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The unique, ageworthy wines of Amarone

amarone wine
Photo credit: Tedeschi Wines

With so much cross over nowadays, in terms of viticultural and winemaking techniques, it is getting harder and harder to find unique wine styles. Burgundian look-a-like Chardonnay is cropping up through-out Australia. German Rieslings are getting drier and more alcoholic, especially in the warmer sub-zones, making them harder to differentiate from Alsace.

To make matters worse (from the point of view of a Masters of Wine student), popular grape varieties – think Syrah or Sauvignon Blanc – are being planted all around the world. Deducing the origin of a wine in a blindtasting scenario has never been so complicated.

So when you (the wine student) are handed a glass of inky, dense, full-bodied red wine, with a heady fragrance of stewed black fruits, figs, kirsch, peonies, and spice, you find yourself smiling. For Amarone is truly a wine apart.

A dense, full-bodied red wine, with a heady fragrance of stewed black fruits, figs, kirsch, peonies, and spice.

Hailing from the Valpolicella region of Northeast Italy, Amarone is a very specific wine style. It is made from the same indigenous grapes as Valpolicella, but from the best vineyard sites featuring mature vines and lower yields. Harvested at optimal ripeness, the grapes are then left to shrivel in warm, ventilated drying lofts for several months. For more information on this special process, called appassimento, click here to read my article “Valpolicella 101”.

Once the grapes are deemed sufficiently raisined, they are lightly crushed and then macerated at cool temperatures for an extended period prior to fermentation. This “cold soak” process allows good colour and aromatic development without excessive tannin extraction. A long, relatively cool fermentation follows bringing the wines to near dryness, with warming alcohol levels, regularly surpassing 15%.

Amarone is a very specific wine style…from the best Valpolicella vineyard sites featuring mature vines and lower yields.

An extended ageing period follows in small barrels or large oak casks whereby tannins mellow, wines harmonize, and aromatic complexity heightens. This is where “tertiary” aromas and flavours like fig, leather, or earthy notes originate.

On a grey, blustery day last month, I pulled the hood of my parka tightly about my face, and trudged through the snow to a very worthy event. The 13 Valpolicella estates that make up the Famiglie Storiche were in town presenting a vertical tasting of Amarone.

This group of prestigious, family-owned wineries share a passion for Amarone as a symbol of the Valpolicella territory. They hold themselves to a higher standard of quality than is required for the appellation.

The aim of the Famiglie Storiche estates is to show the world just how impressive Amarone can be when produced to the highest quality standards.

They believe that the finest, Amarone-worthy vineyards are situated on slopes. These hillside vines receive more direct sunlight, allowing for optimal ripening. Furthermore, these sites have shallow soils that limit vine vigour, lowering grape yields, and thus giving wines of greater concentration and intensity. Grapes are left to ripen to a minimum potential alcohol of 15%. The appassimento period is longer, and the minimum oak ageing duration is 36 months (vs. 24 months required for basic Amarone).

The aim of the Famiglie Storiche estates is to show the world just how impressive Amarone can be when produced to the highest quality standards. The Montréal tasting spanned vintages from 8 to 20 years-old, and ably proved how age-worthy fine Amarone can be.

The stand out wines of the tasting for me were the following. For the ultimate Amarone evening, scroll to the bottom for a great local recipe.

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out)

Torre d’Orti Amarone della Valpolicella 2010 – 92pts. LW

A modern, opulent style of Amarone with lavish new French oak nuances (cedar, sweet spice), and a dense, yet velvetty texture. Ultra-ripe dark cherry and plum fruit feature on the nose, underscored by notes of dark chocolate. Fresh, full-bodied, and moderately tannic, with well-integrated 15% alcohol. Hints of tobacco linger on the finish.

Where to buy: L’Enoteca di Moreno de Marchi (Québec)

Masi “Costasera” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2007 – 94pts. LW

Classico is a term used in many Italian vineyards referring to the historic growing area of a region, from which the vineyards spread outwards. The Classico sub-zone is generally considered the “heart” of the appellation, often consisting of the best vineyard sites.

Masi’s dark, brooding Costasera 2007 is still incredibly youthful, featuring vibrant acidity and a tightly knit palate structure. Elegant, complex aromas of peony, rose, dark fruits, and cocoa delight on the nose. The mid-palate shows great depth of flavour, with meaty, savoury nuances adding interest. The tannins, while polished, are still quite firm. Needs a few more years cellaring to mellow and integrate further.

Where to buy: Authentic Wines & Spirits (national)

Musella Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva 2006 – 94pts. LW

Riserva refers to wines aged longer before bottling. The minimum duration for Riserva status is 4 years (vs. 2 years for basic Amarone).

Intense aromas of licorice, red cherry, blueberry, plum and dried fruit feature on the nose. The palate is highly concentrated, with a velvetty smooth texture, and perfectly balanced acidity. Very firm, grippy tannins frame the finish. This bold, weighty, warming red needs an equally hearty meal to do it justice.

Where to buy: Importation le Pot de Vin (Québec)

Tenuta Sant’Antonio “Campo dei Gigli” Amarone della Valpolicella 2004 – 90pts. LW

Intriguing aromas of prune, licorice, tobacco, and pepper gain in intensity upon aeration. Fresh, and full-bodied, with a moderately concentrated core of sweet dark fruit and savoury hints. Moderately firm, powdery tannins diffuse across the palate, framing the finish nicely. Drinking well now.

Where to buy: Mark Anthony Wines (national)

Tedeschi “Capitel Monte Olmi” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2001 – 95pts LW

A massively structured red, with a dense, richly textured palate profile. Brimming with blueberry, cherry, fig, mocha, sweet spice, and tobacco notes, this is an incredibly complex, fragrant wine. The whopping 16% alcohol is seamlessly integrated, as are the firm, ripe tannins. Drinking well now, with the power and depth to hold for several years yet.

Where to buy: La Céleste Levure (Québec), Noble Estates (Ontario)

Speri “Vigneto Monte Sant-Urbano” Amarone della Valpolicella 1998 – 92pts. LW

Dried fruit, herbal notes, roasted nuts, and mineral nuances feature on the nose of this 20-year old beauty. Still very fresh, and firm on the palate, with a layered complexity of prune, leather, and tobacco flavours. Overall, a very harmonious, well integrated red with a powerful, concentrated nature, and lengthy finish. Drink now before freshness fades.

Where to buy: Lifford Wines (Ontario)

Pairing Suggestions

Amarone should be opened several hours before serving, and decanted if possible. I prefer it chilled down a couple of degrees. The alcohol can feel quite hot on the finish if served too warm.

While dining in the Valpolicella region a couple of years ago, I was served the most decadent meal, with a fine Amarone. It was a rich, savoury risotto, made by replacing the majority of broth with Amarone wine. It is absolutely delicious, but remember… a little goes a long way!

Click here for the recipe. Buon appetito!

Education Life

An Overview of Italian Wine! Che Figata!

overview of italian wines

If I could only pick one vacation destination for the rest of my life it would be Italy. Hands down. No need to ponder over it. Easy decision. Why, you ask? Because, even at Autogrill, the country’s largest highway fastfood chain, you can get a decent panini, a drinkable glass of wine, and a delicious espresso.

The husband and I once spent a fantastic week skiing in the Aosta valley. At the resort restaurant, there was table service, amazing pasta, and hearty reds served in attractive stemware. Oh, and did I mention that it was cheap! I still dream about it.

I have traveled to Italy more than a dozen times, and there are still so many places I haven’t seen, or want to re-visit. I love the food, the wine, the coffee, the diversity and beauty of the landscapes, and especially the people. They seem to have perfected a sort of nonchalant confidence that is infectious.

And the language! I could sit in a café in a piazza all day, drifting from cappucino, to prosecco, listening to the melodic sound of Italian banter. Learning the language is definitely on my (very long) bucket list.

…roughly 2000 different wine grapes are grown in Italy today…

Italy boasts an incredibly diverse wine culture. According to Riccardo Ricci Curbastro of FEDERDOC (Italian agency for appellation wines), over 70% of Italy consists of hills and mountains. This, combined with the limited number of easily navigable rivers, meant that trade between the different regions was slow to develop historically. Each province developed their own foods, and cultivated their indigenous varieties. Italian wine grape expert Ian D’Agata estimates that roughly 2000 different wine grapes are grown in Italy today.

From north to south, hill to vale, Italy’s temperate to warm climate makes all regions, including its islands, suitable for grape vine cultivation. Take a drive down country lanes in any corner of Italy, and you will see vineyards somewhere along the way.

Italy is the largest wine producer in the world, beating out its nearest rivals France and Spain. It churned out almost 51 million hectolitres of wine in 2016 (equivalent to 6.6 billion bottles!). That’s a lot of vino.

Italy is the largest wine producer in the world, beating out its nearest rivals France and Spain

The driving force behind Italy’s prolific output is the popularity of its sparkling wines. Prosecco is the best-selling sparkling wine on the planet, and vast oceans of Asti (formerly Asti Spumante) are shipped around the globe.

Italy is also home to a wide number of crisp, refreshing white wines, and an impressive range of dry reds. From Chianti, to Barolo, to Amarone, the list of Italian wines worth a sip (or three) is endless.

February is Italian wine month here at! I have a great line up of Italian wine and food articles coming your way, including:

From cheap & cheerful, to seriously trendy, you’ll discover why all the cool kids are drinking Lambrusco (Italy’s famous red sparkling wine).

A vertical tasting of Valpolicella’s crown jewel: Amarone (from 2010 back to 1998) from the group of family-owned wineries that comprise the prestigious Famiglie Storiche

Women in wine! A feature on some amazing Italian wine divas.

Local recipes with a host of different wine pairing options

And so much more….

So, stay tuned, and thanks for reading! Ciao.



Education Life

Beat the winter blues with these big, balanced reds

big, bold red wine winter fresh balanced
Photo credit: Catena Zapata Winery (Adrianna Vineyard, Tupungato)

Winter hit us like a ton of bricks this year. It was like someone flipped a switch; from lazy Indian summer to North Pole overnight. In Montréal, we have broken records held nearly 150 years for longest, extreme cold snap. And it is only mid-January…

So, what do you drink when you can’t feel your face?

VODKA. Well, yes, but this is a wine blog folks, so I am thinking more along the lines of full-bodied red wines.

Before I go on, let me first apologize to my fellow wine geeks for this heresy. It is terribly uncool here to champion rich, dense, dark fruited red wine. There seems to have been a secret committee meeting amongst local wine writers and sommeliers whereby it was decreed: crisp, light wines good/ big, bold wines bad. I guess my invitation was lost in the mail.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the lighter reds too. If I was on a desert island, and I could only choose one red wine region for the rest of my life I’d pick Burgundy in a heart beat…but it would be hot on this island.

I don’t know about you, but when my fingers and toes feel like they might fall off, I don’t want a chilled Beaujolais. I want something that is going to light a fire in my belly; something with such rich, luscious fruit that I almost believe it will be summer again one day.

What I don’t want is a sweet, oaky, fruit bomb, with alcohol so fiery it tastes like kirsch. It is these wines that have given the full-bodied, high alcohol red category such a bad name in wine connoisseur circles. The missing element to these heavy, clumsy wines is balance.

Imagine a see-saw, or a two-sided weighing scale. On the one side, you have sweet, ultra-ripe fruit and high alcohol. In order to achieve equilibrium, you need an equivalent level of vibrant acidity. When these elements are in harmony, the fruit becomes brighter (less cloyingly sweet), and the alcohol is far less perceptible.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. There are far more factors at play. Not the least of which is the quality of the tannins. In a well balanced wine, they can vary from soft to quite firm (depending on the grape variety), but are smooth. That is to say, lacking the unpleasant bitterness or astringency they possess when under-ripe.

But how to find these wines amongst the vast selection on liquor store shelves?

One solution is to seek out hot, sunny regions with cooling influences. Factors like a refreshing maritime breeze, or high altitude, can slow the ripening process. The vines get plentiful warmth and sunshine for optimal sugar accumulation through-out the day, but at night, cooler air halts plant respiration and metabolism, allowing acid levels to drop more gradually. This drawn out grape vine maturation also allows tannins (naturally occurring compounds found in the grape skin, stems and pips) more time to fully ripen.

Here are just five such regions to look out for this winter:

Central Otago, New Zealand

Central Otago is a mountainous, inland region whose vineyards are the most southerly in the world. This land of extremes boasts the coldest winters, and the hottest day time summer temperatures, in all of New Zealand. The vines are planted on steep slopes, as high as 420 metres in altitude. They enjoy abundant sunshine during the day, with thermostat readings regularly exceeding 30°c. However, at night, temperatures can plummet to as low as 10°c. The region also has high UV levels, resulting in thick skinned grapes. Thicker skinned grapes have greater concentrations of polyphenols (compounds responsable for colour pigmentation, many of wines flavours, and tannic structure). Therefore, depending on winemaking procedures, thick skinned grapes tend to produce dark coloured, fragrant wines, with robust tannins.

Pinot Noir is King in Central Otago. While this variety is generally known for its pale, lighter bodied reds, here the wines are richly coloured, intensely aromatic, and bold in structure. Flavours range from ultra-ripe dark cherry, and plum, to crushed raspberries, with hints of thyme. They are vibrant, fresh, and highly concentrated, with smooth, ripe tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Rippon, Felton Road, Peregrine, Akarua, Mt. Difficulty

Gigondas, France

The Southern Rhône valley is famed for its sunny, mediterranean climate and rich, powerful Grenache, Syrah blends. Châteauneuf-du-pape is the most acclaimed, premium appellation. The double effect of the baking hot sun, and the large, rounded stones that adorn the vineyard floors, reflecting light and warmth back up to the vines, make for massive, velvetty smooth, alcoholic reds with raisined fruit. Looking for something similar, but with a more vibrant, fresher fruited character? Gigondas is the answer.

The vineyards surrounding this tiny town are perched on the edge of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains at 100 to 430 metres in altitude. Temperatures are marginally cooler here. On the rare wintry days I experienced while living here, there was often a layer of snow in Gigondas, whereas just 5km away in the lower lying Vacqueyras, and Châteauneuf-du-pape, the fields remained green. Pockets of sandy soils at the foothills, and limestone-heavy areas further up, also contribute to the fresh, elegant style of the grapes grown here.

Wineries to look out for: Domaine des Bosquets, Château St. Cosme, Domaine de Longue Toque, Perrin, Domaine de la Bouïssière, Pierre Amadieu

Mendoza (Valle de Uco, Lujan de Cuyo), Argentina

The Uco Valley, at the foot of the Andes mountains, is located in the upper reaches of the Mendoza region. Vineyards are among the highest in the world, at 800 – 1100 metres.  Poor, free draining soils encourage vines to dig deep for moisture and nourishment, resulting in low yields and highly concentrated wines. The favourable climate conditions (hot, sunny days, cool nights, high UV levels, and long, dry growing season) has attracted many prominent French wine producers to set up shop. Further north, on the banks of the Mendoza river, lie the vineyards of Lujan de Cuyo. Sitting at 1000 metres in altitude, with cooling alpine breezes, this hot, dry sub-region also benefits from significantly cooler night air.

Malbec is the major grape produced here*. The wines are dark in colour, with lots of body, and velvetty smooth tannins. The Uco Valley examples are wonderfully vibrant, with elegant floral and ripe dark fruit aromas. Lujan de Cuyo wines are almost black in colour, and equally dense on the palate. Ultra-ripe black fruits, exotic spice, and mineral hints feature on the nose and palate.

* Cabernet Sauvignon and, increasingly, Cabernet Franc, also show great promise here.

Wineries to look out for: Catena Zapata, Achaval Ferrer, O. Fournier, Lurton, Zuccardi (the higher end, 20$+ wines), Trapiche (Terroir Series)

Ribera del Duero, Spain

The vineyards of the Ribera del Duero are located in the Castilla y Leon region, due north of Madrid, and south west of Rioja. The vineyards are planted on a high plateau, 600 to 800 metres above sea level. Hot, sunny days are tempered by chilly nights, thanks to the region’s elevated position, and to regular cold winds. Day-to-night temperature can vary by more than 50°c. These dramatic fluctuations allow for a very gentle ripening pace. Grapes are generally not harvested before late October. The Duero river divides this semi-arid land, providing a much needed water source for the vineyards to thrive.

This is red wine country. All blends must be composed of at least 75% Tempranillo (locally referred to as Tinto Fino or Tinta del Pais). The balance can be made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and/ or Malbec. Up to 5% of Garnacha, or the indigenous Albillo, can also be used. There are strict rules on wine ageing before the wines are bottled and released for sale. The levels range from: Crianza (2 years’ ageing, minimum 1 year in oak), Reserva (3 years’ ageing, minimum 1 year in oak), Gran Reserva (minimum 2 years in oak + 3 years’ in bottle).

At their best, Ribera del Duero reds are inky black, highly concentrated and full-bodied. Intense aromas of dark berry fruit and mocha are underscored by attractive French oak nuances (toasty, spicy notes). They are very fresh, firmly structured, but smooth, with elegant, polished tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Vega Sicilia & Dominio de Pingus (if you have very deep pockets), Bodegas Protos, Aalto, Finca Villacreces, Bodegas Valduero, Emilio Moro

Santa Barbara County, California

A mere 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, lies the vineyards of Santa Barbara county. The topography of this region is unique, in that the valleys run east to west, rather than the more standard north to south. There is massive diversity to be found here in terms of soil types and microclimates. The vineyards located on the eastern foothills are cooled by fog and ocean breezes funneled through the surrounding hills and mountains. Appellations such as Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley (especially the Ballard Canyon sub-zone for Syrah), and Sta Rita Hills, are gaining prominence.

Pinot Noir is the most planted red varieties in Santa Barbara County. It is generally dark in colour, with dense, powerful structure, and impressive depth of flavour. Very fragrant on the nose; brimming with black cherry, plum, and floral aromas. Syrah is also gaining in prominence. Imagine a mid-way point between a jammy, lush Shiraz and a crisp, taut Northern Rhône Syrah. This is a common style here. Rich, ripe dark berry fruit, lively acidity, full body, smooth, rounded mouthfeel, and firm, elegant tannins.

Wineries to look out for: Domaine de la Côte, Sanford, Au Bon Climat, Bien Nacido, Ojai Vineyard, Fess Parker


Reviews Wines


Week-end wine recommendations
Photo credit: Maison Gabriel Meffre 

For your drinking pleasure on this chilly first week-end in December, I offer a mixed bag of under 20$* whites & reds! My apologies for the extended blogging hiatus…a gorgeous little baby named Charlie is my excuse. He has graciously agreed to start sleeping for more than 2 hours in a row, so I should be back to inundating the web with my wine musings shortly!

* Okay, I added one over 20$ red…but it is worth every single extra penny!

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out)

Laurus Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2015 – 93pts. VW

Viognier and Roussanne predominate in this highly textured, fragrant, full-bodied white. Aromas of white peach, yellow apple, ripe lemon and acacia feature on the nose. The medium weight palate offers a lovely freshness, concentrated stone fruit flavours and spicy oak nuances. The finish is long and layered.  This is an absolute steal at under 20$.

Where to buy: SAQ (19.95$), agent: Elixirs Vins & Spiritueux

Attems Pinot Grigio 2016, Venezia Giulia – 88pts. VW

This is a clear step up from the majority of thin, neutral Pinot Grigios flooding liquor store shelves these days.  Suprisingly fragrant, with yellow apple, quince and ripe lemon aromas. Crisp and dry on the palate, with a subtly creamy, layered texture, and interesting savoury nuances on the moderate length finish. Great apéritif wine.

Where to buy: SAQ (18.55$), agent: Mark Anthony Wine & Spirits

Gustave Lorentz “Réserve” Pinot Blanc 2016, Alsace – 89pts. VW

If you haven’t discovered the wines of Alsace yet, you are missing out! While not considered a “noble grape” in Alsace, well-made Pinot Blanc is often lively and rounded, with pretty orchard fruit aromatics, a subtle smokiness and an attractive, ever-so-slightly off-dry finish. Gustav Lorentz “Réserve” ticks all the boxes, with nice depth of ripe citrus and apple flavours on the smooth, medium weight palate. The finish is faintly honeyed, balancing the fresh acidity nicely.

Where to buy: LCBO (17.95$), agent: Amethyst Wines 

Casa Ferreirinha “Papa Figos” 2016, Douro – 89pts. VW

Inviting nose of ripe dark fruit and red cherries, with floral and spiced hints. Moderately firm on the palate, this medium bodied Douro blend displays lovely freshness, powdery tannins and a dry, lifted finish. A quarter of the blend is matured in used barrels, rounding out the structure and bringing a subtle earthiness to the mix. Fantastic value for this highly versatile, food friendly red!

Where to buy: SAQ (16.95$), agent: Authentic Wines & Spirits Quebec

Domaine Theulot-Juillot Mercurey Vieilles Vignes 2015 – 91pts. PW

If you love juicy, fragrant, silky textured red Burgundy (but have stopped buying them due to the scary prices these days) this wine is for you! The nose is subdued, with moderately complex earthy, red berry and tea leaf notes developping upon aeration. The palate, however, is wonderfully vibrant, brimming with tangy red fruit. Medium bodied, with well integrated spicy, toasty oak. Moderately firm, fine-grained tannins frame the dry, lengthy finish.

Where to buy: LCBO (26.95$)


THE DEATH OF JOY: Comparative tastings and the standardization of style

Comparative wine tastings standardization

It is human nature to want to compare; to establish a bench mark and then try to measure up. In our Darwin-esque “survival of the fittest” mentality, we are trying to survive by determining who is best and how to emulate them. We love to give out trophies and scores and proclaim that x is better than y, and that all should prefer x. And the supposedly genteel, refined world of wine is no different.

I regularly read articles on comparative tastings that look to rock the establishment with proclamations that new world, less well reputed vineyards are superior to their renowned old world counterparts. In a famous 1976 tasting dubbed “The Judgement of Paris”, Californian Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons beat white Burgundies and red Bordeaux in a series of blind tastings.   Just last week, an Australian publication proudly announced that the new wave of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers from the Yarra Valley and New Zealand are better than Burgundy, often for half the price.

While I understand that new regions, looking to gain in respect and notoriety from wine consumers, can help their cause by likening their wines to revered vineyards. And I relate to the need to set a goal and aspire to achieving the greatness we perceive in others… I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that the wine industry seems stuck in a comparison rut.

I love the freshness, the fruit purity and precision of a good Central Otago Pinot Noir. And I love the elegance, complexity, and structure of a Chambolle-Musigny. I especially appreciate the fact that both styles exist to compliment different meals and occasions. Why determine that one is better than the other? Who decides what the best criteria is to make such a choice? And why should we trust their judgement?

The writer that hailed Yarra Valley as better than Burgundy based his decision on “freshness, primary fruit and verve”. Burgundian winemaker, Benjamin Leroux, argued that the majority of his fellow producers were not looking to highlight those characteristics but rather focus on structure. Two different approaches and preferences, that ultimately both result in great wines. So why not simply celebrate the wealth of diversity in styles?

Yes, it is irksome to pay so much more for the supposedly great wines from fabled vineyards, than purportedly better wines from newer origins. But so far these constant comparisons have not resulted in significant price decreases for the former. They just drive up prices for the latter… Great for the grower, but not so much for the drinker!

Mark Twain once said that “comparison is the death of joy”.

Our obsession with determining a uniform best, rather than savouring well-made wines from around the world for their individual charms, is a glum affair.

In the 1990s/early 2000s, when winemakers in Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-pape saw that more extracted, oakier wines were receiving higher Robert Parker scores, there was a rush to replicate the style and a generation of copycat wines emerged. I for one would rather have a wealth of styles from the light, fresh and fruity to the big, bold and tannic and everything in between. For, as many different types of wine that exist, there are an equal number of different consumer preferences, palates, dishes to pair with and so on. In my humble opinion, that is the principle joy of wine.