The season is the depths of winter. Weather, for staying indoors. Harvest, a distant memory. Vines, asleep. Grapes, done drying. New wine, in the barrels. Last year’s, same. Some from years ago, waiting bottled in cellars. The new releases, mostly out now and even reviewed. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this time of year (end of January/beginning of Feb) in a region like Valpolicella would be a sleepy one, not much going on and not much to see, just on hold and waiting for the sun to come out and the season of activity to begin.
You’d be forgiven – but you’d be wrong! Because it’s this time of year that an increasingly important event takes centre-stage – the Amarone Opera Prima tastings. The Amarone Opera Prima event showcased wines from the 2018 vintage for the judgement of the most discerning tasters you can find, crowning winners, spreading buzz and sparking off bidding wars and, well, excitable blogs.
But what’s the big deal about this? There are lots of tastings, why is this one special? Should we go out and buy the winning wines straight away? Well, the answer to the first two questions is contained in the answer to the third – you can’t! Or at least not in the shops in the normal way. That’s because Opera Prima is not your regular style of wine degustation, and it occupies a very particular place in the wine landscape.
So, without further ado – what is it?
What is Opera Prima?
You might not have heard the term Opera Prima before, but you might well be familiar with its French version: en primeur. This practice, also known as ‘wine futures’ in English, is essentially getting a sneak preview of a vintage, to see how its doing before its technically ready for release. The idea is to get ahead on rare wines, top vintages and hidden gems, and to pay substantially lower prices (and often not pay duty or VAT) than you would for a regular bottle purchase. Wine is extracted from the barrel in which it is aging and judged according to how well it is seen to be progressing – the first look at whether vintage reports were optimistic, pessimistic, anything in between – and then accordingly, effectively, pre-ordered in a binding agreement at the lowest price it’s ever going to be available for.
The advantages are easy to see here – getting hold of limited releases, discovering top wines before other people do, and paying less for them into the bargain. But it carries with it significant risks – this wine is often nowhere near ready, and really tastes nothing like it’s going to upon release. As a result, it takes a lot of skill and know-how, as well as deep knowledge of the wine under discussion, to taste an en primeur (or Opera Prima) wine and make an accurate assessment of how it’s going to end up.
It’s often worth it though. Not just for speculation, the advantages of which in the wine world are really often a bit overblown, given the virtual impossibility of predicting where fashion and attention will be in decades to come. The main advantages are really for love of wine, as this Decanter article makes clear: not just for getting a good price on something, or even just for getting hold of something almost impossible to get after its release (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for example), but also for ‘a sense of emotional attachment to the property or properties one is ‘backing’ by buying en primeur’. More than with other methods you can feel almost like you’re going into business with a winery, and this crucial aspect of connection, often overlooked, is in the end a key part of all of our wine experiences at virtually every level of the market.
En primeur is most associated with the Bordeaux region of France, along with Burgundy the most competitive, sharp-elbowed wine market in the world (Champagne, because of its being less vintage-dependent, is actually not quite as dog-eat-dog as those two), and has since spread to regions such as the Rhone, Barolo – and Valpolicella.
What to look out for in Opera Prima
This year the Amarone ‘Opera Prima’ event replaced ‘Anteprima Amarone’ as the region’s industrial standard futures tasting, and was generally viewed as a great success. The vintage under the microscope was the 2018, to which we gave a cautious initial thumbs-up, noting its potential for ageability – perhaps the key factor in any Opera Prima assessment.
And the assessment is really the most important thing to consider when buying wine Opera Prima. This is where critics really earn their money! It’s one thing to judge a wine when it’s at its peak, another to judge a wine young when it has time yet left to reach it; it’s another thing entirely to take a wine that isn’t even finished being made, in many cases isn’t even close, and make an accurate prediction as to how good it’s going to get. The wine is likely to feel really unintegrated, with tannin and acidity all over the place, owing to the fact that the oak hasn’t had the time yet to work the magic on it to the extent intended, the wine at this stage almost like an unfinished recipe. It takes a lot of skill to see through these factors to the finished product over the far horizon – but that is exactly what the critics this year, as ever, have attempted to do.
The 2023 report
The tastings are conducted blind by the top critics and enthusiastic amateurs alike, and this year had no shortage of either, being an actual sellout in Verona for the event. Various wine magazines, websites, critics and tasters will have their chosen favourites, but here is a list of the generally agreed-upon champions of the region this year.
(Note: a reminder that all of these wines are from the 2018 vintage, and that the time they have left in the barrel varies.)
Stefano Accordini, ‘Acinatico’
Signature Amarone from the highest-altitude winery in the Valpolicella, known for its sapidity and balsamic notes.
Albino Armani ‘Albino Armani’
Marano-based branch of the Albino Armani wine group; this year’s offering is noted for its florality and spiciness.
Casa Vinicola Bennati
Another promising, relatively densely-tannic offering from the Illasi winery.
Elegant, restrained and classic from regional legends.
One of the most vibrant, modern and forward-thinking producers, Massimo Bronzato has produced an intense and zippy offering that can serve as a calling-card for the next generation of Amarone wines in the coming years.
Round and fruit-forward style as is preferred by this producer, the Pietro Dal Cero will probably be ready to drink somewhat earlier than some others on this list – so, one to keep an eye on.
Somewhat at the other end of the scale this one, but no less promising. In contrast to the previous entry on this list, the ‘Ravazzòl’ will reward patient bottle aging, sure, but the rewards will be very worth it.
La Collina dei Ciliegi
Luminous, fragrant offering, showing signs of real tertiary depth sure to develop over the coming years and quite possibly decades.
Domìni Veneti ‘Or’Jago’
One of the Cantina’s real top offerings, ‘Or’Jago’ isn’t commercially available yet but is causing a buzz and a stir already. The reports indicate that the tannins will take a little while yet to fully integrate, but that once they do they will structure a wine of remarkable aromatic qualities and herbaceousness.
Corte Figaretto ‘Brolo del Figaretto’
One of two Corte Figaretto offerings making waves this year, the ‘Brolo’ represents some of the most truly world-class potential of the Valpantena area, a part of the Valpolicella that is becoming increasingly promising and fashionable as winemakers really get to grips with its specific qualities and requirements. Fruit-forward in style, it nevertheless retains that hallmark Amarone acidity crucial for long-term ageing. An exciting wine from an exciting producer of an exciting area.
Another one not yet released but generating plenty of talk, the signature wine from Ilatium is already beginning to show in Opera Prima the depths of secondary and tertiary notes it can expect to attain, which are genuinely considerable. 2018 is therefore shaping up to be another banner vintage for the Mezzane di Sotto-based winemakers.
Cantine Giacomo Montresor ‘Satinato’
Huge name producer Giacomo Montresor’s flagship Amarone, this year’s ‘Satinato’ has been noted for its freshness, softness, and relative closeness to being ready for full-bore degustation. Surely one that will be in demand.
Roccolo Grassi ‘Save the Land’
One of superstar producer Roccolo Grassi’s very top offerings, ‘Save the Land’ is an organic ‘vino biologico’, living up to its name by being produced only using cutting edge sustainable vineyard practices and techniques. Considered a little young still, with notable alcohol and tannin still present, this is nonetheless considered a wine that is likely to reward not just Opera Prima buyers, but also those content to let bottles gather a bit of time in the cellar.
Selùn di Marcoi Luigi ‘Fiori del Pastello’
Making serious waves, described as ‘splendid’ by the Italian branch of Wine Magazine, the ‘Fiori del Pastello’ is surely one of the stars of this year’s Amarone Opera Prima event. Everything is already in balance, alcohol, tannin, body, spices and so on, with some of what the wine’s most attractive qualities will become are clearly flourishing already. A truly exciting wine, which will surely go fast.
2018 Amarone Wines
This is by no means a totally complete, comprehensive list of everything worth buying to come out of the en primeur event, nor is it a perfect prediction – it’s impossible to get everything right in wine futures, the tasting of which involves too many variables and unknowns to expect a 100% accuracy rate. Nevertheless, these are certainly some of the releases for which it’s definitely worth keeping a look out, and we certainly hope that you are now better armed to make informed choices and decisions in the thorny yet rewarding world of Opera Prima!