Guest blogger Daniel Eddy is a Fine Wine Consultant for ABC in Gainesville.
It’s day five of our weeklong tour of Northern Italy with Nadia Galati of Alberello Imports, and I need to pinch myself. We are in Valpolicella (near Verona) at Nicolis Winery, and we’ve just had a tour of the winemaking facilities, including the fruttaio (the big room where they air dry the grapes for their Amarone and Recioto wines), and the aging cellar. Wine Consultants (and Wine Supervisors) are just big wine geeks, and we feel like we’ve been let loose in the candy store, so to speak.
Something I’ve learned from this trip: these wineries are family businesses. Nicolis started in 1951 with Angelo and Natalia, and their three sons have taken over: Massimo heads up marketing and sales, Giancarlo manages the vineyards, and Giuseppe makes the wine. The rolling hills of Valpolicella create many opportunities for microclimates, as well as picturesque landscapes. All of their vineyards are classified Valpolicella Superiore, even though not all of their wines have that appellation.
Now we’re having a “light lunch” (which is anything but “light”) and sampling the entire array of Nicolis’ wines with Massimo Nicolis and his mother Natalia, who has made us the local specialty, Risotto all’Amarone, and picked us some fresh Corvina Nero, Rondinella and Molinara grapes for
We begin our sampling with the Valpolicella Classico 2011 and the Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2010. We sell the former at ABC for $14 per bottle, but the Superiore is new to me, and I’m fascinated by the contrast in flavors. The Classico has tart cherries on the nose and palate, light body and hints of burnt sugar, while the Superiore, sourced from higher elevation vineyards, has richer black cherry notes, a deeper, earthier complexity, finishing with a hint of white pepper. Both are paired with grilled polenta, local salami and a cool salad of pickled local mushrooms and zucchini (mushrooms were in season, and we ate loads of mushrooms on this trip).
Our next course is the Risotto all’Amarone, which is not paired with the Amarone, but with their superb Ripasso wine, the 2009 Seccal vineyard Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso (Wine Spectator 90). Unlike their Amarones, which are both over $50, this Ripasso is a steal at $23. It has much of the ripe and juicy flavors of the Amarone, because it is a refermented Valpolicella wine, on the skins of the Amarone after they have pumped out the Amarone wine. It then has 16 months of
aging in large Slovenian oak barrels (or foudres) to give it refinement. Though this might seem like cheating, using the leftovers of the more expensive Amarone to upgrade their lighter Valpolicella wines, it really isn’t; the grapes for the Ripasso are from a single Superiore vineyard. I think of it as using resources smartly, to keep that extra flavor, earned through slow air-drying in the fruttaio, and not waste any of their best flavors. This comes across on the palate where I get ripe, spicy and deep flavors, rich with black currants and black pepper. As a treat they also let us sample a wine we have yet to carry, the Testal, an IGT Rosso del Veronese, using 90% Corvina Nero late-harvested in the passito method, where the grapes dry on the vine rather than in crates. This wine had more graphite notes, hints of cassis, yet was smooth and elegant on the palate.
Next they bring out the “big guns,” their Amarones, one of the most fortuitous mistakes in winemaking history. About 100 years ago while making their late harvest, passito, dessert wine, Recioto della Valpolicella, one winery let their wine ferment too long and it went dry (or bitter, since Amarone means “bitter” in Italian). Instead of a dessert wine with normal alcohol, he had a dry, yet ripe and fruity wine, with 16% alcohol, which became known as Amarone della Valpolicella and is now one of Italy’s most prestigious (and expensive) wines. The extra expense comes in the
process, which includes three months of air-drying in plastic crates (that used to be straw mats, but the new crates are much easier to use, stack and reuse). Their traditional Amarone Classico 2006 (about $55 per bottle) smells like blackberry brandy, but is soft and rich on the palate with hints of minerality. They recommend pairing with filet mignon, venison or sharp cheeses, and they served it with Monteveronese (a local cheese), Swiss Ementaller, and Parmigiano Reggiano topped with local honey.
Their Ambrosan Amarone, sourced from a single vineyard, is the pride of the Nicolis family and has garnered great scores and is well worth the $65 price tag. We are treated with a vertical tasting of the 2005 (a challenging vintage) and 2006 (a good, or “easy vintage,” as they called it) and they recommend drinking this wine alone. Ambrosan is a higher elevation vineyard and half of the wine is aged in small French barrique barrels, bringing out vanilla notes that jump out of the glass. I also get spice box and Chambord with a hint of mocha in the 2005 (Wine Spectator 91). The 2006 has more body and structure, with spicy notes, cassis sweetness and a longer finish. I can’t say that I prefer one vintage over the other, since they are both outstanding; a good reason to try both and compare for yourself.
We finish our tasting and meal with a Torta Veronese (a crunchy almond pastry) paired with Nicolis Recioto 2008, their dessert wine. Sweet Bing Cherries, wild strawberries and fresh grape characters explode in the glass, yet the wine maintains a balanced acidity. The Recioto has less
alcohol than the Amarone (since they leave in much of the sugar) but the complex aromas are very reminiscent of its “bitter” cousin, without being cloyingly sweet. They recommend drinking it within 6 years, rather than within 20 years for the Amarone.
One of my travel compatriots dislikes most desserts (one reason they call me “The Finisher” on this trip) and dessert wines, but Recioto changed her mind, and she is very happy to have it for dessert from then on out. We end our experience with a little of their own grappa (by law their excess skins must go to a distillery to make grappa, to keep everyone in business and above board). This is an elegant and smooth grappa, not the firewater I’ve come to expect from cheaper grappas, and it makes a lovely addition (they jokingly called it “correction”) to our Italian Espresso, and we need a shot of caffeine after this tasting experience. Yes, this is what the Italians call a “light lunch” and it’s one I will never forget. Cin cin!
See more of his writings at http://www.examiner.com/wine-pairing-in-gainesville/daniel-eddy.