Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Big wines leave their mark on a drinker.

Some time ago I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon hosted by the legendary Italian winemaking company Masi Agricola. The meal, prepared by Ryan Hardy at The Little Nell, was paired with a number of Masi’s finest Amarone della Valpolicella wines, more commonly referred to as, simply, Amarone.

And they left more than one just one mark.

First, there was a slight (OK, moderate) buzz. After all, more than a half dozen wines were poured and the alcohol content of each weighed in at 14 percent (the minimum an Amarone can legally be) or more. And yes, for much of the afternoon, I carried the deep dark color of the wines on my lips and teeth.

But the biggest mark was made on my soul. These great wines reflected the six-generation history of the Boscaini family in Verona, which owns the Masi Vineyards. The bottles told the tale of the intense labor, love and time that went into making them. And, in each mouthful, the quest for quality was clear. The combination made these Amarone some of the most intriguing wines I had ever tasted.

The name is derived from the Italian word for bitter or tart, amaro, and a good Amarone includes a bit of bitterness followed by a hint of sweetness on the finish. When ordering, ask for “Ah-ma-ROH-nay.”

Amarone comes exclusively from the Veneto region of Italy in the northeastern part of the country. Blessed by the presence of Lake Garda, the area is stunningly beautiful. It is also a very important place in the world of Italian wine, home to the white varietal Soave and the lighter red Valpolicella. This week, one of the world’s most significant annual wine events, VinItaly, takes place in Verona.

The winemaking history in Veneto goes back centuries. The Romans made a wine in the region called Recioto. High-alcohol, intensely sweet wines, they were made by drying grapes on straw mats to increase their sugar content and produce wines that could travel easily on foot or horseback without spoiling.

The legend of Amarone goes that one day, who knows when, someone left a batch of Recioto in a barrel too long and the magic of nature and a healthy dose of yeast conspired to take most of the sweetness out of the wine. A new style of heavily concentrated, yet dry wine was born.

Amarone is a blend of three regional grapes, Corvina, which dominates, Rondinella, and Molinara. These grapes are given as much hang time as possible and are harvested late in September or even in early October. Hand picked, the grapes are placed on bamboo mats to dry for up to 120 days in a process known as appassimento. This allows the sugars to concentrate and removes so much moisture that, by February, the grapes weigh as little as 35 percent of what they weighed when harvested. This time and labor-intensive style of winemaking is what gives Amarone its unique character.

The Boscaini family first acquired land in Veneto in 1772, when they purchased the Vaio dei Masi vineyard, giving the company its name. And though they have been making wines for more than 230 years, the first release of Amarone was in 1958. Since that time they have strived to create techniques and standards to improve the quality of each vintage.

While still based on concepts originally used by the Romans centuries ago, the appassimento is now augmented by drying lofts that provide the grapes perfect conditions in a system pioneered by the Masi Technical Group called NASA (Natural Appassimento Super Assisted). This provides temperature and humidity controls that replicate climatic conditions of the best Amarone vintages of the past.

Amarone has become an exceedingly sought after, though hard to classify, wine. Some bottlings retain the sweetness of the fruit while others more accurately reflect the bitterness that gave the wine its name. Tannic at times, depending on the maker, the wine can have a thick, viscous feel in the mouth, coating the teeth and, as I said before, leaving a stain. Leather, smoke, coffee, spice – they can all be there in the mouth in varying quantities. This past December, Amarone was awarded DCOG status as one of Italy’s most scrutinized and prized wines.

Amarone are a treat worth searching for; bottles can be found in the Italian sections of better wine shops, but they tend to be pricey. Be sure to bring a toothbrush.

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