Thursday, 22 October 2009

What's it all about, Amarone?

Thank goodness for the onset of cold, dark evenings. At last we can get stuck into winter warmer red wines – and they don’t come in more comforting winter weight than Amarone della Valpolicella.

Valpolicella we all know, right? Light-bodied, soft and juicy wines that you might glug down with a bowl of pasta or a pizza. But Amarone? What’s that about?

The difference between Amarone and straight Valpolicella is all down to grape drying – a process that the winemakers in this part of the Veneto in north eastern Italy have known about and practised since at least the time of the Romans. In simple terms, winemakers pick their best grapes slightly earlier than the main harvest and then air dry them on racks for around three months before crushing and fermenting to make wine.

The grape varieties themselves can sound like a mouthful – including Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. An old wine teacher of mine suggested Cinderella and the two ugly sisters as a way of remembering the names – it's worked for me!

During the drying process the grapes will, of course, lose moisture – weighing around half what they did originally by the time comes to crush and ferment. With less water in the grapes, they are proportionally higher in sugar, which will be converted to alcohol during fermentation.

Amarone, then, is a high alcohol wine - legally the minimum level is 14%, but can exceed 16%. But some other things happen to the grapes during the drying process as well, which create massive concentration of aromas and flavours, as well as a great ability to age and to develop layers of complexity. With alcohol at these levels, this is not a “session wine”; it’s what the Italians call a “vino da meditazione”, a meditation wine to sip on its own.

These are wines that might start out smelling and tasting of sour cherries, dark chocolate and tobacco leaf, but develop in the glass, changing each time you take a sip, evolving and tempting you back again and again. As you might expect, these wines take to ageing like ducks to water and continue to grow in fascination and enjoyability over many years.

Not cheap to produce: that extra picking separate from the main harvest; the drying process itself; grapes that can be lost to rot and can't be used to make wine; the fact that dried grapes will naturally make less wine than freshly-picked grapes – they all mean that Amarone cannot be made as cheaply as normal wine.

But prices paid for grapes destined for Amarone have been dropping, while the amount of Amarone made has been steadily rising, leading to concerns that corners are being cut and quality levels are perhaps not always what they should be. A group of leading Amarone producers, the self-styled Amarone Families, is seeking to address these issues, imposing stricter quality measures in an effort to maintain the reputation – and high price – of Amarone della Valpolicella.

Last week they came to London to showcase their wines, focussing on the outstanding 2000 vintage. It's a mark of the wines' ageworthiness that many of these wines were still youthful and barely into their stride, even after nine years.

Amarone is not a cheap wine habit to take up, with prices starting at £20, but if you fancy an exploration of the style, there is no better place to head than The Vineyard in Dorking ( John is an Amarone fanatic and stocks around twenty different ones at any one time, whereas most merchants will have one or two.

Amarone on the High Street
Amarone “Le Vigne” Ca' del Pipa 2004 - £25 at Majestic (Fine Wine section)
Dense, dark and truffley – great for game.

Amarone Classico Brigaldara 2006 - £34.99, £27.99 as part of a mixed case at Oddbins
One of the Amarone Families group, Brigaldara make wines in a modern style, ie using new French oak in addition to older, larger oak casks. Polished and powerful.

Amarone Allegrini 2004 - £45.95 from Imbibros near Godalming (, £50 from Waitrose
One of the foremost modernists of the Amarone Families, Allegrini make wonderfully expressive wines – at a price.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Grapes are not the only fruit

It's wine, but not as we know it. The British Isles have a long tradition of making wines – just not the kind that is made from grapes. We probably all have memories of a relative who made dandelion or elderberry wine, which bubbled away in demi-johns in the airing cupboard, making intriguing noises and smells but not, alas, anything remotely drinkable when the moment came to try it.

Lurgashall Winery, in an intensely rural setting between Haslemere, Midhurst and Petworth, specializes in making wines and liqueurs from an array of fruits and vegetables, as well as mead from honey. They are trying to change our view of what are called country wines (to distinguish them from normal wines made from grapes). They are proud to point out that they use only fresh fruits and vegetables in their wines, with no artificial essences or ingredients – not all country wines are made in the same way it seems.

Mead is surely the most ancient alcoholic drink in the country, requiring only water and honey as ingredients. Our ancient forebears would have relied on the wild yeasts which surround us in the air; the winemaker at Lurgashall uses cultivated yeast, in order to be sure of a consistent finished product.

Lurgashall's owner is the slightly eccentric US-born Jerry Schooler, self-styled “lord of Lurgashall”. A background in industrial engineering is not perhaps the natural qualification for taking on a wine and mead business in the UK – but it must undoubtedly have come in handy when Jerry needed more buildings for the winery. Instead of building from scratch, Jerry found a Medieval barn in Billingshurst, which he then had dismantled, moved to Lurgashall and rebuilt on-site.

Eccentricity appart, Lurgashall will be celebrating its 25th birthday next year, so Jerry must be doing something right.

As well as selling from the winery shop, Lurgashall make wines for a huge number of heritage institutions, from the National Trust to Chatsworth and Balmoral. The US is also an export market, along with Canada, Japan and Scandinavia. Americans, it seems, can't get enough of their Tower of London Mead.

What of the wines themselves? Grapes are, of course, fruits. There is no reason why, say, a blackberry should not make a palatable wine, as it has the same basic ingredients of sweet pulp with fruit acid and skins containing tannins. But silver birch sap? And rose petals?

I will not be abandoning my passion for more “normal” wines, in order to take up these charming oddities, but I have to say they do have a certain appeal. The Gooseberry Wine is reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, but why not just have a sauvignon blanc? It's not as if there is a shortage of the stuff. However, the more esoteric flavours give more interest, as long as you discard any notions of wines to go with food – other than the gooseberry, all the wines are essentially off-dry to really very sweet. These are wines to be drunk on their own, or even mixed with fizzy water or sparkling wine.

Their red Elderberry Wine and rosé Plum Wine I found most closely resembled grape wines, because they are relatively dry and have flavours and aromas that you could also find in mainstream wines.

For sheer weirdness I was drawn to the Silver Birch Wine – made from the sap of their own birch trees. It's nothing like a normal wine, but has an intriguing “woodiness” which I find hard to describe, but appealing nevertheless.

The frankly bonkers Rose Petal wine is a beautifully delicate pale pink to look at and smells and tastes of, well, rose petals. A little bit like drinking perfume, I wouldn't recommend it on its own, but with sparkling wine (not a posh one, please!) or in a gin and tonic? Mmmmm.

Of the meads, I favoured the Dry Mead and the Reserve Mead, which has had some barrel ageing to provide more depth of flavour. Mead is, by its nature, very sweet, so this is to be treated like a liqueur or a dessert wine, even the “dry” version.

The liqueurs are where the fruits themselves really get to sing. The Raspberry Liqueur is so full of fruit flavours it's practically like drinking alcoholic raspberry jam. For a real taste of tradition their Sloe Liqueur (they aren't allowed to call it Sloe Gin) has great depth of sour cherry sloe flavour with a cleansing kick of bitterness at the end – I found this the most grown-up of the liqueurs and one I would be happy to drink by the fire in the months to come.

Country wines are not about to knock regular wines off their pedestal, but they are fun – and we all need some of that.

Lurgashall Winery, near Petworth,

Country wines are all £7.50 for a 50cl bottle, the meads range from £7.50 to £9.45 for the Reserve Mead. Liqueurs cost from £9.95 to £11.45 for a 37.5cl bottle.