One Million Views at the Wine Economist

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Today I feel a little like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers film (see the video clip above). One Million! Is that a ridiculously large number? Or is it laughably small? I guess it depends on the context.

This thought is provoked by the fact that WordPress, the company that hosts this blog, tells me that today The Wine Economist received its One Millionth view since its creation a few years ago. Hmmm. Is that cause to celebrate or an excuse for a hearty laugh? Both I suppose.

A million views is a lot if I put on my university professor hat. Over in the the academic world a few hundred views is big news. You might be surprised at the number of readers that the average academic journal publication attracts. One 2007 study suggested that half of these articles — and there are hundreds of thousands of them published each year — get no readers at all apart from the authors themselves and the journals’ editors. Shocking.

On the other hand, of course, the best-known wine websites must get a million views a week. The Wine Economist’s numbers are tiny by comparison, but probably still respectable given the particular niche it seeks to fill. One rating service consistently lists this site as among the top 40 most influential “drinks (wine, beer or spirits) blogs.”

In any case, I am thankful for people like you who take the time to read what we publish here. I don’t think we will ever get to the next stop on the Dr. Evil scale — One Hundred Billion! — but I’m looking forward to the future and more discussions with Wine Economist readers. Cheers!

Bisol’s Venissa: A Golden Wine of Venice

venissaLots of images come to mind when you think of Venice — the art, the architecture, and canals and gondolas. Vineyards? Not so much. Can’t imagine vineyards in Venice, although historians tell us that they were there — some even in the San Marco quarter — in earlier days when the city was less crowded and more concerned with self-sufficiency.

Would you be surprised if I told you that there are still vines and wines in Venice today? Not on the cluster of islands that we think of as the city of Venice proper, but out in the busy lagoon? The photo above shows the island of Burano (the island of lace-makers to distinguish it from Murano, the island of glass-makers) and just below it, connected by a short bridge, is the island of Mazzorbo and the one hectare vineyard of Venissa.

Golden Grape

Dorona di Venezia is a grape of the Venetian lagoon. — its natural resistance to fungal diseases is a plus in this humid place.  Known since the 15th century, it is a natural cross of Garganega and Bermestia Bianca (according to my copy of Wine Grapes) that is popular as a table grape  because of its big sweet golden (D’oro) grapes.

You can find Dorona here and there in the Veneto (easy to mistake it for Garganega, the grape most associated with Soave) but until recently not so much in Venice and its lagoon islands, the challenges of maritime grape-growing being what they are. But Gianluca Bisol, of the famous Prosecco house, discovered a few vines on the island of Sant’Erasmo and used them to establish a Dorona vineyard on the old ScarpaVolo estate property on nearby Mazzorbo.

Golden Wine

Golden grape, golden wine. The wine really is golden due in part to fermentation on the grape skins to give it special character. The bottles of hand-crafted glass display rich decorations of hand-beaten gold foil (thus honoring two traditional Venetian crafts). The name Venissa and a number are carefully hand-etched on each bottle.

What does it taste like? The note in Wine Grapes talks of minerality and dried peach and apricot.  Only two vintages have been released so far — 2010 and 2011 — and Ian D’Agata writes in his excellent Native Wine Grapes of Italy that he prefers the freshness of the 2011. Winemakers Desiderio Bisol and  Roberto Cipresso apparently pulled back from some of the extreme cellar practices after the first vintage, yielding a fresher wine, although not something that you would ever mistake for Soave!

We loved the color of the wine and were surprised by its delicate aromas. I found a certain saltiness very appealing, although maybe that was the power of suggestion since we were tasting the wine with Matteo Bisol looking out at the vineyard and the lagoon just beyond. If there really is a salty character, the wine comes by it naturally. Salt water floods the vineyards during periodic tidal surges and a good deal of effort goes into drainage. I preferred the more intense 2010, but maybe that’s to be expected of the author of  a book called Extreme Wine.

Venissa has just released a red wine, Rosso Venissa, its handcrafted bottle suitably adorned by copper, not gold. It’s a blend of Merlot and Carmenere from 40-year old vines located on an island near Torcello.  Sworn to secrecy, we tasted this wine prior to its official release and noted its richness, intensity and, well, salty personality.

soup

 Golden Opportunity

Not everyone would have seized the opportunity that those few stray Dorona vines presented, but Gianluca and now Matteo Bisol have done so and it is interesting to see the extremes that have resulted. The vineyard is a bit rustic, for example. Not the vines but the landscape, surrounded by stone walls, cut by drainage ditches and featuring a large rambling  garden where local senior citizens grow vegetables that they sell to the Venissa restaurant.

The restaurant and inn are as luxurious as the wine and present a strong contrast to the natural element that is appropriate for Venice. We dined at the restaurant and our waiter made the point that what came out of the kitchen (he pointed to the busy glass-walled show kitchen to our left) first came from the island and the lagoon to our right. This locavore idea appeared in each plate we were served, perhaps most of all in a soup of sea-snail (garusoli) and sea fennel in what tasted like the rich reduced essence  of the lagoon itself. Another extreme experience.

Making a Statement

On the ferry ride back to San Marco with the full moon above us, Sue and I talked about Venissa. I was suspicious at the start that it was a platform to promote the Bisol brand, but my hypothesis didn’t hold up. It really seems to be a sincere attempt by the Bisol family to honor the history and traditions of Venice and Venetian wine.P1090289

What makes Venissa so interesting is the ambitious approach. It would be possible to draw attention to Venetian wine culture with a museum exhibition of some sort — many wineries display collections of  winemaking implements, historical documents and wine and vine art. They are always interesting, but it seems to me that they usually lack the lasting impact that I see at Venissa. Why?

One factor is that Venissa is a living exhibition — the actual vineyards are right here in the lagoon, not just dots on an old map and the actual wine is in your glass not a just label on the wall. This obviously creates a more intense sensual experience. And the total project reinforces this by drawing on all the senses through the packaging, the location, the inn and restaurant and so forth.

Matteo told us that there are plans to further extend the experience through a sort of deconstructed hotel project on the neighboring island of Burano. The “hotel” would actually be a collection of rooms scattered around in various of the buildings that line the colorful canals of the little island, giving visitors an opportunity to intimately experience a different side of Venice and of course to enjoy the short stroll over the little bridge to Mazzorbo, then on through the vineyard and to Venissa itself.

Venissa is a wine, a destination and a statement, all made with impressive clarity and commitment. Congratulations to the Bisol family on this achievement.

A Field Guide to Prosecco’s Many Faces

P1090234Prosecco sales here in the U.S. are surging — up 34% in the first half of 2014 according to one report. At 1.27 million cases, the U.S. is now the #3 export market for Prosecco trailing only the UK and Germany.

Quantity is one thing, but quality is often something else entirely. Last week’s column talked about Prosecco’s upmarket move and the premiumization pyramid that lies at the heart of the strategy.  Is premium Prosecco real or just a marketing gimmick?

Mionetto’s Impressive Line-up

We tasted the wines from three producers during our quick business trip to the Veneto and if there is truth in wine, then premium Prosecco is real.

Our first stop was at Mionetto, a large producer that is the U.S. market leader with their popularly priced, crown capped “IL” Prosecco line of wines. “IL” is great fun and has attractive packaging — we like it a lot — but it doesn’t especially strive for upmarket status. But wait, there is more …

We tasted through several Mionetto wines that showed the true potential for premium Prosecco wines. We started with Prosecco made from organic grapes – the idea came from the growers not the marketing department — that was perhaps the most effective presentation of an organic wine that I have seen. This wine should appeal both to enthusiasts seeking something different and to dedicated green wine fans. The wine, the messaging, the packaging — they all come together in a very impressive way.

Opulence and a German Bet

We then moved up the pyramid to a single vineyard “Rive di Santo Stefano” DOCG Prosecco and into the “Luxury” series of wines, then reaching the summit with the Mionetto Luxury Cartizze DOCG. The luxury wines really were opulent both in the glass and to the eye. Very impressive. Will wines like this some day challenge Champagne? No future tense needed — I think they already do so, providing that memorable feeling (isn’t that what Champagne is really all about for most people?) at a more attractive price point. Here is a list of the Mionetto wines we tasted with links to more information about them.

An interesting sidebar to the Mionetto story is that the Italian firm was purchased a few years ago by Henkell, the German sparking wine producer, and everyone worried that the usual layoffs and cost-cutting measures were in store. Instead the new parent company kept all hands on board and hired more workers while investing in plant modernization and expansion. They are betting on the premium future of Prosecco and based on the “cards” we tasted it seems they have a winning hand.

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A Different Prosecco: Sorelle Bronca

Sorelle Bronca is a very different enterprise that illustrates Prosecco’s many dimensions. A small firm run by two sisters, all its wines are organic. Total production is much smaller than Mionetto, but the wines are perhaps equally diverse in the experiences they present the curious wine enthusiast.

We tasted through several excellent organic DOCG Proseccos and some still wines, too, including a white blend featuring the Manzoni Bianco grape and a Colli di Conegliano DOCG Riserva “Ser Bele” red blend of Cabernet Franc, Cab Sauvignon and Merlot (Bordeaux grape varieties have long been planted in the Veneto) that received Gambero Rosso’s  top “3 glasses” rating. Red wine from Prosecco-ville? Maybe. Really great red wine?  Apparently yes. I didn’t see that coming.

The “normal” Proseccos we tasted here were delicious as was the Sorelle Bronca Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Particella 68  made from grapes from a specific vineyard bloc. But the hit of the tasting was Sorrele Bronca Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG “Difetto Perfetto” Sur Lie. Difetto Perfetto? Defective and perfect at the same time? Well, yes. This cloudy wine (see photo) had its secondary fermentation in the bottle not the pressurized tank as is typical for Prosecco. Then it was left on the lees for a period and then not disgourged, so the lees were still there.

Cloudy, a bit like a hefeweizen beer. I think “foggy” is the best word — look at the photo. Unfiltered, but not Difetto in my opinion. The first taste was just the wine, taking care not to disturb the lees at the bottom of the bottle. Good! Then we shook up the bottle and tasted it all together. Wow! Even better, Sue and I agreed.  Champagne-like but still clearly Prosecco without the strong leesy taste you might expect because the sur lie period was so short.  And quite an interesting mouth-feel. A Prosecco to surprise and delight. What fun!P1090311

A Bisol Mosaic at Venissa

We spent the night in Venice and set out the next day to visit Venissa, the ambitious vineyard project of the Bisol family that is located on an island in the Venetian Lagoon (see next week’s column for a full report). The Bisol Prosecco house is behind Venissa and as part of our visit Matteo Bisol arranged for us to taste several of his family’s wines along with dinner at the restaurant.

Usually, Matteo said, he would serve just one Bisol wine as part of a multi-course / multi-wine tasting menu, but he decided to use the opportunity to show us many difference faces of Bisol and Prosecco. It was quite an experience.

We started with the classic Bisol “Crede” Prosecco DOCG  2013  (“Crede” refers to the marine limestone subsoil of the growing area) that we have tasted before here in the U.S. A premium and traditional DOCG Prosecco.  Next, in a silver-clad bottle, was Bisol noSO2 Prosecco Extra Brut 2012 . NoSo2 — no sulfites — in the “natural wine” style.

Bisol Relio Extra Brut 2009  came next, made from the Glera grape commonly used in Prosecco but using the classic method (secondary fermentation in bottle not tank). Different from the Sorelle Bronco sur lie wine — the Champagne style yeastiness more pronounced.

The Dry and the Sweet

Following this we were served Bisol “Eliseo Bisol Cuvee del Fondatore” Millesimato 2001 – Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay grapes, classic method. Italian Champagne, you might say (if such language were permitted) with Pinot Blanc taking the place of Pinot Meunier in the grape blend.  Note the vintage date! Quite spectacular.

The last sparkling wine of the evening was the opulent Bisol Cru Cartizze DOCG -- from the prime Cartizze zone. I felt fortunate to taste wine from Cartizze both here and at Mionetto. A friend had warned me that Cartizze would be too sweet but I found both wines dry and well balanced. Prosecco, like Champagne, can be and is made in different degrees of dry and sweet and some styles are more popular than others in particular markets.

The final wine was sweeter but still very well balanced and it came as a complete surprise. It was Bisol Duca de Dolle Prosecco Passita – dessert wine made  with air-dried grapes like a white Recioto, but aged in a modiied solera system you find with some Sherries. A unique experience — different from any of the other wines from this region we tried and not exactly like any other sweet wine, either. Matteo wanted to show us the variety of Prosecco expressions and he certainly succeeded.

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Final thoughts? The Prosecco mosaic caught me by surprise — Prosecco is not one thing, but many things and hopefully consumers who start with cheerful wines like the Mionetto “IL” bottlings can be persuaded to move up the Prosecco Pyramid to the DOCG and Rive wines and perhaps even summit with Cartizze and beyond to some of the truly unique wines we were fortunate to be able to sample. Thanks to the everyone who hosted us and to the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Consortium for arranging the winery visits. Next time: the story of Venissa.

Wine Vision and the Future of Wine: Will Less Turn Out to Be More?

What is the future of the wine industry? Less or more? Or less and more?

I’m thinking about this question because Wine Vision 2014 is on the horizon (the conference is in London on November 17-19) and the agenda is all about the future of the wine business.

Affluence vs Sobriety?

Barry Clark of the Future Foundation, is set to talk about “The Future of Wine: Impacts of affluence versus the drive to sobriety” and the preliminary program makes it sound like he sees the global glass as at least half full, but with significant changes and challenges ahead.

The “drive to sobriety” suggests less wine, but there are other factors to consider, creating a complex blend. If the future of wine is that there will be less of it, because of anti-alcohol influences, but with an affluenza-driven upmarket movement, what are the implications? Can less be more or maybe better? Who will wine and lose?

What Do You Think About the Future of Wine?

I’ll paste the description of Clark’s talk below — read it over and see what you think? I’m curious about his Big Data point — will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

What do you see as the most important trends in wine’s future? I’m interested to see what readers say about future trends in the Comments section below. Cheers!

As a consumer product wine enjoys advantages that no other alcoholic drink can rival – multiple price points, an equal appeal to both genders, flavours to suit every palate and a sufficiently wide product range to cater for any social occasion. A fast-growing global middle-class and rising incomes offer the chance for significant growth and a desire for greater sophistication.

However the industry faces significant head-winds and the forecast is for increasingly inclement conditions. Few governments are unconcerned by the effects of alcohol consumption and ageing populations add urgency to the issue. Partly prompted by government, consumers are moderating their own behaviour and embracing sobriety in many different areas of their lives.

Barry  Clark, formerly of the Whitbread Beer Company and now a consultant to over 200 clients, considers the possible problems and potential opportunities for the international wine trade. His presentation will cover:
• Occasional preference – how wine drinking occasions are changing
• Big data, big impact – how the coming revolution in consumer data will change attitudes and habits
• Conscious of cost – how governments will act to curb consumption through price

Prosecco Bubbles Upmarket: The Premiumization Pyramid

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Our stay is the Prosecco region of Northern Italy was short but very intense. It left us impressed with the work going on there to refine Prosecco’s image and to raise quality so that Prosecco will be on the lips (both figuratively and literally) of consumers who seek a premium sparkling wine. It is a tale told in three acts.

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Wine (not water) makes history at the Conegliano wine school.

Act 1: The School for Wines

First was a visit to the Scoula Enologica di Conegliano, Conegliano’s famous wine school, which was founded in 1876 . It was then and is now an important center for the scientific study of enology and viticulture. The school’s impact through its graduates and research extends throughout Italy and in fact around the world. To give just one example, Romeo Bragato, who might be said to be the father of winemaking in Australia and New Zealand, trained at Conegliano.

We toured the original school building, visiting the first professional tasting arena, and then moved on to the famous test vineyard, the teaching winery and the ultra-modern labs. We met professors devoted to training the next generation of winemakers and scientists diligently addressing a range of important winemaking issues.

It’s clear that the school is a very strong force in assuring quality in Prosecco (it is here where the DOCG panels meet to verify wine quality) and to see that the bar is raised higher and higher. We brought home a few bottles of the school’s wine including an IGT Incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13 made from the Manzoni Bianco grape variety developed here and a Conegliano DOCG still Prosecco called Celebre. Can’t wait to try these wines when they’ve had time to settle down from the trip home.

Act 2: The Prosecco Pyramid

Our next stop was lunch at Antica Osteria di Via Brandolini in Solighetto with officials of both the Conegliano school and the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Consorzio.  The main topic of conversation (when we were not distracted by the menu of outstanding local dishes) was the program to establish a hierarchy of Prosecco wines that consumers can understand and that will draw them in and allow them to effectively explore premium possibilities.

The Prosecco production zone is very large, including parts of both the Veneto and Friuli, and the growing conditions and wine qualities vary a good deal. You can get cheap and cheerful Prosecco wines and also sophisticated products. The Consorzio’s plan, which I think it a good one, is to help buyers understand the different quality levels by creating a sort of premiumization pyramid.

DOC Prosecco forms the base of the pyramid — the vast majority of Prosecco wines you will find fall into this category. Next up are the DOCG Prosecco Superiore wines from the Congegliano Valdobbiadene zone — an area stretching basically from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, which includes some spectacular hillside vineyards. The Consorzio has applied for the this area to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Look at the video at the top of the page and you will see why.

DOCG wines are not necessarily better than individual DOC wines (just as IGT wines are not necessarily inferior to those with more prestigious designations), but they are held to a higher certified standard. One of the goals of the premiumization push it to help consumers understand the difference between DOC and DOCG (unfamiliar concepts to most Prosecco drinkers in America who think mainly in terms of brands) and to encourage them to look for and to try the DOCG wines.P1090240

The next step is to focus on terroir in the form of certain “grad cru” vineyard areas known as “Rive” in the local dialect. There are 43 designated Rive in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone and the idea is that they are very different from each other in terms of soil, aspect, altitude and the individual wines reflect their distinct terroirs. Terroirst wines, if you will.

At the top of the premium pyramid sits Cartizze DOCG. The 106 hectare Cartizze zone is one of the most valuable vine patches on the planet with valuations in the neighborhood of €1 million per hectare (just under $500,000 an acre)! The Cartizze wines are meant to be the ultimate Prosecco experience — products for consumers with a taste for luxury sparkling wines in general and Prosecco in particular.

The hierarchy provided here is very useful — starting with the DOC and DOCG concepts and going a couple of steps beyond. Easy concepts for Europeans to understand, but it will take some effort to make them part of the New World consumer’s lingua franca.  And of course it is necessary for the wines themselves to meet the quality expectations.P1090224

Act 3: In Vino Veritas

Which brings us to Act 3 and the wines themselves. We were fortunate to be able to taste three sets of Prosecco wines. Luigi Galletto, Sue and I visited a large producer — Mionetto – and tasted through the top line of wines available in the U.S. market. Then we visited a smaller producer specializing in organic wines — Sorelle Bronca.  Finally, Sue and I were fortunate to sample wines from Bisol at a tasting arranged by Matteo Bisol at his Venissa restaurant.

In vino veritas they say and in this context we might take it to mean that marketing and messaging are one thing, but the wines will tell you the truth. Is there truth in Prosecco’s premiumization push? Come back next week for our report.

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Thanks to everyone who made the Prosecco part of our Veneto giro such a rewarding experience. Special thanks to Professors Luigi Galletto and Vasco Boatto, Giancarlo Vettorello, Director of the Consorzio, Giulia Pussini, the Consorzio’s communications officer, Alessio Del Savio, Managing Director of Mionetto, and Matteo Bisol of Venissa.

The video at the top of the page was produced by the Consorzio and features several people we met during our stay. It tells the story very well and I think you will understand most of the points even if you are not fluent in Italian. I like the scenes in the original school building, including the old tasting room, the vineyard scenes and the explanation of the production process, which features secondard fermentation of the base wines in the pressurized autoclave tanks. The natural images of the Rive and the Cartizze zone give you a strong sense of the beauty of the zone. Enjoy!

Call for Papers: American Association of Wine Economists Mendoza, Argentina Meetings May 26-30, 2015

The American Association of Wine Economists will meet in Mendoza, Argentina on May 26-30, 2015. The National University of Cuyo, Mendoza is hosting the gathering.

The organizers have issued a “Call for Papers” on subjects related to wine economics and business including analyses in statistics, history, psychology, law, viticulture and enology. They are also open to papers related to beer and food.

Details can be found on the AAWE’s website. Those interested in participating should send a 500-word abstract to aawe@wine-economics.org by January 20, 2015.

What’s Ahead for Amarone? Looking Beyond This Year’s Soggy Vintage

P1080942It is a soggy vintage in Valpolicella and the Veneto generally. Rain, rain and more rain on through harvest. This is problematic and also a bit ironic for wines like Amarone, Ripasso della Valpolicella and Reciotto that are defined by dry not wet — that are made with grapes carefully air dried for weeks or months before being made into wine.

Not that all the news is bad — some winemakers told us that grapes from higher elevations and steeper hillsides held promise for good quality. Others noted that the old fashioned looking pergola-trained vines were doing better (better air circulation) than the conventional Guyot-trained vineyards.

Lots of concern about mildew and rot, and some grapes, like the ones pictured here, were almost blue, we were told, from Bordeaux mixture spray (an approved organic anti-mildew treatment) they had recently received.

(See the photo below to gauge the rainy season’s impact on the first of the white grapes being harvested — probably mechanically — for use at a high-volume winery.)

That’s Where the Money Goes!

Amarone and Ripasso are key elements of the  upmarket Valpolicella premiumization strategy. Although the more popularly-priced wines of the region — Valpolicella, Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore — are often delicious, they are light in body and even sometimes in color in a world that seems to be searching for deeper, richer wines. Luxurious Amarone, made from those air-dried grapes, fits the bill very well and has established a strong global following. When I told my friends I would visit Valpolicella, “Amarone!” was the uniform initial response.

Ripasso, which is made by refermenting “ordinary” Valpolicella on the pressed skins left over from Amarone, also has a strong following among those who see it as a more affordable “baby Amarone.” It is sometimes a better wine and might even be a more profitable wine for some producers, but you can’t make Ripasso unless you have made Amarone, so they are joined at the hip.

Amarone and Ripasso are the money wines of Valpolicella, even if a bottle of good Valpolicella Classico Superiore is difficult to beat paired with mushroom risotto. High prices are an imperative here because of high costs — high vineyard valuations (€400,000 per hectare in some areas, we were told), high grape tonnage prices, and expensive long aging periods in tank, wood and bottle before release. Plus the obvious volume losses that come from the air-drying process.

Yes We Have No Amarone (in 2014)

This makes the rainy vintage even more problematic. Quantity will be down for those producers who carefully sort through the grapes, but quality is likely to suffer, too. How much? Enough to drag down price? Enough to damage the wines’ and region’s reputations?

A thin veneer of confidence about quality masks some real concerns and fermenting disagreements. Bertani, one of the big players in the game, announced that they would pass on Amarone  Classico this year rather than accept lower quality. A producer  I cannot name revealed during our visit that he had that morning signed a contract to sell off his Amarone wines to the bulk market rather than release an inferior product under his own label. No Amarone, maybe no Ripasso, no money wine this year … for some.

How can someone just walk away from their money wine? Well, the first answer is that wine is agriculture and Mother Nature often makes the call for you (something that growers in Valpolicella already know since they live an area with frequent sporadic catastrophic hail storms). A deeper reason is that for some producers a year without Amarone might actually be a good thing. The Amarone boom of recent years was always worrying to those of us familiar with busts. Maybe a year without Amarone would help rebalance supply and demand?

Declaring a Vintage? Or Not …

P1090059Given the soggy year and what may well be a substantial inventory over-hang, a case might be made for treating Amarone like Port and “declaring” a vintage in the best years while focusing on other types and styles when quality is in doubt. Amarone, like Vintage Port, is a luxury product and you can see the logic of not wanting to undermine its reputation.

Given the choice, I think some producers would give the “Vintage Amarone” idea  a try although others would prefer a half-way measure — none of their finest Amarone, but maybe still produce some lesser wines.  Hmmm … I wonder if that would really work?

But expanding the focus beyond Amarone to other wines might have some benefits apart from the obvious one of supporting quality. More attention to the conventional Valpolicella wines would be welcome if the broad trend I sense of a shift to lighter and more balanced wines is correct. And then there are the innovative IGT wines that I talked about in a recent column.

When I asked one winemaker why he was making a proprietary IGT wine in addition to his DOC and DOCG traditional products, he replied honestly that it was an upmarket thing — he wanted to have something that wasn’t Amarone or Ripasso for his Valpolicella customers to move up to.

Lots of room for great wines in this category, without the restrictions of the DOC rules. Lots of opportunity for interesting products in “non-vintage” years.

Life without Amarone? Impossible?

But passing up on the money wine in off years is a luxury that not everyone can afford.  We saw many new and impressive wineries that may well have been built on the expectation of Amarone-style returns. If the business model is built on Amarone, a bad year (which would be a year without Amarone) could be devastating.

And some wineries are so closely identified with Amarone that skipping a vintage is nearly unthinkable for them. Take the cooperative winery in Negrar — Cantina Valpolicella Negrar. This is where Amarone was born in 1936 when the cellarmaster lost track of a tank of Recioto (in theory a sweet wine made from air-dried grapes), which fermented dry by accident instead of the yeasts being stopped with some residual sugar remaining.  A catastrophe — except that it was really good. Not bitter “Amaro” but smooth and dry “Amarone.”

Negrar makes many wines today under its own label and the premium Domini Veneti brand, but for obvious reasons its identity is tied to Amarone. It is difficult to imagine that it could pass on an Amarone vintage for any reason and so certain tensions are inevitable between those who for one reason or another cannot or will not miss an Amarone vintage and those who for different reasons are willing to take the risk.P1090036

Victim of Amarone Success?

Our visit to Cantina Valpolicella Negrar showed their focus and continuing commitment to Amarone.  A line of single-vineyard wines, Domini Veneti “Amarone Espressioni,” were presented at lunch.  The five wines  were as different as their origins — I liked the wines from higher elevation vineyards the best, although I think I might actually prefer the multi-vineayrd blend that I tried with dinner the next night.

So what’s in the future? More rain, if past is prologue, but it is difficult to say beyond that. Valpolicella is in a way a victim of its own success. Great wines that earn a premium in the market — no doubt about it. But also expensive wines that play in a very competitive luxury wine league along with heavyweights like Barolo, Brunello and Barbaresco. Finding the right solution is no simple matter.

The people we met are smart and while they will disagree about how best to move forward I’m pretty confident that they will find a way to sustain the good thing that they have got and maybe even kick it up a notch as they have done in the past. In the meantime, pray for a break from the rains!

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