Sunday, November 30, 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fruit-Bomb

Last month I was communicating half-way across earth to New Zealand with my editor at Wine Searcher. We were going over ideas for a feature. Kicking around a few thoughts on Amarone, she casually suggested that it would be better if to write about something that I liked. I don’t know what it was in my emails that she caught on to, but it must have seemed like “Big Red” wasn’t my favorite Italian wine. I reassured her that I could write about Amarone like I enjoyed it. And then I went to work trying to figure out if I liked Amarone or not.

What’s the Big Deal About Amarone was recently published in Wine Searcher. I learned some interesting things about myself  when I wrote this piece.

For one, I had a distaste for Amarone from having drunk a lot of bad Amarone in the past. There was a musty quality that smelled like my Uncle Jimmy’s salami closet. Dank, moldy, feral, and not terribly attractive. It was when I visited a drying room or fruttaio, the "Terre di Fumane", a large setup that several producers co-own, that I learned something about appassimento, the drying process. In the first few days in the fruttaio it is critical that the drying process has the right balance of airflow and control of humidity. If not, the stems will rot and develop off flavors and aromas that will affect the flavor of the finished wine. The grapes usually spend three, maybe four months in the drying room. But the top priority is the stems are not allowed to decay and incubate minute fungi.

Right then, the light went off in my head. All these years I thought something was wrong with me. But this goes back 20-30 years ago.

In recent years the challenge has been to reconcile the strength of the alcohol in balance with the other components of the wine. And to make the wine in a way in which two people would want to finish a bottle. For lovers of high alcohol wine, that isn’t a problem. But for those of us who think 13.5% is high, and with much Amarone registering 15-16% in alcohol, it can be a hurdle.

I know there are those out there who stress balance in a wine. With balance, even at 15%, these minor frustrations can be met with, peaceably. I understand that, intellectually. But my stomach, my head and my inner aesthete have a vote in this as well.

A big hurdle is the head. The head is saying “too much alcohol hurts.” The stomach comes next and pleads with me to send it “something I can digest, please.” And the inner aesthete simply lets out a long sigh, as if to say, “Really not very imaginative to storm the castle with all this power to overtake but no plan to rule.” The inner aesthete is also in charge of the diet, weight loss (or gain), the wardrobe (and the budget for spending on the wardrobe), and so must be reckoned with on an ongoing basis.

I’ve had run-ins with the inner aesthete, before, so I knew this wasn’t insurmountable. I also had to make sure I wasn’t messing up the visceral part of this triumvirate. Headaches and bubbling stomachs aren’t my cup of tea.

So, I went tasting. At first, small sips. Slowly, step by step.

I reviewed my notes over the last ten years. There were amazing wines in those little filled up books. Le Ragose and Valentina Cubi. L’Arco and Quintarelli. Tenuta San Antonio and Allegrini. Many nights during Vinitaly, outside of  Verona, in Palladian palazzos, sipping older, younger, drier and sweeter versions of Amarone. I’m not going to lie and tell you this was my “Sideways” moment. I don’t think Amarone is really calling me, as in a “Siren call.” But I did find myself falling a little, this strange love, with a seductively full-figured wine.

Good fruit, free of malodorous contamination, is a good start. Fruit, picked ripe, making progress. Proper appassimento is most important. And with all of this, oak for oxidation and maybe a little flavor, but please not too much pepper. Seasoned, not strangled, with wood. And then a nice sleep - time to rest and mature and develop some character. Not too young and not too old. That’s the kind of Amarone I love.

These past few years I have been racing after lean, no-frill, high acid wines - my “skinny” addiction. Now, after wrapping my arms around Big Red, I’m a changed person. I see things differently. I’m no longer afraid. I think I have finally learned to stop worrying and love the fruit-bomb. And I'm darn lucky in that I have Amarone to thank for all that.

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