Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ca' la Bionda Amarone della Valpolicella

One of the greatest perks of entering the wine industry has been that now I get to spoil my wife in yet another way; I now can spoil her with wine! My wife is traditional in some aspects; she loves a rich and robust Gewurztraminer or Auslese Riesling (as many women do), but, she also loves a velvety Amarone.

I've never written about this relatively recent gem from the Valpolicella  sub-region of Veneto, Italy, but it is certainly worthy of note. How many times have some of the finest products ended up as the result of some mishap or an experiment gone awry? Well, lucky for us, Amarone is one such story.

In this area just West and North of Verona, where the cool breezes flow down from Monte Baldo and the moderating influences of Lake Garda can be felt, this is where the magic began. And as I said, it began quite by mistake. The area has been known to produce a slightly sweet red wine for centuries upon centuries. The wine in question? Recioto.

Recioto has been recognized by Italians since the time of the Romans... the great scholar and philosoph Pliny the Elder even wrote about it! And it has been made in much the same manner for as long as people can remember. And in Italy, people have long memories.

The grapes in the Veneto region are not known for their depth or concentration. It is these cooling breezes from the mountains which, whilst preserving the grapes natural acidity can inhibit the grapes maturity. Grapes need heat in the day, and cool evenings, to really reach their peak. In Verona that just doesn't always happen. And so the locals began to dry the grapes to intensify the flavors before pressing (known as Appassimento).

Of course, drying (or dessicating) the grapes creates it's own challenges which include a number of not-so-favorable molds which can be incurred. Consider "Noble Rot" without the Noble. But - but the winemakers knew that they had hit upon a solid principle for dramatically increasing the flavor in their wines, and the public agreed.

Flash-forward to the 1930's and whilst a winemaker is fermenting his grapes he unwittingly leaves a cask of wine tucked in a corner. He stumbles upon it many months later and low and behold, his Recioto has fermented to dryness! No longer a sweeter style red, the new wine is slightly bitter (or Amaro in Italian) and develops characteristics of dark cocoa, coffee, savory black cherry) and layered in a structure that can age gracefully for a decade or longer. That winemaker released the first Amarone in 1936, but it took until 1953 to be formally recognized and it wasn't until 2009 that it was officially given DOCg status (* a symbol of top-level quality in Italy).

And through this struggle, Amarone has grown into over 25% of the total production of all wine in the Valpolicella region. And as for today's wine; the Ca' la Bionda???

Family run, family first. The Castellani family has been working this land since 1902 and has been instilling environmentally respectful initiatives since day one. Of course, 100 years ago it wasn't called environmentalism - it was just gold old fashioned horse-sense. One of the best examples of this is their use of the landscape in their production line. By placing some of the production downhill from the rest, they can use gravity-feeds to transport the wine. By eliminating mechanical feeds, they help preserve the integrity and quality of the product whilst preserving the integrity of the planet! Nicely done!

The Castellanis have also stopped the use of all herbicides, fungicides and weedkillers for decades. Perhaps the most costly though of all their initiatives? In 1990 the family re-built all of the terraces on their 30 acre vineyard site. I know a winemaker who use heavy tractors to "even-out" an entire slope, thus making it easier for his machinery to get in and eliminate or alleviate the need for manual labor. The result was that only a few years later a heavy rain came and washed half of his vineyard onto the highway. He lost millions and the landscape was scarred. Here we see the Castellanis working with ancient techniques to ensure a solid foundation (pardon the pun) for the future.

The results of this work are most keenly felt however, in the glass:

2007 Ca' la Bionda Amarone della Valpolicella
$50 CAD, 92+ Points

varietals:   70% Corvina, 20% Corvinone, 10% Rondinella
vine age:   15-30 years
yield:   maximum 8 tons per HA
altitude:   200 metres, south-facing
soil type:   rich limestone; calcareous marine-sediment
  • visual:   clear; medium+ intense garnet core with substantial cherry rim/some bricking
  • nose:   clean; medium+ intense and still youthful aromas; cherries and cherry-blossoms abound, some dark stewed fruit, a hint of dark cocoa
  • palate:   clean; dry, full raspberry acids, medium+ chalky/grippy tannin, medium body, medium+ ABV (15.5%), medium+ intense and youthful flavors that mimick the nose perfectly: stunningly rich cherry levels followed by a long line of precise minerality, fresh young flavors in harmony with a subtle earthiness. Very sound structure and great balance, medium+ to long length
  • conclusion:   a wine thoroughly enjoyable in it's youth, this will richly reward the patient cellar! Enjoy 2013-2025
  • FOOD PAIRINGS:   the bright acid calls for fat and the rich tannin calls for protein. Consider venison Stroganoff with wild mushrooms on Manitoba wild rice latke. Raspberry toned acid will always cosy to wild meat, and the cream in a Stroganoff will offset perfectly. The wild mushrooms enhance the slight earthy edge to the wine as does the wild rice, just in another way. I would make this  Stroganoff quite thick as well, so that it sat on the latke in a visually appealing manner.

It would have been easy, I think, for that winemaker in the 1930's to say that he had made a mistake. I find myself thinking that I've done so quite often. But what's important (to me right in this instant) is that he didn't. That fellow didn't judge himself, or critique harshly. No, no, in fact he gave himself, and the situation, the benefit of the doubt. He gave life a moment to show a possibility other then what he had anticipated. And what did life do?

Life gave him Amarone.

A good return on his investment. Just as the Castellanis are cashing in on the investment of time, energy, and devotion from four generations of their family toiling on their land. These vines aren't worked by family... they are tended. And why such ardor?  Because this family knows, as does any educated palate who samples their work, that this vineyard will continue to produce world-class wine for generations to come. Ask Jancis Robinson - she gave the 2005 vintage 18/20 which is higher then she rates many wines much more expensive then this!

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

CINCIN~!!!     SLAINTE~!!!     CHEERS~!!!

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