I recently returned from Verona, Italy. In this beautiful part of the northeast, in the Veneto, west of Venice, just east of Lake Garda, Valpolicella, and Amarone reign supreme. The reason for my visit: Anteprima Amarone. Every year the consortium of Valpolicella invites journalists, restaurant owners, importers and others from around the world to taste the newly released Amarone. This year it was the 2009 vintage.
The first day was spent at a seminar and a walk-around tasting in town where participating producers showcased their wines. The following two days we spent touring different wineries in the Valpolicella hills.
Before telling you my impressions of the 2009 vintage, let me briefly describe how this world-famous wine is created. The grapes – mainly Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara (being used less lately) and a few other local varieties – are dried on trays for three to four months, then the wine fermented to a bone-dry state. Amarone was the result of a mistake. Traditionally the Reciotto style was made here, where fermentation stops before all the sugar is consumed, leaving a rich, powerful sweet wine. On one occasion, fermentation did not stop and all sugar was consumed, resulting in a dry wine – thus Amarone was born. At 15 to 16 per cent alcohol, it is one powerful vino.
This year 55 wineries participated. Most of the wines presented were barrel samples bottled in the last few months, and will not start to appear on the market until the end of this year, – if producers even decide to release them then. Thus, some producers didn’t bother to provide the 2009s at all, but chose to show older vintages. Generally, Amarone is a wine that requires lots of time to evolve and will live 20 years or more, so tasting these newborns is akin to sampling ingredients of a cake before they are mixed together and baked. Almost impossible to project what the finished product will be like once elements mesh and evolve.
Now to the 2009 vintage. This particular year was hot and dry, with a sugar content above average. Overall, the fruit structure was good. There were plenty of typical balsamic notes in the wines. Also present was an abundance of spicy, savory, foxy nuances, probably from barrique aging. Alcohol levels seemed to be a little higher (around 16 per cent), which I’m sure resulted from the hot growing season. The wines overall seemed a little softer and I would have liked them to possess a little more acid to help elevate the fruit, but often hotter growing conditions rob wines of acid.
It makes me wonder, however, about longevity. They could still live 10 to 13 years, but probably not wines you’ll want to forget about for decades in your cellar, as many Amarones are capable of. It will be extremely interesting to see how this vintage evolves over time.
Alongside the Amarones were plenty of regular Valpolicella. Basic Valpolicella is light, fragrant and easy drinking and can be released shortly after harvest. This included both Classico (made from grapes in the original production zone) and Superiore (a stricter quality selection of grapes and longer ageing). There were many delicious selections from 2010 and 2011. Also available for sampling was a great assortment of Ripasso (standard Valpolicella is put on the dried skins of Amarone and re-fermented resulting in a richer, more powerful wine). I call them ‘Valpolicella with attitude’ and many were sublime. Of course there was a nice sprinkling of Reciotto styles to enjoy. Of special note were some wines made from 100 per cent Corvina, the backbone of Valpolicella and Amarone. Only classified as I.G.T. wines, a few of these were fabulous.
One does not live by wine alone. So to accompany the wines at the consortium tasting and at the individual wineries visited were plenty of Veronese cheeses of varying ages, a rich selection of cured meats, breads and other northern Italian delicacies, as well as many local dishes and desserts.