I have long had a love for Italian wines. I appreciate many and focus on the Veneto and Tuscany regions (in that order of preference) with a modest interest in Piedmont. But it is the whites and reds of the Veneto that have always hit my sweet spot. Maybe with the reds, their profile has some commonality with Port, as I’ve heard people use descriptors for Amarone, “that was Port-like.”
However, whether it is the beauty of a simple Prosecco, (which my wife fell in love with on our honeymoon) or a fine Soave, the whites are pretty intriguing as well. As much as I enjoy them though, it is the red jewels in the Veneto’s crown that really win me over and DOC’s Valpolicella and Amarone, have long been part of my wine collecting and drinking pleasure. There’s something about the complexity of the blend of grapes from the vineyards surrounding Verona, (Corvina, Rodinella, and Molinara) that appeals to me more than any other Italian wine and even more than anything in France outside of Burgundy, in terms of the reds.
The other night, our Eastside Tasting Group (ESTG) met at my home for a night of venturing through the Veneto. The food was simple as we don’t do dinner, just heavy appetizers and beyond the fruit and cheese and a cold smoked salmon wrapped around cream cheese and fresh dill (a nice pair with Prosecco and/or Soave) I prepared my homemade meatballs and red sauce (with some a healthy dollop of 1983 Cockburn’s to add sweetness and remains of 1997 Flacianello (Tuscany) which added great aromatics and even more acidity to my beloved sauce. We had no pasta to get in the way of the meat, and there were meatballs aplenty to keep the reds company throughout the evening.
All wines were poured blind, naturally:
We began with a modest white, a non-vintage Riondo Prosecco, Spago Nero. Beyond the light frizzante, there was a distinct peach character and it was a smidgen sweeter than I generally like my Prosecco. Also some light flavors of dried apricot and the acidity kept it all together, but again, I prefer drier Prosecco best. 84 points
Still shooting the breeze before the main event, the next bottle was something fairly unique. While in Ann Arbor, Michigan during the holidays, I met up with FTLOP Port enthusiast (and the world’s best friend of Warre’s Nimrod) Peter Meek. His “Gang of Port” met at Paesano’s Restaurante (great Italian food & wine) and their beverage manager, Kevin Frost handed me a gift bottle at the end of the night. I had planned to age it, but you know what they say about the best laid plans. Anyway, we had it that night as well and I really thought it was something way different than any Soave I’ve ever had before.
The 2006 Inama Vigneto du Lot, Soave Classico – has two characteristic that I had never experienced in a Soave … barrel aging and malolactic fermentation. What a twist. Sure it was a drop oaky, but that’s because this baby really needed another year or two to fully meld. Beyond the wood, this was a sophisticated Soave, with smoky notes, lemon, minerals and a crispness that made it a pleasure to pair with cheese. I loved the slightly oily texture and the creamy citrus laden aftertaste. 90 points
One more white to go and none of us was expecting there to be three of them to start the evening. 1999 Leonildo Pieropan Soave Classico – made from Gargenega and Trebbiano grapes, it was utterly and completely maderized. This came directly from the distributor (he is part of our tasting group) although probably from his own cellar, as I was not surprised to see the 1999 date on it and wouldn’t have been shocked if it was revealed as a 1979. In all seriousness, along with Anselmi and Inama; Pieropan is the third big name in Soave and if this had been something 3 to 5 years younger, it would have been drinking really fine. n/r
We started into the meatballs at this point and it was time to be seated in the dining room for more focused tasting and less conversation, although this is a more casual tasting group than others I take part in. I was excited, because on this particular night, the theme was Amarone for the reds and I couldn’t wait to start sipping (served blind).
The first flight contained just two youngsters, the first of which was 2004 Tedeschi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico – this is about as young as I enjoy tasting Amarone, as I prefer my Amarone like my Ports, very well-aged. I typically do not open my own bottles until they have at least a dozen years of age and my current preference is for the dynamic duo of 1996/1997 and older. This was a spicy number with brash raspberry, smoky plum, leather and lots of peppery nuances which were actually quite appealing. Smooth and ripe with a licorice backdrop, that ended long and with suggestions of chocolate on the aftertaste. I will seek out more of this. 93+ points. Now that is a good way to start the night with vino rosso.
Next came another fresh and nubile bottling, 2004 Zenato Amarone della Valpolicella Classico – I know some people really like the Zenato profile, I am not usually one of them, although with about 15 years of age, they do show some interesting characteristics compared to when juveniles. Tight and tart initially, spicy and with some alcohol protruding, this was more full than the first wine, but lacked the intensity of that Tedeschi which was clearly superior. If the heat had blown off it would have been a better experience, the tannins powerful and ripe, the finish overtly warm but long. So it has the guts for aging if the fruit supports it, which would be my only question mark besides the alcohol intrusion. Chewy Morello cherry, and blueberry flavors prevail. I went back to this hours after my guests left, and it was still showing too much alcohol. Time will tell. 87 points
The 2nd flight wound up being perfectly aligned (coincidentally) with four bottles all making up their own mini-theme:
2000 Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico – here is a producer I’ve long admired; always solid, occasionally great. Even four years of age made a considerable difference to the profile and texture, not a surprise. Loaded with smoky prune and fig flavors, blessed with great balance and it possessed the panache of an older vino, I liked this a lot. Smooth and mouthcoating, really sexy and lacy for a 10 year old, the texture here, a very significant strength. The finish showed complex fruit intermingled with a mocha note, which grew on me as this sat in the glass and again, when tasted at the end of the evening. 94+ points
Next upon the stand, will you please extend a hand … 2000 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella Classico – I have found consistency over the vintages and classic Amarone character and incredible aromatics from this fine Veneto producer. This was a muscular wine with strawberry, truffles, minerality and earthy clay-like overtones. I was a fan, slightly less so than the Bertani, but this was a solid bottling and aromatically, stunning. I loved the acidity and even the massive astringent tannins that are requisite with this producer in most vintages while still young. The texture here rivals its predecessor and I have no doubt this will be great at age 20 and even 25. 93+ points
1996 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella Classico – TCA ruined what should have been a fantastic bottle. I love the 1996’s and this Amarone is one of my favorites of the vintage.
1997 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella Classico – Note the perfect synergy of this flight, had the previous bottle not been corked. The vintage dreams are made of, this wine all began with rhubarb, prune and then came the wave of white pepper, chalk and a lovely meaty scent a few minutes later. Wow, really heady stuff and a second wave of dusty minerality wafted in. Seriously big-boned and what a feast this would make with a hearty slow-cooked osso buco. Ahhh! The purity of plum and kirsch flavors was profound and this was a heavy weight contender with extremely vibrant, smoky flavors that had zippy acidity and plenty of grip. Structurally speaking, this will age for another couple of decades and at thirteen still seems so primary even though the middle shows such great delineation already. A long drying finish with lush fruit, a smooth and long landing with a kiss of milk chocolate at the end. A wonderful melding of elegance and power. 94+ points
After that harmonious flight, there were just two more reds left, although we were now in our prime:
1997 Tomasso Bussola "BG" Amarone della Valpolicella Classico - Well at least it wasn't the incredible "TB" one of the greats of the 1997 vintage ... yet this our 2nd bottle of undrinkable corked juice.
1995 Fratelli Speri “Vigneto Monte Sant' Urbano” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico – The best was saved for last, strictly by coincidence. I’ve always appreciated the powerful intensity of the style produced by the Speri brothers and their extended family working the 60 hectares they own throughout the Valp region. That said, I typically prefer Allegrini in almost every vintage. An enticing nose that constantly morphed with time in the glass, blueberry and morello cherry sang in unison along with white pepper, Asian spice and a hint of mint later on. Here is the “Port-like” dark cherry, plum and roasted blackberry, impressively mouthfilling with a velvety texture, very rich and kept in check by penetrating acidity. This had me crooning like Enrico Caruso in my own head and some of the others liked this more and some less than a couple of the earlier bottles. For me, it hit the high notes and low undertones that drive me wild with a brooding Amarone just hitting its stride at fifteen. In another decade, this will be at its apex and I hope to have a chance to revisit it then. The finish left me speechless and this was my WOTN beyond a shadow of a doubt. 96+ points.
Normally I’d have broken out a nice bottle of dessert wine, in this case a 1993 Felsina Vin Santo came to mind, but the group seemed eager to drive home with the less-is-more attitude and who could blame them, as I was the only one who did not have to get behind the wheel. So after revisiting the remainders of the uncorked, unfinished bottles to help round out my impressions for these notes, it was time to polish off the last few ounces of the first non-corked 1983 Cockburn’s VP I’ve had in five years. Quite a feat after eight consecutive TCA-laced bottles, from 3 distinct cellars, on two continents. My tasting note will be in the next FTLOP newsletter. But to cut to the chase; 93 points.