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PRODUCER PROFILE – MASI AGRICOLA

Masi winery valpolicella

If you live in Canada and like Italian wines, you have certainly come across the prodigious line up from Masi Agricola. They are known as one of the founding fathers of Amarone. Last week, I had the great pleasure of attending a tasting of some of their finest cuvées.

The process of drying the finest grapes to make richer, more concentrated wines is an old one in the Valpolicella region. However, until fairly recently, production was largely dedicated to crafting the sweet recioto style. Amarone, meaning “the great bitter”, refers to the technique of fermented the raisined grapes to near dryness, making for a full-bodied, high alcohol yet still luscious and velvetty red wine. Masi has dedicated generations to perfected their Amarone style. The grapes undergo the appassimento (drying) process on small bamboo racks in well aerated drying rooms. While the minimum drying time for the appellation is 55 days, Masi holds themselves to a higher standard, waiting an average of 100 days (until the grapes lose 35% of their weight). The resultant Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC wines are bold and intensely flavourful.

Masi’s ever continuing quest for quality improvement and innovation extends to all of their plethora of DOC and IGT wines.  Another case in point is Ripasso della Valpolicella. While the process of macerating the Valpolicella wines on Amarone pomace was used by many winemakers throughout the region, each estate had their own name for the technique. Masi coined the phrase “ripasso” in the 1980s and started selling the medium bodied reds internationally. The name and style caught on and, in 2009, a DOC was granted. By this time however, Masi had already abandoned the concept.

Masi’s ever continuing quest for quality improvement and innovation extends to all of their plethora of DOC and IGT wines.

They decided that simply steeping the lighter (and generally lesser quality) Valpolicella in the dregs of the Amarone wasn’t yielding the quality of wines they sought. They therefore developped a new process dubbed “double fermentation”. The concept is simple. The grapes are classed in three quality tiers; the best for Amarone, the second best for their former Ripasso wines and the third level (less concentrated grapes) for their simpler, every day wines . The second tier is further subdivided, with a portion immediately fermented and the rest put through the same appassimento process as Amarone, but only to a weight loss of 15%.  The dried grapes are added to the fermented wine causing a secondary fermentation to occur, making for a more complex, layered wine. Masi’s Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC wines like the delicious Montepiazzo cuvée are crafted in this manner.

Masi Agricola has been in the Boscaini family since 1772. Their story began with the acquisition of a vineyard plot called Vaio dei Masi (little valley). The estate was thus named and a legacy was born. Today, patriarch Sandro Boscaini heads up the estate, with children Alessandra and Raffaele managing the technical department. Like Robert Mondavi’s role promoting the Napa Valley, the Boscainis work tirelessly to show that the Veneto is capable of world class wines. Deemed “Italy’s wine factory” by Jancis Robinson, the region is best known for the millions of entry level bottles of light bodied Valpolicella and neutral Soave. Great vintages are rarely hailed in the press like those of Piedmont or Tuscany. The Boscainis have therefore taken matters into their own hands, creating a “5 star” concept to highlight top quality vintages like 2012. Weather conditions need to be optimal during the growing season and the appassimento period (good aeration of the drying grapes) for a vintage to be named.

My top picks from the tasting included the following:

Masi MontePiazzo Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC 2014 – 89pts. PW

Attractive dark ruby colour, with ripe notes of plum, black cherry, mixed spice and earthy undertones. Rounded acidity, medium bodied and a velvetty texture define the palate, with classic sour cherry flavours on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (27.00$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 10% Molinara

Masi Grandarella Refosco delle Venezie IGT 2011 – 88pts. PW

Refosco is an ancient variety, native to the Veneto region. It is generally quite a bold, tannic grape with a touch of bitterness. It is blended here, with Carmenère, which is planted in small pockets of the Veneto and Fruili regions. Intriguing aromatics of potpourri, red cherry, cedar and a subtle animal note define the nose. Pleasant on the palate, with a dense structure and tart acidity providing lift through the mid-palate. Ever so slightly rustic with ripe, chewy tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.30$), LCBO (28.95$)

Blend details: 75% Refosco, 25% Carmenère

Masi Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 1997 – 94pts. LW

A brilliant example of the ageing potential of fine Amarone. The nose delights, with a lovely mix of tertiary earthy, truffle and prune notes, and fresh red and black berry fruit. Still bold and full-bodied, yet showing the mellow smoothness of its age. Sweet sappy fruit, and lifted tones of sour cherry linger on the persistent finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (107.50$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara

Masi Campolongo di Torbe Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2009 – 95pts. LW

South west facing slopes catch the afternoon sun and benefit from the drying effects of the prevailing wind, ensuring optimally ripe, healthy grapes.  The result is an elegant wine, redolent with floral notes, cedar, black cherries, dark berries and subtle tertiary aromas. Firm, yet broad through the mid-palate with tangy acidity and a long, cigar box scented finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (107.50$ – 2007 vintage), LCBO (101.95$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara

Masi Serego Alighieri Vaio Armaron Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2008 – 92pts. LW

A denser, more structured style. Subtle botrytis notes on the nose interweave nicely with macerated black fruits, spice and dried floral aromas. Full bodied with big, chunky tannins that frame the cedar, cigar box scented finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (86.75$), LCBO (69.95$)

Blend details: 65% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 15% Molinara (Serego Alighieri clone)

Masi Mazzano Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2009 – 91pts. LW

Intense aromas of plum, mixed black berries and a lively minerality feature on the nose. Full bodied, fresh and tightly woven, with firm, chewy tannins and a lingering toasted note.

Where to buy: SAQ (99.25$), LCBO (101.95$ – 2007 vintage)

Blend details: 75% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 5% Molinara

Producers Reviews

Producer Profile – Maison Albert Bichot

Albert Bichot Vineyard Chablis

Big and beautiful. Albéric Bichot’s tireless quest for quality.

When I was novice wine student living in Burgundy, my viticulture professors (all local growers) insisted that serious wines could only come from small estates and never from the big, bad négociant firms.  To my teachers, wineries that produced large quantities and largely worked with grapes bought from other growers could never attain the same heights of elegance, aromatic complexity or precision as the small farmer working his own plot of land.  As time went on, I learnt that the lines were rather more blurry than I was led to believe.  First of all, many large Burgundian négociants have significant vineyard holdings, and a growing number of small domaines are starting to buy in additional fruit to grow their sales.  Secondly, quality-oriented négociants are so meticulous in their choice of grower partners and the winemaking techniques employed that exceptional wines are regularly being made by wineries with little or no vineyards.  Lastly, many small growers make poor wines.  Good things, it would seem, do not always come in small packages.

This subject came to mind after a tasting I attended last week with the charming Albéric Bichot. The very definition of this hybrid of grower/ négociant, Maison Albert Bichot owns a whopping 100 hectares of vines. Their estates are spread out across the entire region, from Chablis, to Nuits-St-Georges, to Pommard and Mercurey. They also buy significant quantities from growers to meet the demands of their large clientèle world-wide.  I asked Albéric what he thought about this rivalry between small growers and big négociant firms, and he responded with a wry smile and a typically Gallic shrug.  His philosophy is simple: make the best wines possible, and let the quality speak for itself.

His philosophy is simple: make the best wines possible, and let the quality speak for itself.

Albéric took up the reins of the (then) 165 year-old family firm in 1996. Before settling down to the business of managing such a vast empire, it is said that Albéric was a great adventurer, travelling through the wilds of northern Canada and Patagonia.  He dreamed of being an astronaut so the stories go. But after just 5 minutes of hearing him talk about his vines, it is obvious that he is where he is meant to be.  Over the past 20 years, he has worked tirelessly to raise the image of Maison Bichot.  The vineyards are all sustainably or organically farmed, the yields have been sharply reduced and the majority of sourced fruit is now purchased as grapes rather than finished wine. A spokesman for Burgundy in their successful bid to obtain UNESCO world heritage status for their 1247 climats (vineyard parcels), Albéric is passionate about crafting wines that express their terroir and vintage.

The proof is definitely in the glass.  We tasted through a selection of mainly 2012 Chablis and Côte d’Or wines. “Une grande année” (an excellent vintage) according to Albéric, with fantastic ageing potential. The wines were consistently pleasant throughout, showing vibrant fruit, lifted acidity and smooth textures. Stand outs in terms of value and quality included the following:

Maison Bichot “Secret de famille” Chardonnay 2012 – 90pts. PW

Albéric kindly shared the family secret here, which is that the grapes are sourced from just outside the boundaries of top Côte d’Or villages and vinified with all the care given to the crus.  An intriguing nose of spiced apricot with undertones of licorice and subtle minerality. Lifted acidity gives way to a medium bodied, smooth textured mid-palate with a soft, toasty oak finish.  Great value.

Where to Buy: Coming in 2016 to an SAQ near you… (23.95$)

Maison Bichot Chablis 2012 – 87pts PW

Bright lemony fruit. Lively and refreshing with nice depth of flavour through the mid-palate and a lifted, mineral finish.  Fairly simple on the nose, but still very enjoyable for a week day wine.

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.40$)

Domaine Long-Depaguit Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos” 2010 – 92pts. LW

This 63 hectare estate covers 10% of the total surface areas of Grand Cru vineyards in Chablis. The 2010 “Les Clos” is redolent with sweet, baked apricots, honey, lemon and subtle floral and mineral notes.  Searing acidity leads into a richly textured, juicy core followed by a lingering, toasted finish.

Where to Buy: SAQ Signature (68.00$)

Maison Bichot “Secret de famille” Pinot Noir 2012 – 90pts. PW

As per the white, the red “Secret de Famille” cuvée is a serious step up from your average AOC Bourgogne.  Seductive aromas of strawberry, cherry and violets are underscored by a pleasing earthiness. The tart acidity is balanced by a plush texture, smooth oak and firm, dusty tannins. Like the white, excellent for the price.

Where to Buy: SAQ (22.00$)

Maison Bichot Vosne-Romanée 2012 – 89pts. LW

Slightly closed on the nose, showing black and red berry fruit, rose petals, earthy notes and subtle spice upon aeration. Bracing acidity, showing power and concentration, with firm, ripe tannins and measured use of oak.  A little austere at present. Good potential, needs time to unwind.

Where to Buy: SAQ (67.25$)

Domaine du Clos Frantin Gevrey Chambertin “Les Murots ” 2012 – 93pts. LW

The star of the tasting! This high quality 13-hectare estate counts 8-hectares of Grand and Premier Cru vineyards. Rustic and earthy on the nose, with mixed red berries, soft floral notes and lots of minerality.  This wine really comes alive on the palate with vibrant acidity, bold fruit flavours, a silky texture and pronounced yet smooth tannins. Drinking well now, but will definitely improve with age.

Where to Buy: SAQ (65.25$)

Producers Reviews

Producer Profile – Paul-Henry Pellé

domaine henry pelle menetou-salon

I met Paul-Henry in 2005 when he was studying viticulture at the Lycée Viticole de Beaune and I was studying international wine commerce at the Beaune campus of the AgroSup Dijon. Amid the giddiness of his wine loving, party oriented crowd, he stood out from the pack. He knew how to let loose, but was just a shade quieter and wiser than the others; a bit of an old soul. We became fast friends; eating and drinking our way through Burgundy, the Loire and later South Africa.

Though he was too humble to brag about it, Paul-Henry stood to inherit a 40 hectare estate in Menetou-Salon; an AOC region in the extreme east of the Loire Valley, near Sancerre. In 2007, when his friends were heading off for overseas harvests and oenology degrees, Paul-Henry set out for home. He was to take up his responsibilities in the vines and the cellar; just 22 years old and already head of the estate. His father had passed away when Paul-Henry was only 10 years old. Since then, his mother had kept up the domaine’s excellent reputation with the help of a top quality hired oenologist, awaiting the next generation’s coming of age. Paul-Henry took up his charge with quiet dignity, rising to the challenge of managing staff who had known him since he was in diapers.

Over the next couple of years, I visited Paul-Henry a number of times for meals at the legendary C’heu l’Zib in Menetou-Salon (a hearty and animated, family-style Berrichon restaurant), for Paul-Henry’s legendary summer Garden Parties and, most importantly, for tastings at the winery. The Domaine Henry Pellé, named for Paul-Henry’s grandfather, is based in the village of Morogues. It is a pretty spot with stone houses and a lovely, old church, surrounded by green meadows, vineyards and forests. The Pelle’s Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir vineyards are dotted through the communes of Morogues, neighbouring Menetou-Salon and Sancerre.

As modest as ever, Paul-Henry would tell you that the poise and complexity of his wines is all due to terroir; Kimmeridgean clay-limestone marl soils made up of vast multitudes of fossilized oyster shells (locally called Terres Blanches). His first act upon returning home was to cut out all pesticides and herbicides, and start nourishing the soil with homegrown composts. His time in Burgundy had convinced him of the importance of working each parcel individually, to achieve a unique expression from each plot.

The same rigour is employed in the winery. Wherever possible grapes move to fermenting tanks by gravity flow and conveyor belts to avoid harsh pumping. Fermentation is temperature controlled in stainless steel and neutral oak vats. The top white cuvées are aged on their lees for added texture, while the top reds see subtle barrel ageing.  The wines are then bottled unfiltered to preserve their aromatic purity. Paul-Henry will tell you that his goal is to craft fresh, lively, balanced wines. But his best wines go so much further. They are elegant and intensely aromatic; an enticing procession of fresh, vibrant attack, creamy mid-palate and lifted, mineral-rich finish.

Sadly, Ontario readers, none are currently sold at the LCBO so you will just have to drive to Québec to stock up:

Domaine Henry Pellé Menetou-Salon Les Bornés 2014 – 89pts. PW

Les bornés means clay soil in the local Berrichon dialect. This easy-drinking white is aged 6 months in stainless steel on fine lees. The 2014 vintage is crisp and refreshing with intense aromas of citrus and quince. Light bodied with a hint of creaminess on the mid-palate and a lifted finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (20.65$)

Domaine Henry Pellé Morogues 2014 – 91pts. PW

A blend of 7 parcels from among the highest altitude slopes of the appellation, this Menetou-Salon is pure and racy, with a refined citrus fruit and white floral nose. More depth and textured than Les Bornes, this cuvee has a subtly saline notes on the palate and a lively, mineral-rich finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (23.35$ for 750mL / 13.55$ for 375mL)

Domaine Henry Pellé Menetou Salon “Les Blanchais” 2013 – 94pts PW

Les Blanchais is a single parcel cuvée from one of Pellé’s top vineyard sites in Menetou-Salon. The clay-limestone marl is interspersed with silex; a complexity of soils that Pellé feels speaks through the wine. The 50 year-old vines lend power and concentration, with intense citrus, grassy, floral and mineral notes on the nose and palate. There is a pleasing fullness to this wine, and a long, layered finish. Still taut, needs a few years’ cellaring or a couple of hours decanting to fully unwind.

Where to buy: SAQ (29.70$)

No Domaine Henry Pellé reds are currently imported, but you can contact the local agent for more information: www.vinsbalthazard.com