Decanter Italian Fine Wine Encounter Masterclasses: Amarone Families

4: Amarone Families

Presented by:
Peter McCombie MW, on-trade consultant and expert on Italian wine
Sandro Boscaini, Masi, and leader of Amarone Families

The global thirst for Amarone has grown enormously in recent years, leading to an explosion in production and fears in some quarters that quality might suffer as a result.

To combat that impression and to provide a focus for quality Amarone production, ten producers set up Amarone Families – Famiglie del’Amarone d’Arte – last year, adding two more producers during 2010.

In a highly informative and entertaining masterclass presented by Peter McCombie MW, group leader Sandro Boscaini, of acclaimed Amarone producer Masi, explained the thinking behind the initiative.

Each of the producers – all ten founder members were represented at the tasting – must be family-owned and run, a vineyard owner with at least 15 years’ experience, selling at least 20,000 bottles in at least five countries outside Europe.

Drawing the audience’s attention to the ‘quality ladder’ of Valpolicella, Valpolicella Classico, Ripasso, Amarone and Recioto, Boscaini told them: ‘We believe that we have to keep all these natural layers in the market, these different expressions.

‘We believe Amarone must remain the point of reference for the best wine we can produce from our region.’

The ten wines on show were the perfect illustration of that thinking, sourced from the excellent 2000, 1997, 1995 and 1988 vintages.

Tradition is important, but so is innovation – some producers now use technology during the crucial grape drying process to prevent rot, while others prefer to stick to the traditional methods.

The result is a wine that, even at 22 years old, still has plenty of fuel in the tank. And it wasn’t just the masterclass audience which was happy to taste it.

‘This is a wine that I don’t taste very often,’ admitted Luca Speri, describing the Speri Viticoltori Amarone Classico ‘Vigneto Monte Sant’Urbano’ 1988. ‘I was eight years old when that wine was produced, and my father has the key to the room where the wine is kept!’

Best audience question: ‘How long before drinking should you open these wines?’

Answer (Peter McCombie): ‘Sandro said about an hour, and I think that’s about right. The challenge with older wines, if you decant them too long in advance, is that sometimes the wines can fall over. The best idea is to experiment.’

Best panel comment: Sandro Boscaini: ‘We have three great classic Italian wines, that is Barolo, Brunello and Amarone. I always say yes, but the others begin with a B and Amarone begins with an A!’

Hot topic: Alcohol. Group rules dictate that these wines must be at least 15% abv, and many of the wines on show were quite a bit higher than that.

Tasting the Musella Amarone 2000, Peter McCombie mused: ‘This is a wine that is unashamedly high in alcohol. Is that acceptable in this modern era? I would say yes, if the wine is balanced. If there is an alcohol burn, I would say that is a problem, but I don’t get that here.’

According to Sandro Boscaini, this higher alcohol content, coupled with higher levels of glycerine, gives what he calls an ‘illusion of sweetness’ – a factor which becomes more noticeable with age.

TASTING NOTES - by Richard Woodard

Musella, Amarone della Valpolicella DOC 2000:

Seventy percent Corvina, this has a warm, fleshy fruit character, backed up by earthy spices, leather and tarry licorice. Still very youthful but with well-integrated tannins, its floral backnote of violets gives a beautifully lifted finish.

Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Amarone della Valpolicella DOC ‘Campo dei Gigli’ 2000:

From a 40-year-old vineyard in the limestone-rich east of the DOC, this has a pungent, truffly nose slightly masking the fruit. On the palate it’s quite densely packed, showing spice-edged black fruit with a pleasing underlying freshness. Sweet fruit makes a reappearance on the finish.

Brigaldara, Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico 1997:

Very dark, very ripe, combining a touch of sweetness with an austere streak of backbone and slight bitterness. Intense, youthful, densely-packed fruit – 13 years old, but still a baby.

Tommasi Viticoltori, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 1997:

A traditional wine using all-natural drying and big Slavonian oak barrels, but no barriques. It’s showing some nicely evolved, spiced fruit, with lots of suppleness and good tannins. Superbly consistent through the mid-palate, with a light-ish finish and more primary fruit.

Allegrini, Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico 1997:

Using dehumidifiers to eliminate botrytis in the drying grapes has delivered a quite fruit-driven wine with a beautiful, alluring bouquet. Quite fresh and less intense than some, it exhibits a silky texture and deceptive power and structure, but is clean and brisk on the finish. Real poise and finesse.

Tedeschi, ‘Capitel Monte Olmi’ Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico 1995:

From a vineyard owned by the family since 1918, this shows tarry fruit with a slight balsamic edge, some pleasing development and a deal of complexity. The structure is big, but not overpowering, alongside black fruit with real aromatic depth. Perfectly equipped for meditazione.

Nicolis, Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico ‘Ambrosan’ 1995:

Amazingly for a wine of this age, the main feature of the nose is primary fruit. It’s tight-knit with real backbone and finesse, showing good acidity and tannins – then a delightfully aromatic, floral note to lift the finish.

Zenato, Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico Riserva Sergio Zenato 1995:

Produced only in outstanding years, this combines a tight-knit structure with huge complexity – sweet cherry, cigar leaf, some savoury evolution and perfect balance. Quite supple and not at all aggressive, only a little licorice betrays its age.

Masi, ‘Costasera’ Amarone Classico della Valpolicella DOC 1988:

For a 22-year-old wine to have such a fresh nose of fruit and flowers is astonishing. This is quite restrained and very fine, but with a hint of something more voluptuous, leading into a more apparent development of stewed fruit, licorice and warm spices. Quite soft, combining enormous breadth and length.

Speri Viticoltori, Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico ‘Vigneto Monte Sant’Urbano’ 1988:

Shows its age a little more than the Masi with smoky fruit and an edge of something more meaty and gamey. On the palate it’s rich and well-structured, showing more smoky charcoal and an edgy character. Complex, and firing off in lots of different directions all at once.