Vintages Preview for April 12th 2014 (Part One)
Dried Grape Wines Back in the Spotlight
by John Szabo, with notes by Sara d’Amato
Judging by the recent flurry of releases, first from Ontario (see the February 15th release) and now from Italy, appassimento wines – made from grapes partially dried before fermentation – are a hot commodity. April 12th puts the Veneto, the world’s reference region for dried grape wines, in the spotlight, with VINTAGES offering a competent selection of both traditional and modern styles of ripasso, Amarone and other IGT blends. I offer a half-dozen recommended wines, including three Amarones, loosely categorized by style. Sara d’Amato adds her picks, and we have dug up a handful of Ontario examples still in stock at VINTAGES. The rest of the highlights for the April 12th release will reach your inbox next Thursday.
The Veneto region in Italy’s northeastern corner is the epicenter of production of appassimento wine. The term, derived from the Italian verb appassire, to wither or dehydrate, refers to wines made from grapes that are partially dried before being pressed and fermented. Cassiodoro, minister to King Theodore of Ravenna (in today’s Emilia-Romagna), described the technique in meticulous detail in the early 6th century, and the wine he references, acinaticum, is the archetype for today’s Recioto della Valpolicella.
Cassiodoro recommended hanging grape bunches on metal hooks from the rafters in a draughty barn, ensuring that each bunch was kept separate and well ventilated, lest unwanted rot set in. But while this romantic image of withering grapes in old barns with open windows may still be conjured up by the mention of Amarone or Recioto, modern appassimento methods resemble more research laboratory than medieval farmhouse.
Speak to Amarone producers today and they’ll tell you about dehydration and metabolic kinetics, and the interaction of withering time and speed on wine composition. The metabolic changes that occur during drying – malic acid degradation, oxygen consumption and CO2 production, the formation of various alcohols, acetic acid and aromatic compounds like terpineol (floral, lilac perfume) are far better understood than Cassiodoro could have ever fathomed. Most estates have laboratory-like temperature and humidity controlled drying rooms, with ventilators that run continuously, not just when the evening breezes pick up, so that precise characteristics can be sought. Such a highly prescribed appassimento process yields a much cleaner, more reliable product than even just a few decades ago, with far less loss due to rot and other cryptogrammic diseases. Amarone drinkers rejoice, unless of course you had a penchant for the funky old days.
Here in Ontario, appassimento is gaining in popularity, with at least ten wineries now experimenting with dried grape wines, as well as one each in Nova Scotia and Québec. These numbers will surely swell when The Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI) at Brock University reveals the results of an ongoing, in-depth research project in partnership with industry to evaluate and compare different appassimento techniques, now in its 4th of five years. Ontario may be poised to become the second epicenter of appassimento.
Using cabernet franc from one vineyard, CCOVI is comparing the results of drying grapes (to 26º and 28º brix) in a barn with windows and fans (at Cave Spring), in a re-purposed tobacco kiln with a propane heater and fans (at Reif Estate), in a greenhouse (European Planters in Niagara-on-the-Lake) and using a specialized drying chamber developed by Vineland Research Station CEO Jim Brandle and bio-systems engineer Bernard Goyette in conjunction with Graham Rennie of Rennie Estates and John Young of Kew Vineyards and Angels’ gate.
A trial was also initiated this year to answer the age-old question of whether noble rot (botrytis), at least in small percentages (up to 10%), is desirable, while a promising yeast strain, isolated at Brock from the skin of Icewine grapes, is being tested to see if levels of acetic acid and acetone – two regular but unwanted features of appassimento wines – can be naturally reduced.
Sensory evaluation of the resulting wines is underway and will be compared to the wine made from control grapes left on the vine to ripen to the same level, as well as to wine made from the same fresh grapes.
“It’s already clear that each technique brings different results”, says research director Dr. Debbie Inglis. “Even grapes dried off the vine continue to undergo biochemical activity, meaning that there’s more than just dehydration (water loss) going on”. Glycerol increases and acids decrease at different rates according to treatment, and each variety will surely bring its own set of curves to the graphs.
In the end, CCOVI’s goal is simply to quantify the differences of the various techniques, not to say which makes better wine or which grapes to use. “We will give winemakers the information of what happens and how much it costs so they can decide which works best for them. It’ll be up to the industry to determine which style of wine they’d like to pursue” continues Inglis.
COVVI is also in discussions with the VQA technical committee, with the ultimate goal of assisting in developing industry standards, though anything formal is still years away.
In the meantime, get your appassimento fix with these recommended wines from the ancestral home, coming to you on April 12th at VINTAGES.
Think of these as the more savoury, rustic, earthy styles, for fans of traditional European wines.
2009 Brigaldara Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico ($49.95). The Cesari family purchased the villa and surrounding lands that is now Brigaldara in 1929, though wine has only been made here since 1979. The sensibility is, however, firmly old school, as this dried fruit, nuts, herbs and pot pourri-scented Amarone reveals. There’s even a pleasantly earthy, underbrush/dried peach note reminiscent of late harvest/botrytis affected wines (possible?), nicely balanced by the typical bitter dark chocolate flavours of classic Amarone. Not at peak yet to be sure, this should hit full stride within the next 5-7 years or so.
Michele Castellani 2008 Colle Cristi Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico ($45.95). This is a relatively light and delicate, savoury, old school example of Amarone from Castellani’s Cà del Pipa vineyard in the heart of the Classico appellation, with loads of charm and great balance. Tannins are fine and dusty, almost but not fully resolved, so tuck this away for another 2-4 years minimum for maximum enjoyment.
Bertani 2010 Villa Novare Ripasso Valpolicella Classico Superiore ($19.95). Bertani, formerly known as Villa Mosconi, is credited with labeling the first bottle of Amarone in 1940. It’s not surprising then that this storied house produces an arch-traditional example of ripasso, and all the more complex and interesting for it. The palate is firm and juicy, wonderfully balanced, coming across as neither excessively raisined nor simple and fruity – the way old school ripasso should be. Best 2014-2020.
Balancing Tradition with Modernity
These wines manage a fine balance of clean, bright fruit alongside more traditional savoury flavours in a style that should appeal broadly.
Zenato 2009 Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico ($49.95). Zenato’s Amarone offers substantial caramelized fruit, herbal liqueur, bitter chocolate and spent coffee ground type flavours – in other words, complexity comfortably above the average, while the palate is thick, rich and viscous, densely knit, with superior concentration and length. Overall this is a fine bottle of wine, which will continue to evolve and improve over the next 4-7 years no doubt, and hold into the late ’20s without a stretch.
Tommasi 2010 Crearo Della Conca d’Oro ($19.95). Though labeled as an IGT Veronese, this wine hails from the heart of the Valpolicella Classico zone in what’s referred to as the Conca d’Oro, the golden amphitheater with its volcanic clay soils referred to locally as crearo. It’s the addition of cabernet franc to classic corvina and local oseleta that takes this out of the traditional appellation. In any case, the wine is quite fine, fresh, supple, succulent and balanced, with a fine mix of both fresh and raisined fruit, dried herbs and flowers and gentle baking spice. Complexity is above the mean, and I’d say this will continue to evolve and gain interest over the next 2-4 years and beyond. Best 2014-2020.
Zeni 2012 Costalago, IGT Rosso Veronese ($15.95). Of the entry level appassimento wines on offer this release, this blend of corvina, corvinona, plus cabernet and merlot is the smartest buy. It’s a nice mix of modern and traditional, fresh and gently raisined fruit, retaining an inviting liveliness and juiciness. Length and depth are modest, though appeal is broad. Best 2014-2017.
Tenuta Sant’antonio 2010 Selezione Antonio Castagnedi Amarone Della Valpolicella ($43.95). Four brothers, 50 hectares of vineyards and a heck of a lot of experience are responsible for this very good value Amarone named after the late Castagnedi patriarch. Here is a wine with the structure, presence and intensity you would expect from a wine of this style. Put away for another 3-5 years for best enjoyment.
Monte Zovo 2011 Sa’ Solin Ripasso Valpolicella ($17.95). A polarizing wine – ripe and rich but with more depth that character than immediately meets the tongue. I absolutely loved the notes of cherry, bramble, sandalwood, dried leaf, tobacco, plum, and wild blackberry that came to life on the palate. Its long, smoky finish proved sensual and compelling. I’ve tasted this vintage twice now over the span of two years and continue to derive great enjoyment from its lush and penetrating flavours. At this price, it is worth a gamble.
Tedeschi 2009 Amarone Della Valpolicella ($39.95). Tedeschi’s style has been on the thick and sweet side of the Amarone as of late and certainly modern. I tend to shy away from this overt and filling style and so I was delightfully surprised to taste this latest incarnation from the 2009 vintage. It is bold and appealing but also feminine, floral and with a plethora of distinct flavours that can be progressively discerned. Widely appealing and deservedly so.
Zenato 2010 Ripassa Valpolicella Superiore ($25.95). Finally, Zenato’s Ripassa struck a chord with me. This is an expensive Ripasso, as the style goes, but one which consistently over-delivers for the price. The elegant vintage showed some real restraint on the palate and a judicious use of oak that was quite welcome among many flaming examples in this feature. A smart buy.
The following appassimento reds made in Ontario are also still in stock at VINTAGES. Click the links to read full reviews.
The Foreign Affair 2011 Dream, Niagara Peninsula ($28.95)
The Foreign Affair 2009 Temptress, Niagara Peninsula ($44.95)
The Foreign Affair 2012 The Conspiracy, Niagara Peninsula ($19.95)
Burning Kiln 2012 The Strip Room Merlot/Cabernet Franc, Ontario ($24.95)
Speaking of Ontario, you might want to buy one of the few remaining tickets for this week’s Winemaker’s dinner. David Lawrason and Jackson-Triggs winemaker Marco Piccoli will guide you through a select offering of Jackson-Triggs wines, each paired with a specially prepared gourmet dish at EPIC restaurant in Toronto. Marco will speak about the unique viticulture and terroir of the Niagara region and talk about some of the history behind one of Niagara’s most iconic wineries. Find out more here.
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS
From the April 12, 2014 Vintages release:
Editors Note: You can find our Critic’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!