Amarone meets Australia

Perhaps it’s the hills, or perhaps it’s the fog. Having visited both Valpolicella in Italy and the McLaren Vale in southeastern Australia, I can remark that they were both hilly and foggy. In each I spent only one day, so it may just be chance that I was there for the fog, but fog and vineyards go hand in hand, like some romantic Brontë sister novel. Just substitute grape vines and rolling hills for the English moors, and voila!

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Wine tends to make us wax poetic, but to get to the point, two personal favorite wines happen to be made in similar processes: Nicolis Amarone della Valpolicella and Nugan Estate Alfredo Dried Grape Shiraz. If you don’t know how Italian Amarone’s are made you can take a clue from the more blatant name of the Shiraz, “Dried Grape.” If you like ripe and succulent wines that envelop your palate (with a little more alcohol punch) then these wines are made for you.

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Amarone has a longer history, going back to the turn of the 19th to 20th Century. There was a tradition of making a dessert wine called Reciotto della Valpolicella by harvesting select grapes, their local Corvina Nero, Molinara and Rondinella, that had remained longer on the vines to increase their sugar content. These grapes were then dried on straw mats, to an almost pruney stage, before being crushed and processed into a delightful, red dessert wine. The story goes that in one cellar someone forgot about a few barrels of Reciotto and let them ferment longer, transforming that extra sugar into higher alcohol content, 15% to 16%, which is quite high in Europe for an unfortified wine. Amarone means “bitter” or more accurately in this case “dry” in Italian, but it had all that ripe fruit on the palate without being sweet on the tongue. There was abundant fruit and perhaps raisin characteristics, but the cool climate of Northern Italy meant the wine did not get unpleasantly overripe, keeping some acidity.

Amarones now fetch anywhere from $40 to $150 per bottle and are one of Italy’s true gems. Other locales are now making similarly styled wines, from Washington State to southeastern Australia, and at better prices. So from my personal experience, the locales of these two wines are similar. McLaren Vale is one of the cooler Australian wine regions surrounding Adelaide, though not quite as cool as Valpolicella. The Alfredo Dried Grape Shiraz gets its name from Alfredo Nugan, who emigrated from Spain to Australia in 1940. They source the Shiraz grapes from both McLaren Vale and Riverina and use a similar racking system to Italy in a room similar to the Italian fruttaio, where fans keep the air moving while cooling the shrinking grapes. Both wines are then aged in French and American oak barrels to enhance the complexity and counter the overtly jammy notes.

Having just tasted the Shiraz, I found it eerily similar yet quite distinct being from a very different grape varietal as well as region. When tasting the Nugan, my first scents are of plum tarts or blackberry cobblers, though I get a sense of hidden depths. On the palate I taste black currants soaked in Chambord liqueur, but with a touch of black pepper, anise and new oak as it coats my tongue. Not as giant as the Amarone, the Nugan has more fresh fruit flavors. Even though it’s 15% alcohol, the Nugan is sumptuous in the mouth and velvety textured with elegant tannins and just a little tart acid on the finish. The Nicolis Amarone has a little more mineral density and a slightly more rustic finish, though there is still plenty of ripe fruit. The Nicolis is about double the price of the Nugan, $50 compared to $25, and I love them both. Based on price and flavor profile, the Nugan will certainly be one of my Thanksgiving selections this year! Cheers!

Daniel Eddy, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine and spirits supervisor

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