Anteprima Amarone 50° – Presentation of the 2014 Vintage
It was a tough year, 2014, and not only in Valpolicella. Nearly every wine region in Europe had difficulties. Simpler wines requiring no long ageing before release have already long since moved on to succeeding vintages, including the universally-acclaimed 2015, the challenging but interesting 2016 – even the yet-to-be-adequately-assessed 2017 is already available from many denominations making simpler wines for quick enjoyment.
But Amarone della Valpolicella is not a simple wine. And it can certainly age, a question that was laid to rest in my mind at the extraordinary Amarone Retrospective tasting, held the same day as the Anteprima, about which I wrote here. Amarone is made using a technique called appassimento, which means the grapes are dried for months before the wine can actually be made. The resulting concentration means sugars are high and, since Amarone is a dry style of wine, this means that the fermentation itself takes longer than many other reds would require. Finally, Denomination rules – and tradition – require ageing the wine for years before it is released. And so it was that two weeks ago a large number of the wines from the 2014 vintage were finally made available for tasting in Verona at the Anteprima Amarone 50°.
I say a large number, but the number was much smaller than in earlier, easier vintages. Just 43 wines awaited a roomful of journalists and other wine professionals for tasting. One year previously there were more than 80.
You will not find large amounts of Amarone from 2014 on store shelves, because not much has been made. Because of this, though, there will also not be very much Ripasso, production of which is restricted and directly linked to the quantity of Amarone that is produced.
Instead, not wanting to produce their top wines if they felt that the quality was insufficient, many producers chose to declassify their fruit into one of the other, simpler Valpolicella categories that do not require dried grapes. It’s a difficult decision to take, since both Amarone and Ripasso are increasing in value, recognition and popularity worldwide at a rapid pace. The wines are worth a lot to the producers, the region – and to consumers. But the peculiar effects of appassimento mean that problems with the grapes will be magnified in the resulting wines made using the technique. In cooler, wetter vintages this can be disastrous, with wines showing overly leafy characters, bitterness – even mouldy aromas.
And in fact, to listen to many producers and other decision-makers in the zone, the vintage was borderline disastrous. But was it really? Professor Diego Tomasi, who introduced the vintage on the eve of the Anteprima, illustrated some good arguments as to why this might not be the case.
Professor Tomasi made an excellent presentation about Valpolicella and its climate with data going back all the way to 1959 – but with a particular focus on 2014, of course. There was plenty of interesting and somewhat worrying information about overall climate trends, but that will have to wait for another post.
In 2014 there was not loads of sun, but there was enough to ripen grapes. Average temperatures were not dramatically different than for any of the previous three vintages (and 2011 was one of the region’s great vintages, by all accounts), all of which have produced very fine wines, but there was a tendency to be warmer (and wetter) towards harvest.
So what could be problematic?
It was rainy, and not always at times when it would have been okay; in particular, there was a lot of rain that happened to coincide with temperatures that were somewhat warmer than normal. Unfortunately, this was also the period leading up to harvest.
When it rains, berries on the vine get larger, which leads to larger and tighter bunches. Air can then no longer circulate around and between the berries, dramatically increasing the risk of mould attacking the fruit. If you add warmth to the mix, conditions become ideal for fungus. And precisely this was one of the main problems of the vintage. As a result, in 2014, only 35% of the fruit was deemed adequate for making Amarone. In good years, that amount is around 65%.
Once mould has attacked your fruit, it is nearly impossible to save it. Afflicted grapes need to be removed from bunches as quickly as possible to prevent its spread – a task made even more difficult when the mould is in the middle of the bunch. Most often, the entire bunch must be discarded. Yields in 2014 were very low out of necessity.
But as I’ve already alluded, it isn’t all bad.
Professor Tomasi, besides presenting a wealth of information on the region and climate generally, looked at two very interesting comparative studies.
The first of these was a chemical analysis of each of the vintages from 2010 to 2014, including concentrations of alcohol, acids, sugars, anthocyanins (responsible for colour) and other compounds. He also provided a further breakdown of the differences in the chemical analysis between all of the main valleys for 2014. It might sound like dry stuff, but it was very interesting to see just how similar these vintages are overall – and where the differences lie. In particular, one can say that 2014 is best in the eastern part of Valpolicella (the valleys of Mezzane, Illasi and Cezzano) and around Fumane and Negrar in the Classico region. My tasting notes back this up 100%.
The second, and even more interesting, element he showed was a comparison of the organoleptic properties of the vintages 2014 and 2010, broken down by the main valleys again. And again, there were not huge differences, except where the vintage 2014 was universally a little lacking. It seems 2014 was not a great year for floral aromas, for example.
What we end up with should surprise nobody: the vintage may have been difficult, but producers who took the necessary steps (including strict sorting-out of bad fruit) to have good, healthy fruit were able to make lovely wines, even if the amounts were much reduced over previous years.
What to Expect
The tasting itself was an interesting study in how the producers who dared to make Amarone in 2014 coped with the troubles of the vintage.
Overall, the wines were less overtly fruity, more leafy and softer than previous vintages have been. They were not unconcentrated, but they had quite a different profile than what many people expect from an Amarone. This is not a vintage that will yield stratospheric point values from wine critics, because the wines are not bold and ostentatious – something of which Amarone is more than capable in most years.
These are not wines that roar, these are wines that murmur – but it is worth listening to what they have to say.
This vintage produced some beautifully elegant wines, living from red fruit and tobacco leaf, with fine acidity and with an approachable texture that, for me, means they should be enjoyed sooner rather than later. Good producers (by that I do not mean “famous”) made fine wines, wines that offer not only hedonistic pleasure, but that also offer space for thoughtfulness – a valuable quality that is sometimes overpowered by the wines when they roar.
These were no fruit bombs, nor were the wines generally as deep and spicy as they often are, and I very much had the feeling that some producers were trying to compensate (needlessly, in my opinion) for that seeming lack of depth with a more pronounced use of oak. This is really a pity, as the wines didn’t need it, and certainly didn’t profit from it. The fruit dried out too quickly, the tannins were too aggressively oaky – while fruit tannins, which were comparatively supple on their own, receded completely into the background.
Best of Show
Here are a few of the standouts:
Antiche Terre Venete – Amarone della Valpolicella
Very nice red currant and raspberry, clove, mint, a very good wine! A surprising note of garrigue (those herbs one finds in the south of France), with a chaser of black plum and cherry.
Bennati – Amarone della Valpolicella
Softer, smoother, slightly minty, with a good hit of black coffee and some bitter chocolate. Ripe tannin and nice mouthfeel.
Corte Sant’alda – “Adalia” Amarone della Valpolicella (Barrel Sample)
Very good, healthy fruit – and one of the wines with a lovely complement of spices to go along with it. Very juicy raspberry, hint of strawberry and cranberry, all wrapped up in a round, balanced package.
Corte Scaletta – Amarone della Valpolicella (Barrel Sample)
The world’s best marzipan is made by Niederegger in Lübeck, Germany. And it was that unmistakable, gorgeous scent of fresh-cut Schwarzbrot (a fine, unsweetened marzipan with a bitter chocolate crust made by Niederegger) that captivated me in this wine. Kirsch, chocolate and Marzipan, with fine, smooth tannin, decent acidity and a lovely finish.
Massimago – “Conte Gastone” Amarone della Valpolicella (Barrel Sample)
I make no secret of my love for this estate, and so I was pleased that they had a wine in the Anteprima, and that I enjoyed it at the blind tasting. They chose not to make their top Amarone in 2014, but this organic wine was quite lovely. A hit of stewed San Marzano tomato, fine, restrained tannin, and delicate red fruit. A soft finish carried with cherry with just the barest hint of tobacco leaf.
San Cassiano – Amarone della Valpolicella
This was my favourite wine at the tasting, with its fine, healthy cherry, plum and mulberry fruit, good, firm tannin and lovely acidity. Completely balanced on the palate, it finished long and with a lingering lavender note that was very pleasing. Delightful!
Vigneti di Ettore – Amarone della Valpolicella Classico
A compact wine that was very reminiscent of left-bank Bordeaux, with its tight tannin and that surprising whiff of cigar box. Nevertheless, there is plenty of cherry and mulberry to go along with bracing acidity, finishing up with drop of plum and a hint of leafiness that I enjoyed.
Villa Spinosa – Amarone della Valpolicella Classico
A very well put-together wine: everything in balance, nothing overdone. Also replete with lovely spice and some chocolate, there is a tasty raspberry undercurrent that finishes up as red plum, juicy and fine.