This year the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella marks its 50th anniversary, a milestone that coincides with the release of the challenged 2014 Amarone della Valpolicella vintage one that allowed the top performing wines presented during the anteprima tastings to stand apart.
Due to wet conditions that delayed ripening and diluted fruit concentration, the consorzio wisely moved to reduce the 2014 production of Amarone by approximately half. As a result, there were 50 percent fewer wines presented at the anteprima in January when 43 wines were poured at the blind tasting in comparison to 83 in 2017. My list of the wines that scored 89 points or greater can be found below.
While vintage conditions in Valpolicella have become increasingly variable, according to University of Verona Professor Maurizio Ugliano climate change is actually working to hasten the drying process that is so critical to the production of Amarone.
Regulations stipulate that producers are allowed to cool the air in the fruttai or drying rooms using fans but they cannot artificially heat it. As such, warmer conditions during the several months of drying work to reduce pressure from muffa nobile or Noble Rot but Ugliano cautions, “Wines subject to hot, fast drying will be boring.” Winemakers are largely responding to challenging vintage conditions by adjusting their practices in the cellar the most notable being the move away from the use of native yeasts.
Yeast choices for Amarone fermentation
During an interview with winemaker Daniele Accordini who oversees the production at Cantina Negrar, a cooperative of 230 winegrowers in the Valpolicella Classico region, and his own label, Accordini detailed his preferences and rationale for yeast choices and winemaking practices.
For 80 percent of his wines, Accordini prefers the yeast strain “Uvarum” sold by Lamothe-Abiet which combines two species of Saccharomyces: S. cerevisiae and S. Uvarum. The properties of S. uvarum such as cryotolérance, low production of acetic acid, high production of glycerol, strong release of esters (phenyl-2-ethanol) and thiol allow for the development of aromatic, complex and round wines.
Accordini also uses ‘Premium Zinfandel” a which is a 100 percent Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast well suited to high alcohol fermentations sold by Vason, a Verona-based company owned by the family of re known Valpolicella producer Valentina Cubi.
Daniele Accordini discussing a 2008 Cantina Negrar Amarone poured as part of a retrospective tasting that began with a 1950 Bolla, the region’s first commerical Amarone.
The hybrid yeast strain Uvarum is well suited to high alcohol fermentations and early co-inoculations. According to Accordini, fermentation starts slowly at 5 – 6 ° and goes quickly to 16 – 17 ° with volatile acidity between 45 – 47 mg/l producing more glycerol while holding volatile acidity in check. However, he points to lower aroma profiles in his wines which he considers an acceptable compromise given the alternatives.
Accordini switched to Uvarum in the mid-1990s after climate change made the use of native yeast significantly more challenging at Cantina Negrar’s scale of production. However, he still makes a point to taste wines that are made using native yeasts and sees that they show more complex aromas, often have higher levels of volatile aroma compounds and can take several months to complete fermentation.
Beyond higher levels of volatile acidity in the finished wines, this extended period of fermentation can result in far greater potential for stuck fermentations and the problems that ensue when vinifying wines from musts with high levels of sugar.
According to Professor Ugliano, excessively high alcohol in Amarone is largely a factor of manipulating airflow during drying. Theoretically, average alcohols are over 16% when drying is speeded up due to increasing air movement in the fruttai (drying rooms) with fans. This practice concentrates sugar levels in the grapes too quickly and creates potential alcohols of 16 – 17% making it quite easy for the finished wines to reach 18% due to high osmotic pressure.
Historically, potential alcohols were 13 – 14% when a long, slow drying process takes place using only natural air. This protracted period of drying (100 days+) results in greater gene activity and significantly higher amounts of stilbenes in withered Corvina grapes.
Another practice Accordini is trialing is simultaneous malolactic (ML) respiration with the primary fermentation. He co-inoculates early, on the third day of fermentation, and the bacteria eventually succumbs to higher alcohols. Opponents of simultaneous ML in dry wine styles point to finished wines that are less complex and more commercial in style and the practice is generally avoided by winemakers seeking to make wines that transparently express terroir. As Amarone producers seek to express the complexity of the Corvina grape in relation to its terroir, we can’t assume that the practice undermines their perception of wine quality.
Regarding the 2014s, it struck me that many of the wines seemed to be relying on higher percentages of new oak in an effort to amplify depth of fruit flavors and concentration. There also seemed to be a general divide between the wines that were showing well i.e. demonstrating varietal fruit character and balance on the day of the tasting and those that could fare better on another day. Many wines fell right on the cusp, hovering around 89, and I’d certainly revisit them before excluding them from the top picks.
2014 Amarone della Valpolicella producers who scored 90 points or greater in the blind tasting:
Accordini, Stefano – 94
Antiche Terre Venete – 90
Bennati – 94
Ca’Rugate – 93
Campagnola, Guiseppe – 90
Cantine de Soave – 91
Cesari – 91
Collis-Riondo Castelforte – 94
Collis-Riondo Calesan – 91
Corte Archi – 90
Le Bignele – 90
Le Guaite Noemi – 91
Massimago – 89
Monteci – 89
Pasqua Vigneti e Cantine – 90
San Cassiano – 94
Santa Sofia – 89
Secondo Marco – 90
Vignetti di Ettore – 89
Villa Canestrari – 93
Villa San Carlo – 89
Villa Spinosa – 89
Zonin – 91