fermented, then the wine later refermented with the skins.
The wines were described in the fourth century as being so concentrated that they were “meals you could drink”.’ They were also described by Roman politician and scribe Pliny, writing about Valpolicella’s wines 2,000 years ago, as being from vines that were so in love with their own area that they would never yield good fruit elsewhere. To Boscaini, this was a challenge – and one he eventually took up: ‘We wanted to contradict Pliny!’ he says. They did so partially, but to great effect.
The venture in Friuli – 160ha (hectares) of densely planted vineyards near the town of Latisana on alluvial soil averaging 5,500 vines/ha – is the result of a long-standing relationship between Masi and the local grape-growing family of Francesco Crivellaro, an amiably hearty bear of a man who speaks of his grapes as if he’d coached them to a World Cup. The newer project is more of a solo flight, riskier and more convoluted.
Boscaini feels there exists what he calls a ‘Venetian matrix’ of viticulture, winemaking and style that can be applied wherever environmental and cultural circumstances permit. In practical terms, this meant – outside of Friuli – the New World. Corvina, the grape that matters most in Valpolicella, is doing well in Friuli, but is also thriving in the foothills of the Andes in Argentina.
‘For several years, I searched for the right place,’ says Boscaini. ‘California, then Virginia – where I found a grower who was in love with Valpolicella, but alas the grapes didn’t reciprocate – Australia, New Zealand, then finally Argentina – in Mendoza’s Tupungato Valley. I fell in love with the place immediately. I thought it would be the perfect place for Corvina, because the average climatic conditions are in many ways close to what we have in Valpolicella. The main difference is a lack of humidity, but we installed a large lake and a sophisticated irrigation system which raised the humidity, adapting the ambience for the needs of Corvina, then planted the vines around it.’
They also planted several other Italian varieties. Rondinella, Negroamaro, Aglianico and probably Primitivo aren’t settling down too well, but the fruity Croatina and a few other minor varieties are raising expectations, while Corvina rolls merrily along, fulfilling the predicted possibilities, in tandem with Malbec and Merlot.
‘The vineyard in Tupungato is about 1,000m high, with big temperature swings between day and night, which gives finesse to the Corvina,’ notes Boscaini. ‘Malbec, on the other hand, is exuberantly virile and tannic, so it’s an interesting partnership.
‘Once the vineyards were established in 1999, we had to decide whether to make a relatively simple wine like Valpolicella, or something else. The first question was, does the New World need a Valpolicella?
‘The perception of the New World is richness – substantial, structured wines. Therefore…’ he smiles a conjuror’s ‘nothing-up-my-sleeve’ smile, ‘appassimento! The wine is transformed with added flavour. Argentinian soul, and Venetian style.’
Two wines have so far materialised – Corbec, a blend of late-harvested 70% Corvina and 30% Malbec which has undergone a short drying process; and Passo Doble (a pun on ‘double fermentation’), which is 62% Malbec, 8% Merlot, and 30% semi-dried Corvina, matured in oak barriques.
Though the final blends may still be tinkered, the first versions were near enough to be previewed. We did so alongside other Masi appassimento wines, Campofiorin, Brolo di Campofiorin, and Grandarella. It was much like the reunion of several generations of a far-flung family – all interesting resemblances and distinctions. But the wines in this group all stop short of packing an Amarone punch, mainly because they use semi-dried grapes rather than pressed skins.
‘Twenty years ago, analysing the technique, we realised that the pomace, already fermented, would give the wine interesting but somewhat drastic tannins,’ says Boscaini. ‘We welcome more tannin for Valpolicella, as it is a light wine, but these weren’t soft, sweet tannins. So we tried setting aside some grapes that were going through appassimento, and adding them in for the second fermentation, to provide those better, sweeter tannins, as opposed to Amarone, where the added grapes are totally dried. We call this double fermentation, and use it for Campofiorin, Brolo di Campofiorin, and now Passo Doble from Argentina.’
The Campofiorin wines stretch back to 1964, while the second vintage of Passo Doble, from 2000, has a rougher sort of charm – appealing (good fruit, lightly spicy, long finish) but quite different. Grandarella from Friuli, which goes back nearly seven years, is made from semi-dried grapes, losing a third of its weight during appassimento, and hits the Venetian-style mark perfectly, despite Refosco being the joker in the pack. Corbec 1999, which lost the same amount of weight in half the time in the Argentinian warmth, is a different animal – dense, dark, tannic, big and brooding.
It seems as if Corvina and appassimento have created a two-way street between the Veneto and the outside world, after all. As Boscaini asserts: ‘When we use these methods with the proper varieties in the proper places, we believe we can give something new to the world of wine.’
Brian St Pierre is author of the forthcoming Vino Bravo: The Italian Wine-Lover’s Cookbook, available late 2004 from Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
Written by Brian St Pierre