I never thought much of Valpolicella until my first visit to Italy in 1987, when I met Giuseppe Quintarelli. His wines were a revelation. In his hands, Corvina, Rondinella and the other little-known grapes of the region made a dry red wine of real substance and depth. In the hands of most others, the same grapes made something merely quaffable, often refreshing, but not usually serious.
The real head-turner, though, was his Amarone. Made from the same grapes dried into raisins, most Amarone had little in it to remind a wine drinker of fresh fruit. But miraculously, Quintarelli's did.
A young winegrower named Romano Dal Forno was similarly impressed with Quintarelli. Around the same time, he was making his first vintages from his family's vineyards. To his father's consternation, he tried to emulate Quintarelli, which involved reducing yields dramatically and re-thinking the whole idea of Valpolicella and Amarone. Even his labels paid homage to the master of Valpolicella, with the same sort of hand-written script.
In the ensuing years, Dal Forno has made the densest, deepest, most concentrated wines in the region. He also vies with Quintarelli for commanding the highest prices. Both producers make limited quantities that are snapped up by collectors these days at astronomical prices. At $75 to $100 for a Valpolicella and $350 to $400 for an Amarone, I haven't bought a Quintarelli or Dal Forno wine for years.
Which is why I was thrilled to see that the first wine tasting at this year's 21st (and final) Masters of Food and Wine event in Carmel would be a vertical of Dal Forno Amarone from 1988 to 2000. And Romano Dal Forno would be there to talk about them. At the tasting Thursday, I found a humble man who said his biggest fear was that his wines would not live up to the write-ups they were getting.
Over the years, Dal Forno has worked hard to make the wines even richer and more distinctive. He replanted his vineyards to much closer spacing. He reduced yields to pitifully small quantities. He introduced air circulation systems to keep the grapes cleaner as they dried for 90 days to make the Amarone. Since 2002, he uses only grapes dried for 30 days for the Valpolicella, which I believe is unique in the region. He started using inert gas to blanket the wine in fermentation to keep it from oxidizing, and now employs rotary fermenters to polish the texture.
And you can taste the results in the wines. In the best bottlings of Dal Forno Amarone, for me the 1997 and 2000, followed closely by 1995 and 1999, show a suppleness to the texture and an unexpected sense of freshness to the fruit flavors. It's amazing, because they're essentially made from raisins. These are the characteristics that several other modern makers of Amarone are aiming to achieve.
I was most impressed with the magnificent 1997, 98 points (non-blind, as are all the scores in this blog entry) on my scorecard. The dark, dense red teems with coffee and roasted meat overtones to the plum and currant fruit. The fruit comes together harmoniously, but the wine feels like it has decades to go.
The 2000, recently released, has a tighter structure, almost glassy texture, and tremendous focus. I rated it a point behind the 1997, although the blackberry, plum and violet flavors gleam brightly. The flavors pierce the finish like a laser.
The 1995 (95 points) has a softer sense of suppleness and a real refinement to the currant and plum flavors that remains unimpeded by any noticeable tannin. It is a wine of great integrity, and the chestnut and meat overtones are beguiling.
The 1999 (94 points) feels like a junior version of the 1997, with many of the same characteristics on a slightly smaller scale. The balance is not quite as refined, but it's a beauty.
Of the older wines, I prefer the 1991 (92 points). It's beautifully knit, with plenty of richness and depth but it has delicacy and a purity to the flavors that I found entrancing.
I admired the meaty 1993 (90), savory 1994 (91), dense and youthful 1996 (90) and grassy 1998 (87) but wasn't won over by them. And the 1988 (88), for all its spice and cedary notes, lacks the sense of elevation I got from the later wines.
I asked Dal Forno what characteristics he wanted in his wines that traditional Amarone does not have. He talked of freshness and a sense of delicacy, the sort of thing to be found in the best Barolo and Brunello, he said. That's not easy to do in Amarone, a wine that weighs in at 16.5 to 17.5 percent alcohol.
But give me a plate of aromatic cheese, and I'm not sure I can find a dry red wine better suited to the task.