All Dried Up: The Wines of Mister Amarone

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Image courtesy of Masi Agricola.

Some people might address Masi Agricola’s president as Signor Boscaini, but a recent book profiling the well-known Venetian wine producer refers to him as “Mister Amarone.” A leader in the Amarone denomination, it is likely that Sandro appreciates the moniker, having tirelessly worked to improve the quality of this wine since the 1950s.

Of course, some might even say that the man is all dried up. Well, not him exactly, but most of his grapes. While the process of drying grapes is de rigor for Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG, this practice is found in few other places, but Masi’s president has exported the technique both far and near. In fact, many of his wines feature a special logo, Appaxximento, Masi Expertise® coupled with Sandro’s signature, further emphasizing the winery’s commitment to this wine production style.

Boscaini’s initial efforts focused on maintaining the concentration for which Amarone has always been known, while losing the oxidized character. In this regard, he aimed to preserve Venetian tradition, while improving the wine’s quality, introducing new yeast strains that could work at higher alcohol levels and adjusting the fermentation period from 60 days to 45 days. In the 1950s, fermentations often took as long as 18 months. As a result, today’s wines are much fresher than their predecessors.

But despite technological embraces, other aspects of production remain quite traditional such as the use of wood mats on which to dry the Amarone-bound grapes. For this purpose, Masi prefers bamboo, the spherical surface of which reduces the contact between the mats and the grape skins and ensures good air flow. Whereas some producers have shifted away from this traditional approach

This delicate balance between tradition and modern practices further comes into play when controlling the environment in the drying facilities. When possible, the room’s temperature and humidity are regulated naturally, with vents opened and closed to create the ideal conditions for drying. However, when necessary, a computer takes over to provide the ideal climatic parameters. Designed by the Masi Technical Group in the 1990s, this complex system is referred to as NASA (Natural Appassimento Super Assisted).

In neighboring Friuli, Boscaini has brought the appassimento procedure to bear on the Verduzzo grape. Harvested rather late to achieve full ripeness, the grapes are then dried on racks for three weeks to concentrate the fruit and permit evaporation of the water content. These raisined grapes are fermented  on their own before being briefly aged in barriques. They are then blended with Pinot Grigio, which has been picked much earlier to retain its acidity and fermented in stainless steel. When brought together, the result is Masianco, a complex wine with full body, depth and richness.

Conversely, the appassimento process is eschewed when producing Bonacosta, a Valpolicella Classico DOC made from Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Intended to be a fruity, young red wine, the simple production process, using non-dried grapes, retains this freshness.

Building in complexity among their Venetian reds, is Masi’s Campofiorin. Initially created in 1964, this wine had previously been called a ripasso, but Boscaini feels that this term has become corrupted and opts instead to label it as a Rosso del Veronese IGT and refers to it instead as a Supervenetian.  Instead of conducting a more common technique of using the wine equivalent of an old tea bag, Masi dries grapes specifically for inclusion in the Campfiorin. Regardless of its name or label, the wine falls somewhere in between the fruity character of the Bonacosta and the big, Baroque style of an Amarone.

Masi also produces several different Amarone wines, including its entry-level, Costasera and Costaserva Riserva, as well as several different single-vineyard wines. However, the single-vineyard wines are only produced in excellent vintages, when conditions are right not only during harvest, but also once the grapes have been picked.

Farther afield, Boscaini’s imprint can be found in Argentina, where Masi launched a partnership with Norton in 1995. Here, Corvina grapes receive the same royal, dried-grape treatment and are then blended with Malbec. Appropriately named Passo Doble, this is a decidedly unusual and modern wine.  All dried up? Maybe. But, all washed up? Never! Mister Amarone strikes again!

DiamAndes – A Diamond in the Argentine Rough

Bruno LaPlane is at home and ensconced in the Bordeaux wine industry having married into the Bonnie family, producers of Château Malartic-Lagravière and Chateau Gazin-Rocquencourt. However, with the increasing popularity of Argentina, he and the Bonnie family were eager to expand their interests. So, when the opportunity to join the Clos de los Siete project in Mendoza arose, they jumped at it. Accordingly, in 2005, the family purchased 130 hectares and built their own winery on the property, completed in 2009. Named for nearby Diamond Lake, in which the reflection of a volcano appears as a diamond, and the imposing Andes mountain range, DiamAndes was born.

DiamAndes released its Gran Reserva wine in New York earlier this year. This flagship wine is a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The company is now ready to introduce additional wines to the market under the name of DiamAndes de Uco, which includes: Chardonnay, Viognier, Malbec and Syrah. Another new wine is the entry-level Perlita by DiamAndes, which blends Malbec and Syrah and retails for $10.00/bottle.  Like LePlane, the Malbec grape, which does so well in Argentina’s high altitude vineyards, is also from Bordeaux. Not surprisingly, it accounts for 66% of the DiamAndes plantings.

Although these wines are priced at the value end of the market, they are still produced with the same careful attention to detail as those used in Bordeaux. More specifically, there is a keen emphasis on terroir, self-imposed strict yields (45 hl/ha) and hand harvesting, with a focus on crafting elegant wines. Aside from being located a world away from one another, the difference is that the cost of land and labor makes these Argentina exports much less expensive to produce, while still retaining the high quality for which the Bonnie family is known.

Chardonnay 2010
This grape variety represents 72% of the white plantings at DiamAndes. With a nose of slight spice, pear, some citrus and vanilla, the aromas repeat on the typically full-bodied palate, joined with some slight minerality.

Viognier 2010
Spice, apricot and tangerine aromas persist on the palate, along with floral notes. The full-bodied wine has medium acidity.

Malbec 2010
This wine presents with mostly black fruits and a slight floral character. It has nice acidity, with firm, yet ripe, tannins, becoming more complex on the palate with its flavors of blackberry, spice, vanilla and oak.

Gran Reserva 2007 (70% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon)
A structured and elegant wine with spice, oak, blackberry, bramble fruit and slight eucalyptus notes, the tannins are quite firm, but should mellow with bottle age.

Also see my previous article on the Gran Reserva.

A Meeting of the (Winemakers’) Minds

While it is great to hear from winemakers about their wines, it isn’t exactly a unique experience. However, listening to a panel of winemakers from around the globe talk about key issues in the wine world is a special treat. And, one perhaps made even better when that panel is moderated by Kevin Zraly.

In July 2010, amidst a torrential downpour, I arrived at Moet-Hennessy’s Chelsea offices damp, but not downtrodden. Welcoming the cup of coffee that was offered, I spent some time viewing various displays for Moet-Hennessy products. Once everyone had arrived and was assembled in the conference room, the Winemakers’ Forum began.

The panel included Leone Contini Bonacossi, Owner of Capezzana; Marc Sorrel, Estate Director for Chateau de Sancerre; Nicolas Audebert, Cheval des Andes’ winemaker; Ian Morden, Estate Director for Cloudy Bay; Joel Burt, Assistant Winemaker at Domaine Chandon; Andrea Leon, Winemaker for Casa Lapostolle; Andrea Felluga, Livio Felluga’s winemaker; Laura Bianchi, owner of Monsanto; Chris Millard, executive winemaker at Newton Vineyard; Winemaker Manuel Louzada from Numanthia; and Terrazas’ senior winemaker, Adrian Meyer.

Kevin kicked off the session by asking the winemakers to share their favorite wine memories, especially those that cemented their interest in, and love for, wine. For some, it was a single wine – perhaps a 1996 Bandol (Adrian), Krug 1928 (Nicolas) or a Bonne Mares from one’s birth year (Marc). For others, it was a particular experience – tasting sparkling wine in the winery with one’s grandfather (Manuel) or stealing down into the cellar at 13 (Andrea L.) or 5 (Leone) and drinking from either the bottle or barrel, respectively. And, as Ian reminded everyone, context is everything; “You can’t divorce wine from the occasion.”

Trekkies know that space is the final frontier, but Kevin next queried where in the world was the next wine frontier. There was a diversity of responses ranging from the need to explore higher altitudes due to climate change and the shift in wine styles to up-and-coming grape varieties and regions. There was no one grape variety identified, but rather, certain varieties were associated with new areas such as Syrah in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay; Chenin Blanc in Stellenbosch, South Africa; Petit Verdot in Maipu, Chile; and the  rediscovery of Trebbiano, Malvasia and Friulano.

Building on the topic of change and innovation, the discussion then centered on changes in winemaking. On this, there was more consensus among panel members. Many spoke about the return to more traditional winemaking and a less is more approach. Another theme was an increased emphasis on the vineyard and terroir.

Viticultural advances were further noted such as drip irrigation and the development of rootstocks. A focus on balance was also mentioned, whether through canopy management, matching grape varieties with the right climate or achieving balance in the wine itself.

Here, Mary Ewing-Mulligan asked the panel to address the fact that the alcohol is not in balance even though winemakers say it’s not about alcohol. In response, Nicolas explained that sometimes waiting for full maturity in the grapes results in high alcohol levels. He added that while “[the alcohol level] could be high and be too much, it could [also] be high and you don’t feel it.” “I feel it,” said Mary.

With regard to wine in the market, both Laura and Marc lamented that consumption habits had declined in Europe, especially with the younger generation which drinks less wine and more beer and cocktails. While others agreed, Ian countered that new markets, especially China and Brazil, were becoming increasingly sophisticated with regard to wine.

More specific to the American market, Leone expressed pleasant surprise at the level of knowledge displayed by the people at her hotel’s reception desk. She was impressed with the broad picture they had on wine compared with young Italians whom, she said, have a more regional palate.

When Kevin mused about the outlook for the U.S. – Is it generally getting better? There was a resounding yes from the group. However, this sentiment needs to be tempered in light of recent economic issues.

And, what was their opinion of American wines? A number of people mentioned the quality of Oregon wines, naming its Pinot Noirs and sparkling wines in particular. However, Laura confessed that she had tasted American Sangiovese, but wasn’t worried about the competition (she produces Chianti, which is primarily made from Sangiovese).

Questioned about wine critics, the feeling was that critics play an important role, helping to narrow the field for the consumer. However, it was also admitted that, like any system, it has some good and bad elements associated with it. While Andrea L. stated that it was rewarding as a winemaker to receive high scores, Nicolas emphasized that, “if you are making wine as a passion, you are not making wine for critics.” Joel also suggested that the power of big critics is waning due to blogs, an opinion that Chris shared.

As a final topic, the conversation turned to biodynamics and organics. A few, such as Nicolas and Adrian, admitted that being organic was easy for them due to climatic conditions. Yet, Andrea F. and others pointed to high rainfall and humidity as impediments to such practices. However, the overall feeling was that such viticultural practices were crucial in and of themselves, not as marketing efforts. Consequently, many winemakers don’t indicate their practices on the label. In this regard, Joel proposed that, “It’s important to be stewards of the land,” an emotion echoed by Andrea F., who noted that, “We have to take care of the planet.”

The Torrontés Project

Argentina has distinguished itself with not just one, but two signature grape varieties – Malbec and Torrontés. The latter is primarily grown in northern Argentina, with the Cafayate appellation, within the province of Salta, being among the most highly regarded area for production. Generally planted at high altitudes in the Andes Mountains, the grapes receive full sun during the day, while the cooler nights permit the grapes to retain vibrant acidity. Highly aromatic, these fresh, unoaked whites offer floral and fruit aromas that pair well with lightly-spiced Asian cuisine, summer salads and fish.

A blind tasting, affectionately referred to as the Torrontés Project, placed the Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Torrontés 2010 (SRP $15.00) in the company of Xavier Flouret Flaca 2009 (SRP $16.00). Despite being from the same appellation and having been produced in a similar method (stainless steel fermentation), the two wines displayed marked differences.

The Flaca had pronounced floral, spice and tropical fruit notes on the nose, which persisted on the palate. With its medium+ acidity and medium+ body, the wine was bold, but balanced.

The Terrazas wine was paler in color, with less overt aromas consisting of floral and peach, coupled with candied citrus on the palate. Higher in acidity and slightly lighter in body, this wine was more restrained.

Two from the Clos

The vineyards of Clos de los Siete in Mendoza, Argentina, are the brainchild of Michel Rolland, flying winemaker, closely associated with Bordeaux. The ambitious project seeks to bring five owners together to create their own wines as well as a collaborative wine.

Although the project was launched in 1998 and the Clos de los Siete by Michel Rolland wine has been available since 2002, a new wine from the property recently made its debut—DiamAndes Gran Reserva. Owned by the Bonnie family of Bordeaux, France (and proprietors of Château Malartic Lagravière), the vineyards for Bodega DiamAndes were planted in 2005.

While the wines are produced from vines grown in close proximity, the foci of the winemakers are different. Whereas the Clos de los Siete by Michel Rolland is produced from a blend of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, with actual percentages varying from vintage to vintage, the DiamAndes is heavily comprised of Malbec, seasoned with Cabernet Sauvignon.

I tasted these two wines side by side from the same vintage, 2007, as a way to compare and contrast the different blends from the same terroir.

The Clos de los Siete (48% Malbec, 28% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Syrah) was fruit forward in style with youthful notes of blueberries, vanilla, plum and slight wood. The full-bodied wine had medium+, but ripe, tannins and an overall ripe fruit/jammy appeal.

In comparison, the DiamAndes Gran Reserva, comprised of 70% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and aged in French oak (presumably new since the winery is new itself), was more elegant and austere. This wine showed some slight development on the nose along with more overt oak/wood aromas. Similarly full-bodied, but with dustier tannins, this wine offered flavors of dark plum, oak and vanilla. Despite the more obvious use of oak, this wine was beautifully balanced.

Although one style may appeal to someone’s palate more so than the other, I enjoyed them both for their differences.