Valpolicella is a viticultural zone of the Italian province of Verona, east of Lake Garda, ranking as the second most significant production region for Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wines in volume terms (Chianti is first).This red wine is typically made from three grape varietals: Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara although others are permitted in small quantities to balance the blend.
Valpolicella stalwart and one of wine’s nicest people, Sandro Boscaini, president of Masi dropped onto Dubin the other week and gave us a tasting of Masi Costasera Amarone together with the Amarone from the associated house of Serego Alighieri, which I visited earlier this year. The Serego Alighieri family, too, are charming and hospitable. On our first evening there we enjoyed, in the company of the Contessa, a stroll round Verona viewing locations associated with her illustrious ancestor, the poet Dante, before joining Sandro for dinner at a locally-famed fish restaurant.
Amarone is a unique wine, made in a zone where the temperature is moderated by establishing the vines on elevated sites within reach of the cooling influence of Lake Garda. It is high in alcohol, rich and full bodied but acidic enough to make it unfatiging to drink. Grapes destined for Amarone are the last in Valpolicella to be harvested, being allowed to get as ripe as they can before mould and rot set in. The sugars in the grapes are then concentrated by being kept in purpose built drying rooms for three to four months. During this time over a third of the water is removed as the grapes shrivel into raisins. This method of production is known as passito.
To Sandro Boscaini’s father goes the credit for, in the late 1950s, conceiving the the idea of ripasso a new style of Valpolicella and introducing it to the region. With this technique, the pomace of leftover grape skins and seeds from the fermentation of Amarone – and sometimes the dessert wine Recioto – are introduced to the Valpolicella wines for a period of extended maceration. The additional food source for the yeast helps boost the alcohol level and body of the wines while at, the same time, yielding additional tannins, glycerine and phenolic compounds that enhance a wine’s complexity, flavor and colour. The innovation changed the face of Valpolicella, turning it from a light, easy drinker into ‘serious’ wine. Boscaini senior subsequently accelerated the process by surrendering the name to the local Chamber of Commerce, allowing other producers to use the term for a wine style they had already started making. A brand was born.
In the region the quality of Amarone varies widely but the wines we tasted ranged from sound to stunning.
Masi Costasera Amarone 2007 Young and developing, replete with rich, dark plummy fruit and, as a wine, an object lesson in achieving the proper fruit/acid balance. 15/20
Serègo Alighieri Vaio Amaron Amarone 2005 Massive, well-structured wine, still evolving with a great weight of ripe dark fruit, plus hints of tobacco and coffee. 18/20
Masi Costasera Amarone 2000 Somehow atypical with morello cherry fruit replacing the plummy notes and hints of almonds and raisins present in the first two wines. Less acidity than the 2005. Starting to dry out a little, not sure how long-lived this vintage will be.14.5/20
Masi Costasera Amarone 1998 Distinctive caramelly nose, pleasing plummy mid-palate then a big peppery alcohol kick at the back end. 15/20
Masi Costasera Amarone 1995 A bit knackered, prunes and green twiggy stuff replacing the fruit. Probably lovely five years ago – supports my contention that I’d rather drink a wine three years too early than a day too late. 13.5/20
Masi Serègo Alighieri Vaio Amaron Amarone 1995 Everything you want in an Amarone – power; acidity perfectly balancing the fruit making for a long, long finish. Cardamom and cinnamon on the nose then voluptuous dark plums, liquorice, cassis, mulberries, savory gamey and loads more. So impressive. 18.5/20
Masi Costasera Amarone 1993 Fading glory but you can still get the point. 14.5/20
Masi Costasera Amarone 1988 The surprise of the tasting. I would have thought this would have been past it but distinct plum and cherry flavours were still coming through underpinning the almonds and herbal notes that come with ageing. Complex and absorbing. 17/20
A reminder of my scoring system: 17-20 Outstanding; if you can afford it buy it. 15-17 wine of some distinction.13-15 Reliable drinking. 11-13 Uncomplicated easy drinking 9-11 You may like it, I didn’t. <9 Avoid