One of my favorite local wine guys, Michael Young, is also one of my favorite chefs. In a past life he was one of the founders of Italian cuisine in Los Angeles (in addition to opening his own restaurant, Ombra). Today he works tirelessly for Palm Bay to spread the good word about their producers in Los Angeles. Michael recently invited a group of local wine and food people to his childhood home to welcome the boys from Bertani to LA. At casa Young, in typical Napolitano-Americano style, there was too much (great) food, and just enough (really great) wine. In other words, when a former chef and bona fide wine guy invites you to a BBQ at his house, you accept. Especially when Bertani Amarone is involved.
We convened on a lovely afternoon in honor of the visiting Italians, Bertani’s winemaker Andrea Lonardi and the winery’s exprt manager, Stefano Mangiarotti.
The Bertani wine company was founded in 1857 by two brothers, Giovan Battista and Gaetano Bertani, in Quinto di Valpantena to the north of Verona. Gaetano was already a wine-making expert, having learned the new techniques in France under Professor Guyot. This is some serious wine history, and it’s no coincidence that Bertani is one of the most famous and well-loved Amarone producers still today.
When Michael Young went to his personal cellar and found a pristine bottle of 1986 Bertani Amarone, the old label, (stating “Recioto della Valpolicella, Secco”) requires a little history lesson in the production and discovery of Amarone as we know it today.
Amarone is actually the sister product of the traditional sweet wine from the same area, Recioto. Both wines are from a blend of the local grapes (Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Negrara and Oseleta), generally picked in Setpember and then laid in small wooden boxes to dry.
This process, called “appassimento” allows the water contained in the grapes to evaporate, while the sugars in the juice become naturally concentrated. Usually around January, when when these semi-raisinated grapes are crushed, the sugar level is very high.
Recioto is then made from the extra-sweet juice, by allowing it to ferment like wine, but then arresting the fermentation partway though, which produces a wine with residual sugar. At some point about 70 years ago, a winemaker lost track of a barrel of Recioto and the wine fermented much longer than usual. The sugars were fermented entirely into alcohol, leaving behind a very strong, very full-bodied, dry wine.
This dry wine became known as Amarone. (The word “amaro” means “bitter” in Italian- perhaps delineating the difference between Amarone and it’s sweet counterpart, Recioto). Therfore, Amarone is truly a dry (“secco”) Recioto. Hence the terminology on some older labels, such as this bottle of Bertani’s 1986 Amarone.
This bottle of older Bertani Amarone really made me think about Amarone in general. With all the sugar available in this Amarone process, it is a wonder that these wines can be so elegant and full of finesse when handled by great winemakers. The 1986 was certainly full-bodied, but it lacked the cloying sweetness you might expect. Instead there was only a hint of bitter dark chocolate and a ripple of ripe black cherries in the background of what was immediately a more earth-driven and acid-spiked, completely balanced glass of wine. What an education.
Italian wine works wonders in bringing people together, doesn’t it?