July 31, 2008

The ultimate red wine - Amarone

As I prepared these posts on wine, I tried to take pictures of the wine I would be discussing in each post. But I don't keep a whole lot of wine on hand and simply did not have much in the way of red wines. The wine shown in these photos is actually a standard, albeit very good, Cabernet Sauvignon vinted by Robert Mondavi.

I enjoy quite a few different red wines, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc topping my list of favored grape varietals. I'm also a fan of Syrah (Shiraz), but have a more narrow set of Syrahs that I like, whereas with Cab Sauv and Cab Franc I tend to like most of the ones I try.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon
Typical style: dry red
Aromas: dark berries, blackberry, currant, cassis, cedarwood
Mouthfeel: smooth, with a coarse finish
Acidity: high
Regions: France (Bordeaux: Médoc), Italy, California, Australia, Virginia
Accompanies: roast beef, venison, lamb, highly-fragrant (read: "stinky") cheeses)

Cabernet Sauvignon makes a powerful wine that becomes silky and elegant with time. It has been described as sharp and "introverted when young to full and highly flavorful after it has been aged for a good length of time. This grape is the skeleton of the great wines of Bordeaux (Mouton and Lafite Rothschild), providing the structure of the wine in the mouth.

Cabernet Sauvignon often has a spicy character, which I enjoy greatly. Sometimes the spice tastes like black pepper and sometimes a bit more like actual hot peppers. The effect is magnified if the wine is enjoyed along with a slightly spicy meal.

Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Franc
Typical style: dry red
Aromas: blackberry, black cherry, black raspberry, black plum
Mouthfeel: rather smooth
Acidity: high
Regions: Italy (Piedmont), Argentina, California, Virginia
Accompanies: poultry, pizza

According to The Little Black Book of Wine, "Cabernet Franc is a flavorful, rich wine popular for everyday consumption." I discovered Cabernet Franc quite by accident as a recommendation from the proprietor of one of our favorite wine shops. In Vino Veritas is a small wine shop just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, and the proprietors are wonderfully knowledgeable and helpful. The Latin phrase In Vino Veritas translates loosely, "In wine there is truth." This phrase has been used for many years to describe the fact that people tend to tell the truth a little bit more after a glass or two of wine because they begin to lower their defenses—to lower the masks that we all tend to wear to hide our true selves from each other. I think this is probably a good thing. We need to control our tongues, but honesty and truth are too be desired much more than the false presentation of ourselves that we so enjoy foisting upon others.

Cabernet Franc grapes grow very well in Central Virginia, especially among the rolling hills of this area. If you are able to find a Virginia Cabernet Franc, snap it up. You'll love it. Look for a winery from the Central Virginia area. My favorite is Barboursville Cabernet Franc. The initial grapes for this winery were given to Governor Barbour by Thomas Jefferson. I'd also recommend a visit to the Barboursville vineyard. It has an actual castle there. Quite delightful.

Syrah (Shiraz)
Syrah (Shiraz)
Typical style: dry red
Aromas: black pepper, blackberry
Mouthfeel: smooth, round
Acidity: medium to high
Regions: France (Rhône Valley), Australia, South Africa, Washington State, California
Accompanies: dark-meat poultry, red meats, venison, highly fragrant cheeses

Syrah is known as Shiraz in Australia and South Africa. It is described as a virile, rustic, yet refined wine. I had read good things about Syrah but had not tried it yet.

Recently, my family visited the Porterhouse, a local Lynchburg, Virginia, restaurant that specializes in beef. The food and the service were far above par. In fact the food was out of this world, fantastic!

I ordered a blackened scallops dish and the waiter recommended a Shiraz from the Australian McWilliams Winery. The scallops were amazing, but the wine coupled with the food was an intense flavor experience. Simply delightful!

The McWilliams Shiraz perfectly accented the Cajun spices in the scallops and really made the meal. I would highly recommend this wine if you are planning a spicy meal sometime. You won't be disappointed.

Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon

The glass you see in the photos below is part of a set of wine glasses we purchased at Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest. I have mentioned Poplar Forest and how much I have grown to appreciate Thomas Jefferson from our visits to Poplar Forest. So I won't repeat the things I've already said, with the simple exception of encouraging you to visit Poplar Forest. It will bring history to life for you.

These wine glasses are fun. They have a laser etching of the words, "Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest" on one side of the glass and an etching of an artists rendering of the Poplar Forest home on the other side. The stem is an octagon shape, which was Thomas Jefferson's favorite geometric shape. His fondness for this shape is seen in both his Poplar Forest home and in his home at Monticello.

The remainder of this post, however, will not discuss Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson, or even Cabernet Sauvignon, but rather an outstanding wine that you should absolutely jump at the chance to sip, should that chance ever arise. I tasted one glass of this wine a while back and it was outstanding.

An extreme, emotional wine - Amarone

"Amarone is an extreme wine," Romano dal Forno warns, pausing as we descend the spiral staircase of his villa to the chilly depths of the wine cellar, where I'm suddenly struck by how much he looks like a weather-beaten version of James Gandolfini. "It's an emotional wine," he continues. For a moment, I wonder if he's implying that I may not be man enough for the job ahead. After sampling several vintages from the barrel, I'm indeed a little emotional—exhilarated and also saddened by the knowledge that, rare and expensive as it is, I will seldom taste dal Forno's radical juice again.

Amarone is an anomaly: a dry wine that mimics sweetness; a relatively modern creation that seems deeply primitive and rustic, like some kind of rich pagan nectar or the blood of a mythological beast. While Italians consider food and wine to be inseparable, Amarone overwhelms most dishes. "With Amarone, you don't think about food," dal Forno says. "Cheese, maybe."

Dal Forno is the most extreme proponent of this extreme red, made from dried grapes—mostly Corvina—in the Valpolicella hills outside Verona. His turbocharged Amarones, produced only in the better vintages, tip the scales above 15 percent alcohol and make most cult Cabernets seem dainty by comparison. In the past decade, thanks to Robert Parker, dal Forno's wines have become as revered as those of his mentor, Giuseppe Quintarelli, with whom he worked before assuming responsibility for his father's vineyards....

Just as its exact origins are obscure, Amarone remains a mysterious, almost schizophrenic wine. As Bastianich and Lynch suggest in Vino Italiano, "It behaves like a sweet wine without technically being sweet." The bouquet of dried fruits and the syrupy texture suggest port; it tends to trick the palate by seeming sweet in the beginning and finishing dry, even slightly bitter, like unsweetened chocolate.

When I get in the Amarone mood, I often look for Allegrini, one of the most innovative and exciting estates in Valpolicella, or Brigaldara, which excelled not only in the stellar '97 vintage but also in the less opulent '98 and '99 vintages. Bassola, Masi, and Tedeschi make powerhouse Amarones in the dal Forno mold, while Accordini, Bertani, Bolla (yup, that Bolla), and Speri produce slightly lighter, more approachable versions.

As complex as it is, I like to think of Amarone as the perfect primer wine for those who are suspicious of the cornucopia of flavor analogies that wine critics come up with. I'm often baffled myself when I read wine notes full of huckleberries and hawthorn blossoms. But give me a glass of Amarone and I'm the man! Step back, Bob Parker! Even the beginning taster can feel like a professional as he effortlessly identifies the intense flavors and aromas of the most extreme red wine on the planet. Cherries! Dates! Figs! Black licorice! Leather! Coffee! Bittersweet chocolate! Tobacco! Et cetera, et cetera.

Jay McInerney, A Hedonist in the Cellar, pp. 50, 52-53, Vintage Books/Random House, New York

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