With all the attention paid to terroir and vineyard expression we tend to forget that the hand of the winemaker makes a difference. It’s hard to imagine a more uninspiring wine than Valpolicella, the table wine made from mostly Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella grapes in the Veneto region of Italy. But allow those grapes to dry in the proper environment for several months and they make one of the world’s most intensely sumptuous wines–Valpolicella di Amarone. Then take the leftover lees and skins from the Amarone process and allow the Valpolicella to rest on these discards for 10-12 days days and you’ve transformed that uninspiring table wine into a ripasso wine with spice, heft and complexity. Wine regions make do with what they have and arguably Valpolicella has done more with less than any other region. (I don’t mean to be too critical of Corvina but there is a reason why, aside from Valpolicella’s neighbor Bardolino, few regions grow Corvina.)
I adore Amarone when made well so I was looking forward to an intensive immersion in that winemaking style when planning our trip through Italy. We spent several days in the lovely village of Sant’ambroglio, which we used as a base to explore Lake Garda with an extensive side trip to the mountains of Emilia Romagna to visit family. All that touring plus reservations for a splurge dinner at the three-Michelin-starred Le Calandre, which made early afternoon imbibing a bad idea, left too little time for Amarone love. Nevertheless, we managed one full day of wine tasting visiting two Amarone producers—a relatively small, traditional producer Monte Faustino and the more modern and much larger Albino Armani.
The grandfather of Monte Faustino’s current winemaker Paolo Fornaser started making wine back in the mid 20th Century. The family now owns about 8 hectares divided into three vineyard sites, one of which sits at the base of Monte Faustino which gives the winery its name. (Some of their wines are sold under the Fornaser label.) During our visit to their cellaring facility, Paolo regaled us with stories of the early days of Amarone which is surprisingly a very young wine style. They had been making the dessert wine Recioto for centuries in this region using the method of drying the grapes for several months on straw mats before beginning fermentation. But no one thought to make a dry wine using this method. In 1936, Adelino Lucchesi, cellar master of Cantina Sociale Valpolicella, forgot about a fermenting barrel of Recioto allowing the fermentation to continue until all the sugar was consumed by the yeast. The winery manager tasted the wine and instead of rejecting it decided it was worth cellaring and Amarone was born.
This story resolves something that had always puzzled me about Amarone—the name. “Amarone” means bitter but Amarone wine seldom tastes bitter. How did it acquire the name? As Paolo pointed out, the winery manager at Cantina Sociale Valpolicella was expecting a very sweet wine. What he tasted in that over-fermented barrel must of tasted quite bitter in comparison to his expectations. Thus, he called the wine Amarone because it was more bitter than the sweet wine he had expected.
Monte Faustino makes Amarone in a traditional style. The grapes are harvested in mid-September and the best bunches are put wooden drying racks until mid-February. Some of the big, modern Amarone producers have temperature and humidity-controlled drying rooms, but Monte Faustino uses a second story room with open ventilation and no temperature control. (It does not freeze during winter at this location.) After drying, the grapes are fermented using mostly native yeasts, and the finished wine is aged for 3 years in a mix of tonneux barrels and French barrique. The 2013, to which the Wine Spectator gave 92 pts., was explosive and complex with classic fig and dark cherry aromas and refined tannins—elegant despite the 17% alcohol.
After the grapes for the Amarone are pressed, the best barrels of fermented Valpolicella, that have been patiently waiting for their star turn, are put on the skins leftover from the Amarone production and fermented a second time, hence the term Ripasso, which means “re-passed”. After completing the second fermentation, Monte Faustino barrels their Ripasso La Traversagna Superiore for 18 months. The result is an olfactory orgy of smoky, spicy, and sour cherry on a firm frame. This is a delicious style of wine we don’t pay enough attention to in the U.S.
Finally, their Passito Bianco, a sweet wine made from dried white grapes (Gargamega and Malvasia) was a lovely way to end this visit. 80% of their roughly 7000 case annual production is exported and the wines are available in the U.S.
After lunch we visited Albino Armani a large, hyper-modern Amarone producer with some very firm ties to ancient traditions. With a family history of winemaking that reaches back 400 years, today, the Armani family (unrelated to the clothing designer) has five separate wineries, three in the Veneto, one in Trentino Adige and one in Friuli Venezia Giulia. The philosophy that guides all construction on the site is to interfere as little as possible with nature. The winery and cellar are built into the side of a hill in order to blend in with the surroundings. (Eventually the whole façade will be covered with rosemary that is just now beginning to drape the wall.) Dry stone walls are built the old-fashioned way without adhesives or concrete. They are dedicated to preserving ancient fruit varieties on their property which includes an experimental vineyard devoted to Pivvi, a disease resistant grape that will require no treatment in the vineyard. And the grounds include a pond and forested landscape through which visitors can stroll to tune out any reference to modern life.
The soils in this area north of Verona, called the Camporal, are unique for this region–volcanic rather than calcareous, giving a black spicy note to the wine. Only grapes from this soil are used in making the wines at Albino Armani. Unlike most other contemporary Amarone producers, Armani still uses the high acid grape Molinara in the blend, which gives their wines a distinctive, high energy cut and a sense of freshness despite the richly extracted fruit. All the fruit is hand harvested and hand sorted and a variety of aging vessels are used including the initial aging in cement which enhances the stability of the wine. Most of their reds are aged in cavernous botte barrels; only the Amarone Riserva sees time in Tonneaux. And like Monte Faustino, most of the drying of the grapes for Amarone is via the breezes that blow through the open doors of the drying room.
You might say Albino Armani is on the cutting edge of tradition.
As to the wines, we sampled their award winning Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige which featured a rich midpalate and textured finish, certainly a cut above most Italian versions of this grape. The Valpolicella Superiore 2015 was more complex than most of this style with pretty floral aromas supplementing cherry and earth. Both the Ripasso 2015 and Amarone 2014 showed crushed rock with intense cherry fruit expression, both were balanced and elegant, with the Amarone adding coffee notes. This is very refined, stylish wine making.
Which Amarone did I prefer? It would depend on my mood. For mineral/acid driven freshness, the Albino Armani has it. For richness, depth and explosive intensity, Monte Faustino satisfies.
As with most Italian wine regions, the Veneto region of Italy has lovely hillside vineyards and charming small villages surrounding the romantic city of Verona. Surprisingly, many vineyards here use the traditional Pergola method of vine training, in which the grapevines form an overhead canopy, which when viewed from a distance form an impression of an undulating sea of grape leaves. In the past this form of trellising was likely favored because it allowed other crops to be grown underneath the vines. But many viticulturists prefer it because the grapes are protected from the hot summer sun, reducing sunburn and encouraging thinner skins.
For wine lovers, Veneto has a rich diversity of wine styles and regions including Prosecco, Bardolino, Soave, Lugana, and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia not to mention attractions such as Lake Garda and of course Venice. We managed to visit Lake Garda and Friuli-Venezia which I will cover in a later post. Unfortunately an unexpected illness ruined our plans for Venice. One would need a month to do this region justice.
But we leave having experienced one of the truly magnificent wine styles of the world, the happy result of the negligence of an inattentive cellar master.