Amarone is a sumptuous and powerful dry red wine, always made from dried grapes. Now famous worldwide, its success over the past couple of decades has driven the resurgence of the Valpolicella region. The best producers have relentlessly focused on quality, with innovation and investment in the vineyards and in the winery. Consequently, Amarone has achieved an iconic status, instantly recognizable, with the best examples achieving a balance, intensity, purity and complexity that is arguably like no other.
As in any wine region, Amarone producers can be categorized by quality, though it is never cheap; some need to improve, others are dependably good, with a top-table of established stars. However, I love to discover producers that may be less well known but are making wines that are truly individual and exciting, expressing the personality of those that made them. I found this at Azienda Agricola Fasoli Gino.
Fasoli Gino is located some twelve miles east of Verona, in the lower reaches of the beautiful Illasi Valley. Founded back in 1925 by Amadio Fasoli, it was then a fruit and vegetable farm, making some wine for consumption in Veronese bars. In the 1960s, his son (the eponymous Gino) decided to focus the farm on wine growing, making Soave, Valpolicella and sparkling wines.
In 1979, the estate was inherited by his sons, Natalino and Amadio, and they have completely transformed the estate and its wines. They moved to certified organic in 1984 because they had seen at first hand the effects of pesticides and herbicides on their fatherâ€™s health.We rejected those synthetic products as we must respect the farmers, the consumers and nature,â€ Natalino told me. At the time, they were organic pioneers in the region, when most still thought such ideas were mad. By 1990 the uplift in quality was clear. Pushing it further, Demeter-certified Biodynamic practices have been employed since 2006.
While they own just 20 ha of land, they also have partnerships with growers that work under their supervision, covering a further 100 ha. These growers had to convert to organic methods. Such an arrangement gives Fasoli Gino access to vineyards located across the Veneto and control over fruit quality; so they have a wide range of terroirs and grape varieties to draw upon.
In addition to the expected Valpolicella and its red grapes (Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella), thereâ€™s Garganega, Chardonnay, Glera, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon in white plus Merlot and Pinot Nero in red. Hence, youâ€™ll find they make Prosecco, Bardolino, Soave and Valpolicella alongside IGT creations of their own. There is also Grappa and olive oil. But the real story here is their Amarone, which they began with the 1984 vintage, meaning a first release in 1989. Today, they make around 500,000 bottles per year in total, of which 100,000 is Amarone, including their flagship, called Alteo.
The winery was built in 2003 and thanks to the adoption of solar electricity this will be zero-emission by the end of this year. The Amarone grapes are air-dried slowly for four months before pressing, with a high proportion of Corvinone grapes used. Fermentations are long and slow. Cultured yeasts are used as few yeast strains can cope with the high level of grape sugar and resultant alcohol and a stuck ferment risks unwelcome high levels of volatile acidity (VA). It is also a low-sulphur regime (with no sulphur used at all in two of their wines), and vegan-friendly because only bentonite is used to fine the wine.
They use new and second-use french oak barriques (and, I noted, a very small proportion of US oak) to ferment and mature the Amarone before blending. Once the blend is chosen the wines are finished in large Slavonian oak botti before bottling. The whole process takes 48 months, with the Amarone casks passed on to use for Valpolicella from their third year.
Their vines are characterised by traditional pergola vine training, with netting to protect from the hailstorms that are frequent and destructive in this area. The health of the vines is clear to see even in winter, with cover crops grown for green manure and the Biodynamic dynamiser evident. I was particularly taken with the rare-breed chickens employed to keep down vineyard pests, led by a particularly amorous (and loud) cockerel.
On this splendid visit, I also discovery that Fasoli Gino has a luxury agriturismo too. While such commercial developments have become commonplace in Italy, I was particularly impressed by the way Fasoli Gino work with their communities. For example, there is a winemaking project that specifically employs young people with special needs in Bardolino and there are other placements available for high-school and university students.
Fasoli Gino is characterised by continual experimentation and questing for new ideas to explore and improve, and this extends to the wines and styles made. As well as the no-sulphur wines they have extended the apassimento dried-grape technique to create a dried-grape Merlot and Pinot Nero varietal wines, both of which are unusual, excellent and difficult to make. Their latest experiment is the creation of a rosÃ© metodo classico fizz called Creaman, made entirely from Corvina grapes grown in Bardolino and possibly the only one on the market – and very delicious it is too. 90% of their production is exported, which is good news for us.
â€œWhatâ€™s next?â€, I ask. Natalino shrugs and smiles, with a glint in his eye. â€œIâ€™m thinking of something.â€ Well, Iâ€™d like him to make a few bottles of Recioto della Valpolicella, the sweet red wine from which the dry-style Amarone was originally derived. Regardless, theyâ€™re doing the right thing right.
All this made my visit memorable and exciting – I loved the combination of ancient knowledge, Steiner philosophies and modern technology. But primarily I was here to try Alteo, their flagship Amarone – could it live up to the efforts being made?
The style of Alteo Amarone is powerful, spicy and long-lived. I initially approached it with trepidation as the alcohol level is 17.5% and I have also found some producers seem a little heavy-handed with the oak treatment. Usually, I prefer my Amarone style to be more traditional – lighter in alcohol, say in the 15-16% range, as elegance and balance are key for me.
However, I neednâ€™t have worried â€” the big discovery was that the alcohol was very well balanced to the concentration of fruit and acidity, so that there is no aggression or heat in the style, just a silky weightless mouthfeel, juicy acidity and pureness of fruit. Alteo is a muscular wine nonetheless, but with a remarkably fine and gentle presentation without any tannic harshness. Neither is the oak treatment overdone â€” there is enough to support and integrate with the fruit and add a little smoke and spice, but no more. Yes, there is some residual sugar, but the wine finishes refreshingly dry.
I have found some rival Amarone made in this bigger style can be cursed with VA (volatile acidity), too much sweetness on the finish or have a hint of botrytis flavour from imperfect grape drying. With Alteo, none of those unwelcome characteristics are present. That old wine clichÃ© about Amarone being an iron fist in a velvet glove really does apply in this case.
I tried four vintages, 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2004, to explore aging and vintage variation. All were different, all were uniformly excellent and reflected the vintage conditions. 2008 was from a hot year, so was very open and perfumed, with brown spices, liquorice and black cherry. Iâ€™d drink that before 2007, which was a cooler year meaning a less evolved wine with red cherry fruit. 2006, a classic year, is just beginning to show its age, lightening in colour to a bricky red, but has developed more complexity, think kirsch, chestnut, figs and cinnamon. 2004 was the most expressive on the nose, a little less concentrated than the 2006 but had exquisite balance and finesse. Frankly, Iâ€™d be happy with any/all of them!
As an aside, a few days later I blind-tasted 78 different Amarone from the latest 2012 vintage at the Anteprima Amarone in Verona. Afterwards, I looked up those I had selected to be my top six wines without knowing whose they were. And sure enough, there was Alteo, even though it was still a barrel sample and won’t be released before 2017!
Amarone is so often referred to as a Vino di Meditazione (think cold nights and roaring log fires). It is always a wine for a special occasion given the expense. But it is possible to match it with food as long as you match power with power. Game, porcini mushrooms and beef all work well, as does aged hard cheese like Grana Padano. Perhaps more unusually, barbecued ribs or sweet and sour dishes work very well.
In the UK, Alteo is Â£55.00 at Vintage Roots. They also have the widest Fasoli Gino wine range, starting from Â£9.00
In the US, Alteo is available at around $100.00
Amadio e Natalino Fasoli
Azienda Agricola Fasoli Gino
Via Cesare Battisti, 47
37030 San Zeno di Colognola al Colli (Verona)