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.

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