So another year in the books, and it’s been an eventful twelvemonth in Valpolicella! Every journey round the sun will mean a different set of adventures along the way – releases and receptions, challenges and triumphs, a new vintage in the vineyards and new vintages on the shelves. But how to sort through it all? The dizzying array of critics, star ratings, points ratings, not to mention websites with their own customer reviews and aggregations, seems not just intimidating but positively impossible to disentangle.
Fortunately, we at Vineria all’Amarone keep our own eyes on these things – well of course, we have to – and we’re putting it all together. Bearing in mind that this is not an exhaustive report, not at all, such a thing would be impossible, and we’re by no means saying that wines we don’t mention in this article are unworthy of your attention. However, we can say with great certainty that the ones we do mention are very much worthy of your attention, from top to bottom. We’ll focus on wines released this year by various wineries and reviewers, sites and raters we trust above all others, to give you a general overview of what’s been moving and shaking in the one of the top red wine regions in Europe.
But before we look at the wine that came about this year…
A very quick vintage report
The weather in our part of the world actually made international news this year, with dramatic droughts in the Po Valley threatening agriculture of all kinds, and leading to big questions about something winemakers usually don’t like to resort to: irrigation. It’s considered that you produce more terroir-typical, more naturally expressive if you don’t irrigate, but there are some years where you don’t have a choice in order to get good fruit to begin with.
Which isn’t to say it was all a bad year. Wine is best produced from vines that struggle, after all, and while the drought was a deeply challenging obstacle to negotiate the later showers in August, while not ideally timed, nevertheless spared many from the need to intervene. The dry weather mainly hit in the winter and spring leading to late bud-break and long flowering, and warm late summer weather finished the job to mean a late harvest this year, which could be promising.
Of course, a peculiarity of Amarone is that the vintage isn’t even done yet, given that even as these words are being written (December 2022) the appassimento process, the drying of the grapes, is actually taking place right now. Furthermore, Amarone needs to stay in the barrel for at least two years, the riserva for at least four, meaning final judgement on the vintage will be a while coming yet. Which brings us to…
A very brief discussion of release dates
Not all wine is released in the same way or at the same speed. Depending on the wine region, the appellation rules, and (perhaps above all) the opinions and tastes of the winemaker, different wines will be released according to different schedules, meaning that the ‘current vintage’ of any given wine might be very different even to another from the same region. For example, to take the grands vins of two first growth Bordeaux wineries, the current vintage of Château Lafite Rothschild is 2019, while the Château Latour is currently at 2014.
Of course, different wineries will have their own ideas about how to release what, and Valpolicella is the same as anywhere else in this regard. Wineries of course usually make many different wines, and they don’t simply release them all one year after the other – Quintarelli, famously, don’t even make their riserva or ‘Rosso del Bepi’ every vintage and never in the same year, meaning an array of different current vintages never overlapping. Other places have their calendars too, such as Zyme for their premium ‘Harlequin’ wine.
And so, when we talk about ‘current vintages’, we mean the latest release that’s currently on the market. But how to rate them? Well, there are two main methods: first, there is the five-star aggregation system familiar to anyone who has used Trip Advisor or a similar website, meaning the total average of customer reviews (perhaps the best known site for this in the wine world is Vivino); and second, the internationally respected wine critics, who (when they do scoring) generally follow the 100-point scale established by Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate back in the 1970s (there are exceptions, such as legendary British critic Jancis Robinson who uses a 20 point scale). Finally, there are also prizes and awards, some more informally by individual critics, others officially given by judging bodies and organisations.
These ratings, awards and reviews combine together to give us a picture of the wine scene. It’s imperfect of course, and you can’t expect to capture everything in one go, but it is handy as a rule-of-thumb approach. Therefore, without further ado, let’s have a look at some of this year’s most exciting releases, according to the opinions of the critics!
New releases – critics’ choices
Every year, the renowned former European Bureau Chief for the Wine Spectator magazine James Suckling rounds up his 100 best wines from the peninsula, a mighty feat of appraisal and cross-comparison respected across the wine world. His highest placing for an Amarone this year went to the Zenato Riserva 2016 (98 points), which, along with its companion Amarone Classico (2017), he described as ‘a reminder of how ultra-ripeness and richness do not necessarily preclude freshness and poise’, noting that they were ‘among the best wines we’ve ever tasted from Zenato.’
High praise! But the critical consensus seems absolutely in agreement: Decanter awarded it 97 points as well, while for Falstaff magazine it was deemed worthy of their ‘Amarone Trophy’. A stunning year for Zenato, whose releases are always eagerly anticipated and who did not disappoint this year.
The other Amarone to feature on Suckling’s personal list was the Masi Campolongo di Torbe 2013, a rarely-released, limited edition Masi expression from the private vineyards of the Boscaini family. The wine received 96 points from Suckling and 95 from Falstaff, putting yet more acclaim on the justly celebrated name of Masi.
Another grand old brand that made a real impact this year was Romano dal Forno. The iconic winemakers brought out a new 2008 of their Amarone Classico, to much praise. Following on from the 2019 release of the 2009, which Monica Larner of Wine Advocate famously gave a near-perfect score to, the 2008 was described as ‘head-spinning’ by Vinous’s renowned expert Antonio Galloni.
For Forbes magazine writer Tom Hyland, four new releases from the 2017 vintage were considered of particular note. The offering from Secondo Marco Amarone della Valpolicella by Marco Speri in Fumane (93 points) was lauded for its ‘very good concentration, subdued wood notes, good acidity and round, elegant tannins. Outstanding harmony and beautiful complexity’; Ca’ La Bionda (93 points) was noted for its likely terrific longevity, stretching well into a second decade hence (it also received the coveted ‘tre bicchieri’ from Gambero Rosso); meanwhile, Massimago’s (92 points) and Le Guaite di Noemi’s (91 points) wines also broke the 90 point barrier, noted in particular for the freshness and friendliness, indeed ‘charm’ that are becoming more and more associated with Amarone as stylistic trends move away from the hyper-extracted fruitbombs of yesteryear and towards more elegant, refined options. (Not that we at all’Amarone don’t also love ourselves a good fruitbomb!)
And finally, to round out our critics overview, let’s take a look at some of the best of other side of Amarone – the sweet Recioti that have been released this year. And to do so, let’s see what the guys at the aforementioned Falstaff magazine say. Falstaff are renowned for having their fingers on the pulse of wine in Italy, and their ratings for the 2019 recioto releases are as ever noted with great interest. This year’s batch to break the 90-point barrier were: the Buglioni ‘Narcissista’ (91 points); Recchia’s ‘Masùa di Jago’ (91 points); and the vintage’s big winner from Fumane, Scriani’s ‘Maddalena’ (93 points), noted for its ‘lovely interplay between sweetness and tannins’ and ‘long finish’. Expect all of these wines to age superbly.
Our Bestselling Amarone Wines
It’s no secret that everywhere around the Po Valley had a tough time in 2022, but it is a testament to the extraordinary dedication and skill of Valpolicella’s winemakers that the results are nonetheless looking promising. And the releases of former years show this: that the unique connection between the viticulturalists and their land is not simply a case of hoping for perfect weather, but using savvy and know-how, experience of the terroir and its peculiarities not just to make the best of a situation, but to make of each year something unique. So, as hopes have proved justified in other years, so we may expect more great things from the region from the 2022 releases. Onward and upward!