25 Oct 2012

Meeting Mister Amarone

BEDECKED in stripes, from suit to socks, Sandro Boscaini, President of Masi Agricola, was in town to celebrate the launch of a hardback about arguably the best-known wine from Valpolicella, from where he was born. ‘Amarone - The Making of an Italian Wine Phenomenon’ is written by British expat, Kate Singleton (who also collaborated on Wines of Sicily and The Golden Book of Chocolate). Six corks, one embossed grace its cover.
Despite a general title, the book’s focus is on producer, Masi (something, judging by their review, which irked one Amazon buyer in search of a more encompassing account). Perhaps the title used in Italy, ‘Mister Amarone’, which Boscaini told me he fought in vain for three months to see adopted in English-speaking markets, could have prevented such confusion?
Singleton’s philosophy degree seems to pervade her work, as seen in near lyrical sentences such as: ‘air, fire, earth and water have all played a prodigious role in its formation’. She also, on occasions, switches into near chatty tone, e.g. writer/broadcaster, Paolo Roberto is described as having ‘real punch’. Conversely, things can head overly highbrow, as seen here: ‘Sandro Boscaini likens the homeland of the giant family to a Futurist painting. The mixed metaphor is a little startling, but eloquent. While it clearly does not embrace the Futurists’ declared rejection of the past, it does suggest what those early twentieth century artists described as “dynamic sensation”, whereby “all things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing...”’
Amid photo plates of rolling landscapes, glossy grapes, and a mildly pornographic slide of a smiling ‘interpretation of Venetian Civilisation’, are family photos, including, charmingly but incongruously, the boy Boscaini dressed as sailor on a trip to Holland...
Singleton is as clearly fond, indeed deferential of the Masi family (to the extent readers will learn about its members’ preoccupation with risotto experimentation) as she is the press. Of Masi wines from Mazzano, she writes: ‘Little wonder that Jancis Robinson, the doyenne of British wine writers, described it as “perhaps the truest, and certainly the highest, vineyard for Valpolicella’s oddity called Amarone.’”
Overall, however, Singleton succeeds in making significant efforts to capture Boscaini’s determined character.  By the end of the 1970s, Sandro was so disgruntled by the behaviour of the Consortium [of producers] that he decided to resign...’
Surmounting a flight delay which had stretched a short journey overnight, Boscaini remained good-tempered over a tasting then lunch held in the private room of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Under a vaulted effect ceiling, encased in blood red walls, matched by blood red flowers and lit by bright, wild boar head held lights, we began with a tour of ten vintages of Amarone. This ranged from warm spring Amarone Classico ‘88, with its reassuring bitterness, to Riserva di Costasera ‘09, which, although coiled, spoke of huge potential. My favourite proved a slightly renegade choice considering Boscaini contemplated not releasing it - the Amarone Classico ’95. PR supplied notes summarised it: ‘bizarre climatic conditions with a happy ending’. I found elegance and balance, balsamic notes and a silky texture.
Boscaini situated Amarone: ‘A wine which becomes modern from an ancient art, with roots to Roman times.’ He said consumers encountered were generally pleased with its ‘illusion’ of sweetness. He talked of the patient ‘refinement of maturation’, where air drying grapes upon bamboo mats (‘appassimento’) can take up to 120 days. To this, Masi applies a process known as the amusingly titled ‘NASA’ (Natural Appassimento Super Assured), whereby rooms may be cooled, and have their humidity controlled, but never heated. ‘You can’t rush the drying process or you’ll end up mummifying the grapes,’ he said, with potent gesticulation.
Over the past four decades, Masi has reduced oxidation, insisted selection occurs from mid-to-high hill locations, moved to ageing in larger barrels, and conducted research on climate change. The latter shows a warming world has at least had a positive effect on Amarone, Boscaini said. Less rainfall and higher temperatures have led to riper grapes and lower relative humidity – both ideal factors for the drying process.
In response to concerns of high alcohol, expressed by several journalists today, Boscaini countered: ‘you can’t cut off the legs of a giant’ (Singleton calls it as a ‘gentle giant’). At least the wine remains refreshing, he said, ‘unlike a big Australian Shiraz.’ But – ‘you wouldn’t want to drive a car after two glasses...’
Although the term ‘Amarone’ was coined as recently as 1968, Masi has eighteenth century origins, and today produces five Amarone from grapes sown in a hillside amphitheatre north-west of Verona. Terroir is well presented on Amarone, says Boscaini. Differences may be marked, viz. the ‘sunset facing’ Costasera by reflective Lake Garda versus limestone sown Campolongo di Torbe and the high Mazzano on brown soil. Singleton describes Campolongo di Torbe: ‘soils rich in Eicoene limestone and basalt give the wine its characteristic hint of bitter almond and cherrystone...’
Despite the food matches advocated in Singleton’s book being resolutely traditional, Boscaini mentioned that his event, ‘Amarone Marco Polo di Vini’, running for 20 years, has seen a host of international chefs craft some very unusual main courses to go with Masi Amarones, including lampreys (bloodsucking eels) and horse meat.
Following the tasting, it was time for lunch at Dinner. Boscaini partnered sprightly, greengage-scented ’11 Masianico Pinot Grigio and Verduzzo (25/30% of the latter grapes being air-dried for texture) with a dish of roast sea bass taking inspiration from about 1830, with leaf chicory and cockle ketchup. With very gently spiced pigeon (c. 1780) ale and artichokes, he selected ruby, vital Brolo ’08 Campofiorino Oro which coped well with the nemesis of fine wine, artichokes. Finally, Casal dei Ronchi Recioto ’09 brought defined, restrained sweetness to a ‘new’ dish on Blumenthal’s menu: autumn tart (c. 1720) of roast figs, blackberries, black currant sorbet on crushed Nice biscuits and cinnamon. A touch of smoke curled the dish.
Boscaini, who enjoyed lunch at Dinner, proved his gastronomic abilities, being bound for dinner at Gauthier Soho that evening...