Recently, winemaker Cristian Ridolfi presented wines from the Vento, Italy-based Bertani winery during a lunch for members of the wine trade at Georgetown’s Cafe Milano. Most of the presentation and sampling focused on the winery’s most prized wine: Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico.
Amarone is made in the moderate climate of Valpolicella–a smaller region within Veneto–where red wines are mostly light and food-friendly, with high acidity and red cherry flavors. But the unique wine-making techniques used for Amarone, gives the region’s native grapes–Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella–a much more powerful expression in a dry red wine that retains good acidity and offers deeper, more complex flavors.
Grapes for Amarone are left to ripen on the vine few more weeks than those for more basic–increasing the sugar levels in the grapes and adding more complexity. Once picked, the grapes are transported to lofts where they are left to dry on straw mats in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment that reduces the potential for rot. After about 120 days, the partially dehydrated grapes are then crushed, and the resulting concentrated juice is left to ferment with the skins in a slow, cold fermentation process that provides ample opportunity for the wine to extract flavors and tannins from the grape skins. The fermentation process continues until the Amarone is “dry,” with little sugar and a high alcohol content. The wine is then separated from the skins and aged in oak barrels–either the traditional (for Amarone) large Slovenian oak casks or smaller French oak barrels.
For a classic styled Amarone, don’t expect big oak and vanilla-laden profiles common to many internationally styled wines. Instead, expect ripe red cherry, spice, crisp qualities (related to high acid), and a good bit of alcohol. Thanks to the acidity, their wines can age for decades and develop some meaty, earthy notes, while not losing all their fruit flavors. A quality wine will balance these elements and work well with a wide range of foods from Italian specialties to steak. At our lunch, the Bertani Amarone worked beautifully with both a pasta dish with pork sausage, mushrooms, and truffles in a cream-based sauce as well as a grilled veal steak.
Interestingly, Amarone is a relatively recent wine style for Italy–if you consider 60 or so years recent, as compared to centuries of winemaking in Europe. Originally, the process of using dried grapes was used to make sweet red wines, stopping fermentation before most of the sugar turned to alcohol. These sweet wines–called Recioto–remain on the market today, along with Amarone. Supposedly, early Amarone wines were Recioto wines that accidentally fermented dry.
With its first vintage Amarone in 1958, Bertani was the first to commercially produce Amarone. According to the Oxford Companion of Wine, Bolla also began to produce and market Amarone in the 1950s. In 2009, Amarone producers in Vento gained DOCG status, which grants a government certification of authenticity and quality.
And because no good grape should ever go to waste, Italians use the grape skins left over from the Amarone/Recioto processes to flavor a second wine: a Ripasso. These skins are mixed in with a basic Valpolicella wine to make it a more interesting and complex drink. It is certainly a great alternative to a basic wine for those who cannot afford a more expensive Amarone, or those who prefer a lower-alcohol, less-intense version.
Both Amarone and Recioto wines can age and improve for decades. In fact, the Bertani winery recently discovered Recioto wines–hidden during World War II behind brick walls on one of their estates–that dated back to 1928. Despite their age, these wines maintained quality and fruit that can be enjoyed today.
At the lunch we tasted four vintages of the Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico from different vintages–2003, 1998, 1980, and 1967, in addition to two other Bertani wines. The Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico is made with grapes grown in the winery’s vineyards at the Villa Novare–a property the winery purchased in the 20th century–and aged for about six years in Slovenian oak barrels and then for at least another year in bottle before release.
Ridolfi explained that the various vintages of the Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico showcased the ability of the winery to maintain a relatively consistent style that remains true to its classic original. However, he noted, the winery does not eschew modern-winemaking techniques. Instead the winery employs state-of-the art winemaking technology without compromising the wine’s traditional style, continuing the use of large Slovenian oak casks for aging. In contrast, many modern Amarone makers strive for a more modern style by using much smaller French oak barrels that change the flavor profile of this wine.
All the Amarone wines at the lunch were in good condition, with the younger ones showing a bit more acidity and fruit. But the most exciting was the 1967 Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, which had retained good color, fruit flavors, and acidity. The grapes for this wine were harvested in 1967, but it remained in large Slovenian oak barrels until bottling in 1985. Its condition was incredibly good, with cherry flavors and some floral (roses) complexity that paired magically with our meal. Interesting, the group was divided on which course it best suited, with some suggesting it was better with the pasta, while some of the others (including me) enjoyed it best with the veal. This bottle’s suggested retail is $420, but you may find better deals online. The other Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico wines ranged in price from $120 to $230 per bottle. MacArthur Beverage lists a 2001 Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella Classico in stock for $97.99.
With appetizers, we also enjoyed a white Bertani Due Uve, which consisted of a blend of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc that are produced separately, blended, and then aged on the lees (yeast). The peachy Pinot Grigio flavors tempered the Sauvignon Blanc, and the aging on the lees added more complexity. The result was a flavorful wine with an aromatic nose. This is a very affordable wine priced at $15.99 a bottle.
The Secco-Bertani Ripasso offers consumers another opportunity to taste Bertani history. In production for more than 15 years, this wine is lighter than the Amarone, but made with the same native Italian grapes. It is aged in both Slovenian oak (75%) and French oak (25%). Chevy Chase Wine and Spirits sells this wine for $21.49 a bottle.
Originally published on Examiner.com.