Praising The Raisining
Run by the Boscaini family - for the last fifty or so years headed by Sandro Boscaini, a.k.a. “Mister Amarone” – Masi’s list of achievements rightly sets it apart as one of the most successful and important winemaking dynasties in the Veneto. Famous for pioneering the ripasso technique, for its research into native grape varieties and into new strains of Amarone yeasts and for focussing upon a higher quality, fresher style of appassimento wine, freed from the traditionally oxidised character imparted by the dried grapes, none of these accomplishments can be under valued.
However, if you discuss these innovations with other producers in the area many of them will shrug and, albeit implicitly, leave you in little doubt that several of these advances have in fact been works in progress elsewhere for as long or longer than at Masi. I’m the first to admit that the politics of any aspect of Italian life are an absolute minefield and that this could very easily be a case of sour grapes, but equally Sandro Boscaini’s success is not entirely without controversy. Aside from suggestions that some of Masi’s work and achievements might not be unique, there is also a degree of disquiet over the exclusive direction in which Masi and others are trying to point the governance of the region’s wine production, particularly since the formation of the “Amarone Families” organisation and since Masi’s withdrawal from the Consortium of Valpolicella producers.
In recent years, and in no small part due to Masi and the Boscaini family, Amarone has become a huge international success and production has grown exponentially: from 2.3 million bottles in 1999 to more than 12.5 million bottles in 2010, resulting in lower prices and lower quality overall. The Amarone Families, an association of twelve of the most influential producers, was formed “to protect the integrity and quality of Amarone and to promote Amarone as a unique and special wine”, as president Sandro Boscaini expounded. He added that the expansion in production had “permitted sales of Amarone in discount stores and hypermarkets, at low prices unworthy of a classic fine wine. This is what the Families of Amarone want to protect by adopting rigorous regulations in terms of quality production and control of sales prices.” Something of a cartel? Possibly. But it is definitely an effective challenge to what most quality-minded producers see as the overly generous production rules of the consorzio.
I don’t say that Boscaini and Masi are wrong in their efforts to protect Amarone and nor do I say that their abandonment of the consorzio is in the best interests of the region as a whole, but I do believe that the current internal discord combined with the booming international popularity of Amarone should be used as a catalyst for meaningful and lasting change. For the good of all of the region’s producers this should be an inclusive process, and a consortium directed by a firm hand should be the ideal forum for debate and decision-making.
Unfortunately, as Monica Larner wrote in Wine Enthusiast, “Consortia are democratic institutions where the tangle of contradictory interests makes it virtually impossible to take any controversial decisions”. The deadlock between the large and powerful co-operatives and their quantitative imperative to provide a livelihood for their many smallholding members; the exclusive terroir, quality, history and price criteria of the Amarone Families’ manifesto, designed to protect their brand image; and the middle ground occupied by a new generation of internationally inspired, marketing savvy producers keen not to repeat the mistakes of the past yet lacking the heritage, the resources and the might of the other two sides of this equation, will be difficult to break.
I must state that none of this should be taken as a criticism of Masi’s wines. I have been fortunate enough to have grown up with a father who has been a huge fan of Masi’s Mazzano and Campolongo di Torbe for nearly thirty years; one of the house wines in my restaurant was Masi’s Modello delle Venezie Rosso; I used to work for the company that imports Masi wines into the UK and I still regularly reach for a bottle of Masi Tupungato’s Passo Doble come barbecue season. I have written before of my love of Zýmē’s Oz, yet my passion for Oseleta was ignited by Masi’s 1995 Osar and I am fortunate enough to still have a half case stashed in my cellar.
What can be said without fear of reproach is that the quality of Masi’s wines is self evident, and Sandro Boscaini’s tireless efforts to promote them around the world have brought great rewards both for him and for the Veneto as a whole.
A recent tasting of a selection of Masi’s appassimento wines at Hanging Ditch certainly did nothing to dissuade me from my continued enjoyment of them. Before I describe the wines on show, I should probably explain the concept of appassimento. Practised in the Veneto since Roman times, local grape varieties were laid out on racks in drying lofts over the winter to sweeten and concentrate the wine. Amarone is produced this way still, but Masi has also perfected contemporary variations on this technique to offer a wide range of dried grape wines from several different parts of the world.
The wines we tasted were:
1. Masi, Masianco 2011 IGT (13% ABV, £15.00)
An interesting blend of Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie (75%) and Verduzzo (25%) and a strange find in a line up of appassimento wines. That is until you realise that the Verduzzo portion of the blend was dried for three weeks and spent three months in barriques before being blended with the Pinot Grigio.
Crisp and fresh, yet with an atypical richness for a white wine from this region. Nutty and stone fruit flavours, savoury and complex, the semi-dried Verduzzo added creaminess and a glycerol weightiness to the mid-palate and finish. Long and very pleasant.
2. Masi, Campofiorin 2009 IGT (Magnum, 13% ABV, £30.00)
Campo Fiorin, as it was then named, began life in 1964 and was the first commercial ripasso wine. A “fresh” Valpolicella was “re-passed” over the pomace from the production of an Amarone to absorb any remaining sugar, tannin and flavour. This wine was then re-fermented to add a little extra body, structure and alcohol. Masi subsequently refined this technique and now utilises what it calls a “doppio fermentazione” (double fermentation) method instead. Rather than counting upon the unreliable benefits of the spent Amarone pomace, Masi now adds a percentage of dried grapes to the fresh wine and then re-ferments it.
25% of the grapes were dried for six weeks before being added to the fresh wine and re-fermented. This blend of 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella and 5% Molinara then spent eighteen months maturing in oak. Aromas of fresh cherry fruit, a floral/violet character and a light dusting of sweet spices to the nose kept it lively. Similar flavours carried through to palate and, even with the dried grape element, it retained a distinct Valpolicella character just with a little more body.
3. Masi, Brolo Campofiorin Oro 2008 IGT (14% ABV, £20.00)
The bigger brother of the standard Campofiorin cuvée above, “Brolo” means much the same as “Clos” in French and refers to a walled vineyard, in this instance the original Campofiorin vineyard. The composition differed slightly: there is no Molinara in the blend, simply 80% Corvina and 20% Rondinella. 30% of the grapes were dried for eight weeks and it spent two years in oak prior to bottling.
Deeper purple in colour, the nose was weightier, richer and fuller than the regular bottling with spicier, Amarone-esque dried fruit. Still dry, but fuller bodied and with a greater concentration of sweet, dried fruit flavours with a dark chocolate edge. Not as substantial as an Amarone, but stylistically very much closer to one than to a ripasso Valpolicella. Ripe tannins, reasonable acidity and appealing amaro bitterness to the finish rounded things off nicely.
4. Masi, Grandarella 2009 IGT (14.5% ABV, £27.50)
One of Masi’s self proclaimed “Super Venetians”, this was produced on the Stra' del Milione estate in Grave del Friuli to the east of the Veneto region. Made from 75% Refosco and 25% Carmenère, all dried for up to two and a half months, the name was an amalgamation of “Grano” (Grape) and “Arela” (a traditional bamboo rack that grapes are dried upon).
A deeper garnet hue than the previous wines, it showed a more savoury, tobacco and leather scented nose. Cassis and cinnamon/clove oak spice added to the melange. Dry, with firm ripe tannins, dark blueberry/bramble/blackcurrant fruit, concentrated and richly spiced. Modern and not at all Amarone-like, but a very pleasant and easy-to-drink wine nonetheless.
5. Masi Tupungato, Corbec 2009 (14.5% ABV, £30.00)
Argentinian soul, Venetian style: the generous, firm and exuberant nature of Argentinian wines met the agreeable, elegant and cordial style of Veneto wines. A cross cultural pairing of 70% Corvina and 30% Malbec, the “Cor” and “Bec” of its name, this fully appassimento style wine was made near Mendoza at about 1,000m above sea level. This altitude means that the climate is drier than that of the lower-lying Veneto and the grapes only needed to dry for approximately four weeks to achieve the desired degree of raisining.
Sweeter blueberry fruit and higher-toned on the nose than the previous wines, the palate showed the meatiness and structure of Malbec combined with the lighter fragrance of Corvina. Moderate tannins and acidity, bright flavours of blue fruits and tingly pepper spice made a very enjoyable wine, but for me it lacked some of the nervous tension of its Veneto cousins.
6. Masi, Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2008 DOC (15% ABV, £40.00)
A traditional blend of Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella grapes was dried for around four months and a small amount (10-20%) of botrytis coverage was encouraged to add glycerol and increase concentration. Dried cherry and cranberry fruit, cocoa and cinnamon and clove spice. Firm acidity and fine but firm tannins, lithe and elegant, dry yet with a richness of dried fruits. Not overly full bodied, more of a concentrated Valpolicella than an Amarone. Exactly as it should have been, I suppose, as was the long cherry and cocoa flavoured finish. Not massively rich or complex, but this is a comment on the vintage rather than on the wine.
7. Masi, Amabile degli Angeli Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 2008 DOC (14% ABV, £40.00)
Made in a very similar fashion to the Amarone above. The grapes are dried for a slightly shorter period, but the major difference was that the fermentation was not completed, resulting in a richer, sweeter wine. Deeper coloured and more viscous than the Amarone, with a noticeably sweet, prune-scented nose. The palate was laced with sweet prune fruit and a dark chocolate – almost port-like – richness. Modest complexity, the moderate tannins and acidity balanced the sweetness. This needed good cheese, good friends and good conversation to show at its best.
For more information about Masi and its role in the rise in popularity of Amarone, read Kate Singleton's book "Amarone: The Making Of An Italian Wine Phenomenon", available here. For more information about Masi's wines, head down to Hanging Ditch.