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Valpolicella producers reveal 2009 wines

The tenth Anteprima Amarone was held in Verona on 26 and 27 January when 58 producers revealed their wines from the 2009 harvest to the world’s press.

It also provided the Consorzio of Valpolicella with an opportunity to take stock of Amarone’s position in the market and the changing character of the wine itself, writes Helen Savage.

Despite a blip in 2009, as the world economic crisis began to bite, and when according to Christian Marchesini, the President of the Consorzio, “the producers got scared,” the area under vine has continued to grow steadily. He reported that it increased from around 5,200 ha. in 2000 to 7,200 ha. in 2012, with a further 343 ha. planned for 2013/4. Valpolicella as a whole now represents 10% of the total wine production of the Veneto and 47% of red wine production.

Alessandro Bianchi, of the Verona Chamber of Commerce described an increase in turnover of 20% between 2009 and 2011 and an industry in which producers are making healthy profits. The most profitable lines, by far, according to most growers are Amarone and Ripasso,

The export market, on which Amarone depends for around 80% of its sales is growing too, but remains firmly dependant on Germany (which takes around 44% of the export total) and Northern Europe, along with the USA, Canada and the UK.

Bianchi reported that the Russian market is also showing growth, but is still relatively untapped. “I am sure we can expect more growth,” he said, “and we should neither increase nor lower prices. It is not right to increase prices when a product is doing well.” In contrast, the Italian domestic market remains relatively sluggish, and is even in slight decline.

2009 was challenging for winemakers. Daniele Accordini , oenologist and vice-president of the Consorzio, described a fore-shortened season, which resulted in musts with high sugar levels, high pH and low acidity. The winter and early spring was cold and very wet. The vegetative cycle began about a week late. Bud-burst was on April 22. Virtually no rain fell in May and temperatures rose quickly. Flowering began early on 22 May, and after one of the hottest Augusts on record, the harvest began on 22 September, a fortnight earlier than in 2008 with grapes that were thick-skinned and healthy.

Dry weather continued for the start of the drying process, but the second half of October turned cool and wet, which continued through November and into December. Growers relied on their air conditioning in their drying rooms to protect the fruit, but the especially thick skins of the grapes in 2009 also helped to protect them against fungal infections and excessive botrytis (though some welcome a degree of noble rot, especially on grapes intended for Recioto).

Pressing began early on 1 December to avoid excessively alcoholic wines. By then, the grapes had lost around 35% of their weight and the musts had 270-280 g/l of sugar. This policy worked in keeping finished alcohol levels down to an average of 15.76% ABV, with an average pH of 3.58 and total acidity of 6.07 g/l. Residual sugar, however was the highest since 2000, at an average of 7.55g/l. In summary, the wines, he said are rich and soft, with high levels of extract.

Accordini argued that the biggest single factor in the change of the character of Amarone has been global warming. This has had implications for quality of the fruit now being produced, for the management of vineyards and also for the nature of the drying process. Riper fruit with higher pH makes a malo-lactic fermentation much easier to complete. He suggested that as many as 98% of Amarone wines in 2009 underwent a full malo. But it has become far more difficult to complete fermentations successfully using only wild yeasts. Many more growers now have had had to resort to cultivated strains. The major change in the drying process is that it now begins in the summer heat, not as a generation ago, when temperatures had already begun to fall. Winemakers have to rely on air conditioning not only to reduce humidity in their drying rooms but also to cool them too.

In the vineyards over the last decade there has been a steady trend towards trellising on a Guyot system, instead of on the traditional pergolas, which still account for 80% of the total planting; but Accordini now wonders if the greater shade offered by pergolas may be beneficial in delaying ripening and in protecting the fruit more effectively from sunburn.

In order to understand better the character of wines from each of the five zones of the Valpolicella Classico, Accordini and his team have carried out a highly detailed analysis of the typical organoleptic properties of the wine from each region. The results of this were also described in detail at a press conference on January 26.

Some producers choose not to show their wines at Anteprima Amarone. Notable absentees include the twelve members of the ‘Amarone Families’, who have also been vocal in arguing that the expansion of the area of production of Amarone outside the Classico zone has lowered standards.

Nevertheless, the opportunity to taste a very wide range of wines, over half of which were barrel samples, is invaluable and fully corroborated Daniele Accordini’s assessment of their character. Quality across the board remains variable, but the best wines of 2009 are very good indeed. Most are soft, rich and forward.

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