Sunday, February 01, 2015

Amarone at a Crossroads

This past week I have been in the Veneto as a guest of the Valpolicella Consorzio. The occasion was Amarone Anteprima, an annual event showcasing the release of the latest vintage of Amarone, in this case the 2011. During the week I tasted hundreds of wines going back to 1998, and visited scores of estates, large and small. And while this has been a brief week of exploration into the wines of Valpolicella, of which Amarone is a main player, it has served to give me a deeper understanding and appreciation for this often misunderstood and misinterpreted wine.

The idea of a traditional style of Amarone was discussed at length in a tasting moderated by Luca Martini, who in 2013 won the Italian Sommelier Association “World’s Best Sommelier” event. Luca is mid-30, built like a fighter, and is an affable and very passionate fellow. He comes from Tuscany, where his family has run restaurants for over 100 years. I like Luca, he seems to be grounded and at the same time someone who looks over the fence, past the horizon of time. He lit a candle in the dark room shedding light on the question of just what is a traditional Amarone.

Like an earlier post, in which older Barolo wines were discussed, Amarone is saddled with the image that it has to age many years and that some of the older producers who brought Amarone onto the world stage set the standard for modern-day Amarone. My sense is in the last 25 years, Amarone was re-defined by a then younger generation of winemaker. And one generation later, it is being re-defined again. This time, though, there is no one type of standard formula for making great Amarone. I’m not even going to try to describe what I think a traditional Amarone is in this post. There is a larger group of protaganisti who have their own ideas about what Amarone should be. I am going to attempt to describe some of them.

The Large Family Business
This type is identified by a well-organized and wealthy family. And while it is large, it is run as a family business. Export is crucial, as the Veneto cannot support these numbers at the premium range. But the producers in Valpolicella have long been players in the export world. After all, the history of the Veneto has trade imbedded in its DNA. In the post-modern world of the 21st century, luxury and premium wine is the hallmark of wineries like these. Amarone is polished, clean, powerful. There has been a lot of work in the vineyards and in the cellars. Attention has been paid to appassimento, the drying stage. The ranges of wines, from the entry level to the Ripasso to the Amarone have all been considered for their contribution to the identity of the brand of the family winery. The Amarone wines are generally in the upper range, say in US $60-80, and the on-premise channel has been targeted. This is important, because one doesn’t just go out to the local wine store in search of an Amarone. But in the restaurants, the role of the sommelier on the floor can help to advance Amarone, especially with food. By and large, these wineries are successful and they are growing in the markets they work in. They set the standards for perception as to what Amarone is as their reach is long and deep and they represent the brand of Amarone to the outside world.

The Startups
In the last 15 years, there have been a lot of these. Usually a small family, maybe a sister and a brother, or a couple of cousins. The vineyard grew grapes for years and sold to the local co-op. And then, seeing a neighbor or two and the success they had “going out” from the co-operative, they went to the bank and collateralized their farm to expand into the winemaking business. The reason? Pride in their grapes, and the desire to steer their own ship, along with maybe just the smallest bit of jealousy that their neighbors were showing success with what was once considered a risky behavior. People in the Veneto are also entrepreneurial and there is a high degree of work ethic. The Veneto is one of the most productive regions in Italy; I call it the Japan of Italy. In any event someone goes to winemaking classes, works hard, and makes a wine that follows an evolutionary arc. I’ve seen this pattern a bunch of times. The labels are clean, often smart, not at all “traditional” looking ( e.g. stuffy) and the prices for the Amarone sell in the US for $50-80. There usually is a Valpolicella Superiore and maybe a Ripasso, to round out the line. The wines find their way into the market via small importers or via direct importation. These wines can be very good, get great ratings and usually be hit or miss in regards to regional penetration in America. But it’s a grass roots kind of mentality, and these wineries find their fans, whether it be the NY-CHI-SF-LA route or elsewhere, like Cleveland, Atlanta, Houston and Boston, that kind of tier.

The 2nd Careerists
I went into a winery in Amarone land last week and thought I had been transported to Napa Valley. Everything was perfect; everything was where it should be. I’d seen this before, I thought to myself. Someone, usually a man, makes a lot of money and is bored with what it was that helped him to make all that money. So he pours millions into a winery, which is essentially his hobby. He isn’t quite a wine-insider, like the large families or the startups that for generations sold to the Cantine Sociale. He is an outsider, and he makes decisions based on his perspective. Often the wines are made by an “enologue,” a consultant. These wines are exercises in attracting large scores, for many times their wines are massive, unctuous, fruit-bombs. It often seems like they have looked to the most successful, iconic wines from elsewhere, someone like a Gaja, and have patterned their wines (and often their labels) from those influences. These are smallish wineries, making less than 100,000 bottles and their Amarone sells in the US for $60-100, with a smattering of importers or maybe one luxury importer who needs an Amarone to round out their world portfolio. The wines are outside the world of wine, they are made by outsiders for outsiders. That is to say, the multi-millionaire lives in a different world. And he makes wines, whether he is conscious of it or not, for his kind.

The Counter Culturists
Whether they start out with the mission to be this or not, it’s not hard to know when one comes upon these kinds of wineries. Usually a small farm, not a showplace like the 2nd Careerists. No, this is a working farm, and it is in a constant state of change and evolution. The style of the wine can change as well, but the goal isn’t always to make the best Amarone as much as it is to make the best red wine on a par with Burgundy or Piedmont. I have found some of these wineries to produce lovely, delicious wines. There is often a charismatic person at the center of activity. They are small wineries, producing under 60,000 bottles and their Amarone can sell for anywhere in the US from $50-300. Often they are organic and in a few cases they are bio-dynamic. That isn’t to say these folks are flippant, trying to grasp whatever is the counter-trendy of the moment. These, like I said, are works in progress. But they provide an important element to the community of Amarone producers. They provide a perspective from the edge, as if to say, “Look where we are going. Who knows what we will find.” And that is very much part of the Veneto tradition. Remember Marco Polo?

The Hybridists
This is an operation that might have begun as a startup and transitioned to a Counter Culturist. Or maybe their business grew larger and they became more like the Family business type. In any event, they have a little more time in development, maybe having started out in the late 1980’s. There is a sense of maturity to their once entrepreneurial risky beginnings. Their wines are solid; they have established good world-wide reputations. They might have grown to as large as 300,000 bottles or stayed under 100,000. Their Amarone sells in the US in the $60-120 range. They are premium to ultra-premium and their success has allowed them to expand and buy other vineyards, which are very expensive real estate when they are available. The Valpolicella lands can resemble Burgundy in that the ownership is broken down into little plots, so negotiating a purchase with many member of a family can be excruciating and time consuming. The hybridists have seen a bit of the outside world, so they know what they have is good and their life is something they want to perpetuate for the generations to come.

There five categories are loosely organized by the way I look at things, but I think they offer a look at the diversity in which Amarone, and Valpolicella at large, finds itself. Along with this, though there is a challenge. Amarone is not one style or one price. Amarone doesn’t age like a Burgundy or a Barolo, or like Bordeaux. And we’re not that close in being able to identify just how well the newer style will age or if indeed, if they should be drunk so old. And there’s that thing about the sugar, the high degree of fruitiness, even though the wine is fermented out to dryness, that isn’t in style with massive amounts of people. The good news is that Amarone is still a relatively small production amount, so a world thirsty for big styles of luxury wines can probably absorb most of what is made in Valpolicella. But Amarone is at a crossroads in that it is looking back at where it has come and looking forward and trying to plot the future. These are expensive wines and they are particular. They aren’t for everyone and they aren’t for everyday. Well, neither is Barolo or Burgundy. But Amarone still is, in my opinion, not in that club, yet. They are still seeking their greater identity at home and with the world beyond.

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