Have Mondavi and Opus One Lost their Way?

It may be unfair to link Mondavi and Opus One together at this point, since although Opus One started as a joint operation between Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild, they went separate ways after Constellation purchased Mondavi, but I was struck at a dinner with wines from both producers by the similarity in their development. Current vintages of Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc and Reserve Chardonnay were followed by three vintages of Opus One, and it would be fait to say that power is triumphing over elegance all along the line.

In the early years of Napa Valley’s development, Mondavi was a benchmark for Cabernet Sauvignon (the 1974 Reserve was a defining wine for the vintage), the Chardonnay was one of the more French-oriented, and the Fumé Blanc was a master stroke that tamed Sauvignon Blanc with subtle oak impressions. But today the 2012 Fumé Blanc gives an impression of sharp acidity with indistinct fruit impressions, while the 2013 Reserve Chardonnay gives an impression of raw oak in front of fruits. In fact, you might say that the Fumé Blanc is too much Sauvignon and not enough Fumé, while the Chardonnay is too much oak and not enough fruit.

I can’t trace the change in character of the whites historically, but a change in the reds goes back to the early 2000s. There was a long-running difference of opinion between Mondavi and the Wine Spectator over style. The Spectator’s lead critic on California, James Laube, commented in July 2001, “At a time when California’s best winemakers are aiming for ripe, richer, more expressive wines, Mondavi appears headed in the opposite direction… [Winemaker] Tim Mondavi and I have different taste preferences… He has never concealed his distaste for big, ultra rich plush or tannic red wines. I know he can make rich, compelling wines, yet he prefers structured wines with elegance and finesse.” Tim Mondavi replied, “I am concerned… that there appears to be a current trend toward aggressively over-ripe, high in alcohol, over oaked wines that are designed to stand out at a huge tasting rather than fulfill the more appropriate purpose of enhancing a meal.” There you have the whole debate about style in Napa in a nutshell. Yet after this was all said and done, the style at Mondavi changed in the direction of greater richness.

I’ve always found Opus One easy to underrate in the early years, when it tends to be somewhat dumb, and to retain a touch of austerity, but in vertical tastings I’ve found it to age well. Tasted at the winery five years ago, the 2005 was showing beautifully, the 1995 showed the elegance of a decade’s extra aging, and the first vintage (1979) was still vibrant. My impression at the dinner this week was different. The 2005 shows powerful primary fruits, with not much evidence of development, and a touch of oxidation, showing in the form of raisons on the finish. If it hadn’t seemed the most complete wine of that vertical at the winery, I would say that it must have been brutal when it was young. As this is an unexpected turn of events, I wondered whether perhaps the bottle might be out of condition, whether perhaps the oxidative impressions were due to poor storage, but I think this question was answered by the 2009, which showed a similar, but less evident, impression of oxidation. Again this is a turn-up for the book, as the last time I had the 2009 was at the winery just after it had been bottled: tannins were subsumed by dense, black, and aromatic fruits, and my impression was that the fruit concentration offered great potential for development. But today, aside from taming the tannins with time, I really don’t see much development in flavor variety, and I suspect this is going in the same direction as the 2005. The 2012 is certainly a very big wine, yet identifiably Cabernet-based, with that sense of restraint and hints of tobacco, but I’m concerned that the massive fruits may turn in the same oxidative direction as the earlier vintages. How long, Oh Lord, how long, will it be before the wines develop interesting flavor variety?

I wonder how much alcohol has to do with these impressions? The first vintage of Opus One had 12.9% alcohol, the level stayed under 13% through the 1980s, under 14% through the 1990s, and now alternates between 14.0 and 14.5 according to the labels. Although alcohol isn’t obtrusive on the palate–in the current parlance that winemakers use to explain or apologize for high alcohol, it is balanced—it’s the very high extract and fruit concentration that achieve the sense of equilibrium. This makes it hard for the wine not to over-power a meal. I know that there’s a school of thought that alcohol levels aren’t relevant or interesting, and that no one really cares, but I do: not just because the wine is too heady, but because I don’t like the corollary that there’s simply too much flavor . Or more precisely, too much quantity of flavor and not enough variety. There comes a point where levels of extraction are so high that varietal typicity disappears and everything is just fruit, fruit, fruit. My plea to Napa winemakers is to back off: you don’t have to extract absolutely everything you can from the grapes. It might be a better compromise to harvest under 14% alcohol than to go that last step to super-ripeness.

What is Modern Wine?

I was going to call my latest book The Wines of Modern France, to emphasize that it’s a new approach to looking at what French wines are like today, but in the end I settled for simply the Wines of France, because so many wine producers in France questioned the inclusion of  “Modern.” Perhaps this is not so surprising in a country where tradition is so valued, but it gives me pause for thought as to what we mean by “modern wine.”

Everywhere in the world of wine, there is a continuing debate between tradition and modernity. But it is a bit different in France: I don’t think I have met a single vigneron who would admit to being modern. When I told producers my book was about the wines of modern France, many were quizzical, and asked if you could truly put “France” and “Modern” in the same sentence. This is a common view among artisan producers: modernity means mass production using industrial methods, and rejecting them defines you as a traditionalist. Perhaps this is why no one wants to admit they are a modernist in France: the important thing is to redefine tradition so that your wine fits in.

I had an interesting disagreement about modernity with Christophe Perrot-Minot, who makes clean, bright, flavorful wines that, for me, express the quintessence of modern Burgundy. When I asked whether he regards himself as a modernist, he was almost insulted. “For me this is traditional, not modern. It’s not that I’m looking for drinking young, I’m looking for balance, and they will age well. For me, a modern wine is made by thermoregulation and long cold maceration. Wines that are too tannic, I call them rustic, not modern or traditional.”

The very concept of modernism is viewed with suspicion. Jean-Luc Colombo all but created a scandal when he introduced new oak into Cornas thirty years ago. When I asked his daughter Laure whether she regards her father as a modernist, she responded with a question: “What is tradition—is it twenty years or fifty years or a hundred years?”–a fair point as Jean-Luc’s approach now has been widely followed.

Mounir Saouma, at micro-negociant Lucien Le Moine in Beaune, sees the “young tradition” as the last thirty or forty years, and the “old tradition” as the preceding period. He views the essential difference as the level of intervention. “So I saw the need for a place where we would make wine in the old tradition. There was a window for a policy of ‘I don’t do.’ Many people were saying ‘I do so and so.’ The objective was to be as classic as possible. I don’t like the word old-fashioned, it’s pretentious. Hundreds of years ago there was a simple way of making wine: if it’s red, put it in a tank, push down the cap, press, wait, bottle. I tried experiments in making wine very simply, putting it in tank and leaving it.” Today Mounir makes his wines pretty much that way, and they have a wonderful bright elegance, very pure and precise. I would call them modern by comparison with the muddier flavor profiles of the past.

My book is certainly about modern wines in the sense that it tries to relate the wines being produced today to the objectives of the people who are making them. I would describe many of the producers as artisanal: small scale rather than bulk production, manual work rather than automated equipment, individuality rather than homogeneity. But why shouldn’t a producer who believes in minimal intervention be considered to be modern? It would be difficult without modern methods and hygiene to make natural wines, for example. Is it necessary to equate modernity with industrial methods? And aren’t you entitled to feel some skepticism if a producer says that he makes wine exactly like his father and grandfather?

The best wines today for me are those that do represent the traditions of the region, but which avoid the problems and flaws of the past. Nostalgia is all very well, but whether you call them modern or not, today’s wines are more a reflection of the producers’ objectives than when they were limited by technical problems.

This is an extract from the conclusions of Wines of France: A Guide to 500 Leading Producers.


Is Bordeaux 1990 Finally Starting to Come Around?

My question does not reflect concern as to whether 1990 Bordeaux is ready to drink, as the vintage has been drinking well for quite some years now (and to my mind is distinctly more reliable than 1989, with which it is often compared). It addresses the deeper question of whether this vintage will end up true to the old traditions of Bordeaux or will more reflect the modern era.

The driving force for this question in my mind is the history of the 1982 vintage, which showed an unprecedented drinkability on release. For the first two decades, the wines were lovely, but with a distinctly richer and more overtly fruit-driven spectrum than previous top vintages. Then around year 2000, they began to revert to type, with the left bank wines beginning to show traces of delicious herbaceousness to offset the fruits. Since then they have developed along the lines of classic Bordeaux.

My question is whether vintages that have been successively richer than 1982, such as 1990, 2000, 2005, and others, will show that same quality of reversion to type or whether they are so much richer, with higher tannins, greater dry extract, and greater alcohol, that they will follow a different path, more New World-ish you might say. Until now I have been concerned that they might fail to develop that delicious savory counterpart to the fruits that to me is the quintessence of Bordeaux as it ages. At a splendid gala dinner held by the Commanderie de Bordeaux of New York, which focused on the 1990 vintage, I got my first sense that these wines may now be moving in a savory direction.

Chateau  Figeac now shows its structural bones more clearly than a few years back. Herbaceousness is evident to the point at which it seems much more dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon than its actual one third, and I might well have placed it on the left bank in a blind tasting. This now seems classic to the point at which I am worried whether herbaceousness will overtake the fruits as they decline.

Lynch Bages is at its peak, and little altered from two or three years ago. Here Cabernet Sauvignon shows more as a subtle touch of cigar box than herbaceousness; this is completely classic in offering a faint counterpoise to the black fruit spectrum of the palate. That refreshing uplift is what I love about Bordeaux. (I see a direct line from the 1985, where cigar box dominates the fruits, delicious but not as subtle as the perfection of the 1990.)

Chateaux Palmer and Latour are still dominated by the richness of the vintage; in fact they seem to have put on weight and to be richer than they were three or four years ago. Palmer has gone from the traditional delicacy of Margaux with violets on the palate three years ago to a palate that is now dominated by rich, round black fruits. This is rather plump for a traditional Margaux, although as refined as always, but the signs of potential reversion to type were there in the past, and I expect them to return .

It’s not exactly vinicide to drink the Latour now, but it would be missing the point. The wine shows impressive richness and power, with deep black fruits where the first faint signs of development are beginning to show. There are plenty of precedents for Latour requiring decades to come around—the 1928 wasn’t drinkable until the late 1970s—but this wine is certainly enjoyable now. It’s not unready because of a tannic presence, but because the fruits have yet to develop the flavor variety and complexity that will come over the next decade. In the context of my basic question, this is classic.

So there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the 1990 Bordeaux is now beginning to develop in a way that I think of as reverting to type. The bad news is that it has taken 25 years. The 1982s took 18 years to reach a comparable point. If we fast forward and try to predict the path for the 2005s or 2009s, we may be looking at 30 years.



What’s the problem with 1996 Red Burgundy?

The Burgundians are not so prone as the Bordelais to call any good year the vintage of the century, but 1996 was widely acclaimed at the time as a great vintage in Burgundy for both red and white. Twenty years later, it is abundantly clear that it is anything but a great vintage. My particular peeve is that I was so pleased at the time to acquire a really good selection of Crus and producers for reds, in fact this was the first time I had been able to get grand crus from the likes of Rousseau and so on. Now this seems more like hubris.

Coincidentally or not, this was also the first year in which premox really took hold for white Burgundy. (Some people date it from 1995, but 1996 was the first year I saw the effect in any quantity of wines). This is a bit odd because my experience since then has been that premox is magnified in the richer years – which 1996 now is turning out not to be. Because of premox, I have finished up my 1996 white Burgundies, but I am still mulling over how the reds could have been so deceptive as I continue to explore them.

This is scarcely the first vintage in which everything seemed fair set at the time of harvest and a problem emerged later. 1983 comes to mind as the most striking precedent: the wines seemed lovely on release, but two or three years later, many showed unmistakable signs of grape rot, and to all intents and purposes rapidly became undrinkable.

I would love to have a proper scientific explanation of the problem with 1996. On the palate the wines universally show a medicinal acidity, sometimes verging on bitter. It’s not just that the wines have too much acidity – we have seen that in plenty of older vintages from Burgundy – but it’s the character of the acidity, more than a bit medicinal, sometimes even a touch metallic. What is responsible for this universal character?

It’s most noticeable at village level, but remains prominent at premier cru; grand crus have a better weight of fruit and richness to balance it, but it’s a rare grand cru that does not show it in the background. It is not entirely predictable: it’s less obvious in Jadot’s Ruchottes Chambertin than in Le Chambertin, for example.

It wasn’t evident at the time of vintage. My tastings of barrel samples identified strong tannins and good acidity, but these did not seem out of kilter, and over the first few years, the wines seemed to have a promising richness. For almost the first ten years after the vintage, acidity seemed high but reasonably in character. By 2006 it began to seem doubtful if and when the wines would come around, and by 2009 or 2010 the acidity seemed to be pushing the tannins on the finish. Tannins aren’t obviously punishing today, but must be contributing to the character that has become so evident over the past five years; virtually all my tasting notes since 2010 include the word “medicinal”.

While the vintage now lacks generosity, I’d be hard put to describe it as mean, since the underlying fruits often show a sweet ripeness – but they can’t get out from under that medicinal character. The puzzle for me is how this developed so uniformly several years after the vintage. Could it have been there all along but has been revealed only as the fruits lightened up? At all events, I don’t accept the school of thought that the wines need more time to come around: they are what they are, and this won’t change.

Alcohol and Tannins in St. Emilion: Cheshire Cat Years?

Austerity is not a word that often comes to mind in the context of St. Emilion, but it did at this year’s New York tasting of Grand Cru Classés, which compared the 2010 and 2012 vintages. This gave me much pause for thought by comparison with the tasting two years ago of the 2009 and 2010 vintages (Oenologues Triumph in St. Emilion). Last time round, the main impression (driven by 2009 but not that much different in 2010) was the softness of the palate, with fruits supported by furry tannins. This time the impression was of much tighter wines; the 2010s have tightened up, and the 2012s can verge on tough. These were not the lush, approachable wines for which St. Emilion is reputed; words like fleshy or opulent never appeared in my tasting notes.

Alcohol levels were punishing, often around 15% for 2010, and a half percent or percent lower in 2012. Now that the fruits of 2010 have lost their initial youthful enthusiasm, alcohol and tannin are driving the palate. What showed as a structural backbone to the fruits two years ago now seems more skeletal. It’s fair to say that alcohol is not directly obtrusive in many wines, but it has an indirect effect in enhancing the bitterness of tannins on the finish. Some wines have an almost tart quality at the end, which clashes with the fruits rather than refreshing. The traditional generosity of Merlot in St. Emilion is largely missing, and I often get an impression biased more towards Cabernet Franc than the dominant Merlot.

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the 2012s are starting out where the 2010s leave off, with an almost sharp tannic finish often dominating the fruits. This makes me quite concerned as to how they will show in another two years’ time. I don’t often get the impression that the fruits will really emerge when the tannins resolve. Most chateaux have managed to achieve decent ripeness in the tannins, but occasionally you get suspicions of green. The 2012 wines have less alcohol than the 2010s, but they also have less fruit concentration, so the problem of maintaining balance as the fruits thin out is more or less equivalent. The fruits make them seem like wines for the mid-term, but I’m not sure the tannins will resolve in time; and they don’t have the stuffing for the long term. You might expect the greater fruit concentration to let the 2010s resist better, and I’m not so much worried about whether the fruits will outlast the tannins, which are mostly quite fine, but I have a concern that 2010 may be the year of the Cheshire Cat: what will dominate when the tannins resolve is the grin of the alcohol.

Very few of these wines, from either 2010 or 2012, are ready to drink: most need from two to four years more. Of course, this situation would scarcely be a surprise to any survivors who remember Bordeaux of the pre-1982 era. I will say that I saw more evidence of character in these wines than in the 2009s (and the 2010s two years ago) when there seemed to be a sort of interdenominational quality to them: the present question is whether you can handle the character of a bitter tang at the end. There’s evidently quite a lot of extract in today’s wines, and it’s hard to say whether that will give them the stuffing to develop well as tannins resolve, or whether it will remain awkward. In most cases, I preferred the 2010 to the 2012, but in those instances where I preferred the 2012, it was usually due to lower alcohol letting the fruits speak more freely.

My favorite wines were Chateau Fombrauge and Grand Corbin-Despagne in 2010 and Chateau Yon Figeac in 2012.

Chateau Fombrauge, 2010

Slightly nutty, soft impression from nose. Palate well balanced between black fruits and refreshing acidity; still something of a tannic bite at the end. The structure is there but not obtrusive, and the overall impression is refined, showing precision in the fruits. 91 points, drink 2016-2027.

Chateau Grand Corbin-Despagne, 2010

Some black fruits poking through restrained nose, leading into good balance on palate between refined black fruits and tannins with chocolaty overtones. A little tight at the end but should soften in next year or so. Refined impression avoids the bitter tang at the end of many wines. 90 points, drink 2016-2027.

Chateau Yon Figeac, 2012

More sense of black fruits and spices than in the 2010. Refined palate makes an elegant impression, with a touch of tannin at the end. I like the sense of precision in the fruits and the balance. Fine structure should offer some support for aging. 90 points, drink 2017-2026.


I Visit Four Top Producers in Valpolicella at Extreme Ends of the Size Spectrum

Valpolicella is going through a continuing identity crisis, with the growth of Amarone and Ripasso production threatening the existence of “regular” styles of Valpolicella, the expansion of Amarone from the hills to the plains raising questions about its position as a peak quality wine (see The Scandalous Expansion of Amarone), and a switch from Ripasso to “double fermentation” meaning that some leading wines are labeled as IGT Veronese instead of Ripasso della Valpolicella (see When Ripasso Is Not Ripasso.) I visited four leading producers, all still run by the founding families, but varying from the largest (Masi and Allegrini) to the smallest (Bussola and Quintarelli) to see how they view the future of the region.

Massimilla di Serego Alighieri at Masi provided a fantastic introduction to the region. The wine from her family estate, just up the road from Masi HQ, has been made by Masi (under the Alghieri label), and the estate has a wonderful palazzo in the center of the vineyards. Masi takes its name from the first vineyard acquired by the Boscaini family, Vaja dei Masi (the little Masi valley), in 1772. There are 993 ha in the Veneto and more in Tuscany. A huge drying loft where grapes are prepared for Amarone is a mix of tradition (grape bunches dry on wood trays with bamboo bottoms to allow air circulation) and technology (humidity and temperature are controlled by a computerized system that assesses the state of drying). There’s a whole laboratory area devoted to experimentation.

Seregeo-Alighieri-VillaThe Seregeo-Alghieri villa.

Masi’s thinking altogether is characterized by that mix of traditional and innovation. They are still using all three grape varieties for Valpolicella: Corvina, soft and sweet, is the predominant, of course, supported by Rondinella and Molinara, which is no longer required by the rules, but Masi retain it because they feel it adds useful spice and acidity. But they have resurrected an old variety, Oseleta, which has very small grapes and ripens late. It has lots of tannin to add structure, and is matured in barriques to soften the tannins.

The house style at Masi is rich and opulent, with a sense through all the wines of glycerin – this is one of the main results of the Appassimento drying technique. In fact, the house style is maintained by using smaller proportions of dried grapes in other wines, such as the Masianco white and the Rosa dei Masi (rosé).

The next day, we spent the afternoon at Allegrini, which is rather discreetly run, to the point at which I had some difficulty identifying the right location. We started out at a vast drying facility, which handles all Allegrini’s grapes, as well as those of several other producers. It’s just identified as the Center for Appassimento Research. Grape bunches are collected in plastic bins in the vineyard, and then bins go directly into the drying center.

From there we went to Allegrini’s new headquarters. They’ve made wine from the vineyards of the Palazzo Della Torre for a long time, but in 2008 the opportunity arose to buy the villa in the center of the vineyards. Villa is a bit of a misnomer – it’s a splendid Renaissance palazzo, currently being extensively renovated. This may be a lifetime endeavor. The 110 ha of vineyards are on the hills in all the communes of Valpolicella.

Palazzo-della-Torre-VillaThe villa at Palazzo della Torre.

A splendid tasting in which we compared current vintages with those of the past decade demonstrated Allegrini’s range. Unusually it’s not focused exclusively on Valpolicella; some of the top wines are IGT Veronese. What is now one of the major vineyard sites of the region, the La Grola hill, was abandoned in the 1970s as everyone wanted to plant on the plain to make the simple fruity wines of the era. Giovanni Allegrini invested heavily into buying it, in fact he borrowed twice the annual turnover of the company to do so. Today two wines are made from the hill. La Grola started in the nineties as a blend of Corvina, Shiraz, and Oseleta; since 2012 it’s been only Corvina and Oseleta. “Oseleta works exactly like Petit Verdot in Bordeaux,” says Alberto Lusini. La Poia is the vineyard right on top of the La Grola hill, and is planted only with Corvina, in fact with a specific clone called red stem Corvina. so deeply colored that some of the color goes into the stem. Both wines are made conventionally (no dried grapes), and La Poia offers an unusual opportunity to see Corvina as a monovarietal. “When La Poia was being planted, at that time they were focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but my father said, I think we can make a special wine with Corvina,” recalls Marilisa Allegrini.

“We are called modernists– but we are modernists in the sense that we produce Amarone without oxidation and Amarone tastes traditional with raisined notes. We do some modern things and some traditional things,” is how Marilisa explains the house style. Her father was among the first to move from the traditional pergola pruning to Guyot; at the time, another winemaker asked: “what are you doing, are you planting vines or growing salad?” Now the pergolas have more or less disappeared from most quality producers.

The style at Allegrini is unusually refined. La Grola and La Poia are smooth, sophisticated wines. The equivalent of Ripasso, the Palazzo della Torre (the largest production wine), is made by double fermentation (When Ripasso Is Not Ripasso) and is elegant for this style. About 10% of production, the Amarone is intense, but shows a rare sense of precision. “Unlike other producers, our style for Amarone is completely dry,” says Marilisa. Recioto comes from a selection of the ripest grapes, which spend an extra month in drying.

We spent the morning at two smaller, but exceedingly high quality, producers. Tommasso Bussola is located round the back of Negrar, with the winery somewhat hidden behind a group of slightly shabby looking buildings. The range from their 14 ha is all Valpolicella, except for l’Errante, a Bordeaux blend.

I’m not sure you’d quite describe the style as modern, but it is more forceful than most and there’s a good deal of new oak around. Certainly the Amarone’s are very rich, really reinforced when you move from the basic cuvée to the special bottlings of TB (from 50-year-old vines) or Vigneto Alto (from 65-year-old vines, made in about half the vintages). The sweet wines give a positively decadent impression. There’s a classic Ripasso, one of the very few I’ve had where the style really comes off as adding extra complexity as well as weight.

L’Errante is a Bordeaux blend, started in 2003 with grapes that were in the Ca’ del Laito vineyard which they bought in 2001 (the most recent purchase). “We made an experiment We started by making it like a Ripasso. Then in 2007 we started to make it like an Amarone. It’s a little sweeter than Amarone, with 18 g/l residual sugar. It’s 50% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Production method is now the same as Amarone, with 42 months in new tonneaux,” explains Guiseppe Bussola.

Quintarelli stands out above everyone else in Valpolicella, both literally and metaphorically. The winery is in a spectacular locale on the heights above Negrar. Access is up a narrow mountainous hairpin road with views right over the valley. It was dramatic when we arrived as we were above the clouds on the other side of the valley. The facility is a modern building going storeys underground, basically underneath the house constructed two generations ago. The winery was founded the generation before that, in 1924.

There are 3 ha of vineyards immediately below the house. Corvina is grown under pergola; Guyot is used for the French grapes. There are another 8 ha farther away. Quintarelli’s wines have a level of subtlety and sophistication that is rare for Valpolicella. All are marked by an extremely elegant balance, there is never too much extraction, the style is if anything understated. Layers of flavor have to be teased out of each wine. One mark is that the Recioto is of course sweet, but perceived sweetness is much less than you would expect from residual sugar, and the wine is simply deliciously balanced.

Quintarelli3The view from Quintarelli.

Alzero is an unusual wine that Francesco Quintarelli’s grandfather started to produce in 1983. “The idea was to make Amarone with Bordeaux grapes. It was almost all Cabernet Franc at the beginning. Today there is also some Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot,” Francesco explains. Personally, I have mixed feelings about the use of Bordeaux varieties for Amarone-style wines. Indirectly they seem to make the point that Corvina is such a good grape for Amarone because it offers an aromatic lift that helps to avoid a massive style. There are fewer aromatics with the Bordeaux varieties. However, there is no wine at Quintarelli that isn’t simply top of its class.

I would like to get a more direct feeling for the characters of the different grape varieties in Valpolicella. Allegrini’s La Poia shows the smooth aromatics of Corvina, and really makes me wonder what a monovarietal Amarone (not allowed by the DOCG) would be like. Rondinella and Molinara probably don’t have enough intrinsic interest to justify monovarietals, and Oseleta would be too powerful. Corvina with a pinch of Oseleta might be the perfect combination.

The Scandalous Expansion of Amarone

Valpolicella is an area of extremes. On the one hand, Valpolicella tout court is simple, light, and fruity. On the other hand, Amarone is a weighty wine, with lots of extraction coming from the use of dried grapes, definitely in the direction of power and opulence. Given this bifurcation, you might expect the emphasis in the region to be on methods of vinification, but on a recent visit I discovered that in fact a major concern is the abuse of terroir.

You might say the problem started years ago, when the area of Valpolicella was extended. The original area, close to Lake Garda, is now called Valpolicella Classico, and remains (or should remain) the mark of quality. The general Valpolicella area extends far to the east, past Verona, and to the north of Soave.

Three types of wine are made in the Valpolicella region. Lowest in the hierarchy is the regular wine labeled with the name of the DOC (Valpolicella Classico or Valpolicella). Superiore is supposed to indicate slightly higher quality. These are very much wines for quaffing, a bit like Beaujolais. Then there’s what you might call an intermediate style called Ripasso, which I will discuss in tomorrow’s blog (When Ripasso Is Not Ripasso).

At the top of the pyramid come Recioto (sweet) and Amarone (dry), which have their own DOCGs based on the method of production. In the Appassimento technique, grapes are dried for a minimum of 100 days on wooden trays in drying lofts before pressing and fermentation. This concentrates everything to make wine in a rich, oxidative style, but the style isn’t due just to greater concentration: a wide range of aromatic changes also occur during the drying period (and are emphasized further if any botrytis occurs, although it’s discouraged by many producers). The basic difference between the two styles is that Amarone is fermented dry, but fermentation is stopped for Recioto to leave some residual sugar (typically around 100 g/l). Sometimes the grapes are dried a month longer for Recioto. Masi3 Grapes drying on traditional wooden racks at Masi.

It seems pretty obvious that if the basis for making the wine is concentrating the grapes before fermentation, those grapes are absolutely going to have to be of the highest quality. “You can’t just use any grapes for Appassimento. Large bunches don’t work well as they get too much rot. You need lighter bunches that are open and not too compact. Harvest occurs a few (5-6) days before what would be regarded as peak ripeness, to help to preserve acidity,” says Massimilla di Serego Alighieri at major producer Masi.

AllegriniLoftGrapes drying in plastic boxes in Allegrini’s vast drying loft.

Until the early nineties, Amarone production was 1-2 million bottles, which is around 6% of all production in Valpolicella. But then it took off exponentially, and now is around 10 million bottles, accounting for more than a quarter of the grapes. What does this do for quality? According to Marilisa Allegrini, “Production has increased drastically, and the only way to do that was to expand. People started planting on the plain in the sixties, in areas that aren’t historic for producing Amarone, because of the demand. There is no regulation. The Consorzio [who make the rules in Italy] are dominated by companies that pay more contributions (because of higher volume) – in Valpolicella it’s the coop. The irony is that the people who make the rules today are the people who didn’t make any Amarone ten years ago. Now much of Amarone is produced in areas that never made it before.”

ValpolicellaProductionThe exponential expansion of Amarone. Graph shows use of grapes; pie chart shows proportions of wine produced.

Single vineyard Amarone’s are relatively rare, so it’s difficult to get a direct feeling for the effect of terroir, but at Allegrini all grapes for Amarone come from hillside vineyards. In addition to the effects of increased elevation, the soil turns from clay to limestone. All this brings a certain precision, which in my opinion is needed to counterpoise the effects of the extra concentration from drying. It is awfully easy for the style of Amarone to slide into clumsiness. There’s not a trace of that at the top producers whom I visited, whose wines I’ll discuss in detail in a future blog (I Visit Four Top Producers in Valpolicella).

So what’s to be done? The Consorzio did take a step in the direction of quality by reducing the proportion of grapes that can be used for Amarone from the legal limit of 65% to a lower 50%, but the expansion of plantings has reversed the reduction in output. When Amarone (and Recioto) were promoted to DOCG in 2009, the rules specified the length of the period for drying, the proportion of grapes that could be used—but not which subregions within Valpolicella might be appropriate. It’s time to rectify this major mistake.