Grapes for Amarone drying on traditional bamboo trays
After visiting Valpolicella last month, I was going to write about the current machinations and disunity in the region regarding the production of Amarone, a wine of which I’m very fond and one that has increased enormously in popularity, production and sales in the last two decades (that’s a large part of its problem). Instead I’ve decided to write about an individual wine that's closely related to Amarone, because it seems timely with the long, dark evenings stretching out before us and Christmas on the cards (so to speak).
Before I do though, as I’ve whetted your appetite for a bit of controversy, I’ll sum it up in a nutshell: the Valpolicella consorzio (wine authority) has proposed extending the area from which Amarone grapes can come from the hillsides to the valley floors.
The current DOCG regulations exclude grapes grown on the plains or valley floors for the simple reason that the quality is generally less good (it’s particularly obvious in wet years like 2014). The proposed change was ratified in 2013. It has yet to be been approved by the Italian ministry of agriculture’s wine committee (never a fast mover), but it has understandably caused a stink with producers who care about quality. Several top producers have left the consorzio, including members of the high-profile Amarone Families group, such as Allegrini and Masi, and producers belonging to FIVI, the Italian Federation of Independent Growers.
Enough of that, I’m focusing on Campofiorin, the pioneering Rosso del Veronese wine made by Masi from Valpolicella grapes. Campofiorin is celebrating its 50th birthday. In fact, Masi is milking it for all it's worth, with celebrations going on for three years. And why not? The first harvest was 1964 and the 50th vintage, 2014, will be released in 2017. But I’m not here just to offer extended birthday greetings. I’m drawing attention to it because, even if they’re familiar with the wine, few people realise how long it ages.
Campofiorin arrives on the market tasting velvety, spicy, chocolaty and full of cherry fruit – a ready-to-drink mini Amarone style – and yet can age 10, 20, sometimes even more years (cellar conditions, of course). This is a wine that costs all of £12–13, and as little as £9 when it’s on offer, or £10 in Majestic when you buy any six bottles. There are few reds at that price that you could lay down for much more than five years.
The mini-Amarone character comes from the production method. Originally, it was the pioneering commercial expression of the local ripasso technique of re-fermenting new Valpolicella on the discarded skins of Amarone to add some softness and roundness. In the 1980s Campofiorin evolved into a double-fermented appassimento wine, one re-fermented with lightly dried grapes to add more richness, concentration and complexity than re-fermenting with Amarone pomace achieves.
From ripasso to appassimento is by no means the only pioneering work Masi has undertaken in Valpolicella. It has done a lot of research into Amarone yeasts and into reviving old grape varieties, notably Oseleta. And Campofiorin is only one of a range of wines that includes splendid Amarones, such as Costasera, Mazzano and Campolongo di Torbe, Reciotos such as Angelorum and Mezzanella, benchmark Valpolicellas from the Serego Alighieri estate with which the Boscaini family of Masi has collaborated for more than 40 years, and an innovative white appassimento wine, Masianco, based on Pinot Grigio enriched with semi-dried Verduzzo.
Some of the other Masi gems (above). Drawing Campofiorin 2014 from barrel to taste (right)
Just in case anyone is thinking ahead and wondering about the wisdom of celebrating the release of a Campofiorin from a vintage as difficult as 2014, Masi didn’t make any Amarones that year, so what would have been the Amarone grapes went into Campofiorin. I’ve tasted the 2014 from barrel (see right) and so far so good. Oh, and I nearly forgot to say: Happy Birthday.
All photographs by Joanna Simon