Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Amarone: The Many Splendors of Valpolicella's "Cult Wine"

Back in 1985 when Italian wine expert Nicolas Belfrage wrote his classic book Life Beyond Lambrusco: Understanding Italian Fine Wine, Valpolicella was not an esteemed wine region.

A historic region dating back centuries, the region's name means "valley (Val) of many (poly) cellars (cello)."

"Of all the wine names historically associated with quality in Italy," he wrote, " [Valpolicella] has in our time become probably the most debased." This was despite its ideal soils - limestone, basalt, and alluvial - and southerly exposures in valleys of alpine foothills. "Theoretically," Belfrage continued, "the wines of this favoured region ought to be excellent."

Belfrage was writing at the time when mass produced cheap reds from Valpolicella dominated the market after World War II - a far cry from today, where authentic and artisanal producers produce glorious wines tasted at a "Secrets of Amarone" seminar (sponsored by the region's wine association).

The educational event was led by wine expert Deborah Parker Wong, a writer and teacher who leads many educational tastings for the trade, including another Valpolicella seminar in October.

"Amarone is Valpolicella's 'cult wine'," she said - the region's most prestigious wine which is 25% of the area's production. Just as northwestern Italy has Nebbiolo and Barolo, Valpolicella's pride and glory is its Amarone. And the U.S. is, by far, Parker Wong said, the leading market for Amarone.

Amarone has traditionally been known as a "wine of meditation" - a great big red that, according to Belfrage, is one of the world's strongest unfortified wines. These were also the great "conversation wines"; "wines of breed and high civilization, whose decline from favour is an indicator of the decline of social graces," he wrote back in 1999.

In the age of cell phones at the dinner table, what's become of this grand old tradition?

Robert Parker. In the age of big, bold wines with food, Amarone has become a "food friendly" wine to pair with dinner. In fact, a pairing menu of delicious dishes was presented (from a GuildSomm member) suggesting a number of options including steak and figs, or venison with plums (a traditional pairing). Times change. The vintners of Valpolicella are not complaining.

It makes sense then that the trend among producers today is towards lower alcohol (still at 15.5-16%) fresher, lighter styles.

Amarone still tends to be an affordable "great wine," with prices of the 16 wines tasted mostly clustered around $35-50. The Biodynamic wineries were the exception with wines priced at $69 and $107 (for older vintages).

The tasting yesterday featured wines from a variety of vintages dating back to 2009. Andrea Lonardi, winemaker at Bertani, provided a longer term view of Amarone aging with this chart Parker Wong included in the presentation:

In the tasting - which featured 16 wines - the full range of Amarone was on display, from coop produced wines including grapes from outside the Classico region to Amarone's that reflected herbaceous, garrigue like influences.


Novaia Corte Verona - Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG 2013, $35

This wine comes from a site at a high elevation in the Marano with some clay soils as well as basalt and tuffa. "The clay is important as it activates the soils," Parker Wong said, whose tasting note for this wine was "chocolate covered cherries."

I've also tasted this wine at the Slow Wine tasting (which usually takes place January) along with Novaia's other wines.


Corte Sant'Alda - Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG 2012, $107

Marinella Camerani (right) with her team
Beloved by the writers of Slow Wine Italy and many other Italian wine experts, I was surprised to read today that Corte Sant'Alda began as the hobby of its proprietor, Marinella Camerani, who took over her family's farm in 1985 and had just four vines. After meeting Nichoas Joly in 2002, the light went on and she converted to Biodynamic practices. The estate is named for her daughter, Alda.

Today she is one of the region's top tier producers and her price on this wine reflects it.

2012 was a drought year and for the first time the regional association permitted "rescue irrigation." (Irrigation is usually not permitted.) Yields were down, but quality was not. However, this wine, although from outside the Classico region, on alluvial soils in the Mezzane, was one of the standouts in the tasting. "Spicy, youthful, delicious...light and also complex," were some of the notes I took. Others got "salty caramel, cardamom, bay leaf."

An esteemed taster who sat next to me (and whose name will not be mentioned out of respect for privacy) had been mostly quiet while we tasted the wines, but this wine totally lit him up. "I'll take a case of that!" he said.

Valentina Cubi - Morar - Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG 2009, $69

Valentina Cubi is another leading lady among the Valpolicella vintners. Demeter certified since 2010, her wines are highly regarded; sampling a 2009 was a real treat. 

I have to say the pictures of accommodations at her estate that I found online later are dreamy and will have you fantasizing about your next trip to the Veneto.

Valentina Cubi has also exhibited at Raw Wine.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Somm 3: Yes, You Must See This Movie

I have to admit - I wasn't overly fond of Somm 1 and 2. Why make wine into a competitive sport? Why ruin a perfectly good beverage with people aspiring to know so much about so little?

Somm 1 and 2 also ignored the farming involved in making so many of the wines featured. Where was the mention that herbicides and fungicides are used in massive quantities?

It's all very well to discuss mountain vineyards and how vines struggle and what type of soil this obscure Spanish region has, but how can you then, as the same time, fail to mention the influence of the nerve gas toxins on taste (and people and water and air) and pesticides showing up in schoolchildren in Bordeaux who live next to vineyards? Such is the world of wine. I can't really fault Somm's makers for not bringing those topics into the conversation. The eyes of the industry are not looking at the farming - not to mention the manipulation in the winery - as much as they should be.

None of these darker topics is mentioned in Somm 3, but at least the foil of Carole Meredith presides over it all, taking a dim view of blind tasting. For, once again, the Somm film team has put the blind tasting form to the ultimate test - pitting major experts' opinions against one another.

One problem with Somm is the continuing, almost adolescent adoration way the filmmaker worship at the altar of the great names in the sommelier-hood. Somms also seem to prefer wines from some of their own, in the movie at least. It's a clubby, little world, filled with "certain people." It's hardly the stuff of everyday life or even the titans who have achieved financial success in the industry. (The rich guys at the top of the industry might make for a much more interesting film, if you could ever get them on camera. These are the puppetmasters who never get into the spotlight).

Another issue is that Somm plays right into the peculiarly American obsession with wine as an elitists' beverage - a pleasure reserved for people inhabiting the planet of the One Percenters. It paints a picture of wine as apart from mere mortals who like to drink it with dinner at home or even with popcorn or at a baby shower or with pizza. It promotes the world of wine from on high - an expensive beverage to be curated by masters. Hardly any producers inhabit the film. No wonder my friend who sells wine at a local Whole Foods says, "wine is just too complicated. At a certain point, some of my customers just give up and go across the street to get a bottle of vodka."

If the subject was food, we might focus on the elite chefs, for fun, but not the waiters, would we? But wine is different (is it - really?). Now somms are embracing new careers as vintners, aren't they?

The good news about the film - if you think about it - is that the experts don't agree, and in fact even some of the most famous in the world can be quite wrong in identifying a wine (or right as well, but not consistently) and that everyone does, in fact, often have a different taste preference.

The best part is seeing the heavyweights of wine on camera (and not in a wobbly YouTube video) and well lit. There's Pascaline! There's Raj Parr! There's Jancis Robinson and Fred Dame and Stephen Spurrier!

That for me was the fun part of seeing this film.

To kind of ground it all in a non-snobby, Millenial perspective, the filmmakers inject Madeleine Puckette (author of the bestselling book Wine Folly, which, though wildly popular, is more of a good graphic design project than a serious wine book) into the proceedings. Puckette good naturedly reassures us and fills in gaps in the story line. It's a useful device for pivoting around - which the film does rather quite a lot of.

Chop chop go the editors. Those looking for beautiful sequences will be disappointed. Much of the film's style is cut and paste, cut and paste in the editing. It seems like it's cut to the audio. (As a former filmmaker - and one who made about 50 films for Apple as well as several for PBS - who learned her craft from a true documentary master, I do miss real sequences.) But no matter.

It's fun, it's fast paced, and you won't know what's around the bend from moment to moment.  It's character based - a little bit - in that personalities are set up as types, and the characters are interesting (although we never really go very deeply into their worlds - think mini profiles).

This is documentary style filmmaking by and for the Instagram era, after all.

But you've got to see it - it's like the great big family movie of the little inner circle of People Who Matter in Wine. And it's a good bit of fun.

(It's now available for streaming on a number of platforms including iTunes.)