Masi Agricola President Sandro Boscaini has been a key figure in showing the world that Valpolicella can produce good wines. Masi’s Luc Desroches visited Cayman in January to host several wine tastings and to participate in the 2014 Cayman Cookout, and he discussed the role Masi played in Valpolicella’s rise in the wine world.
Although it is virtually surrounded by good wine regions, as recently as 50 years ago the wine region Valpolicella in Verona, Italy, wasn’t known for producing very many memorable wines.
“Valpolicella was mainly a producer of cheap jug wines,” said Luc Desroches, the sales managing director Americas – Asia/Pacific for the Masi Agricola winery.
In 1964, a young university graduate named Sandro Boscaini joined Masi, bringing with him a vision.
“Sandro realized the salvation of the region was to improve the quality,” he said.
Through some research and experimentation, Boscaini worked on improving the quality of Masi’s wines and has taken Masi – and Valpolicella – to new heights.
Every wine has a story and with Amarone della Valpolicella, it’s a more interesting story than most.
The wine is made from a blend of grapes most people have never heard of, mainly Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, but sometimes also Croatina, Negrara, Forsellina or Oseletta.
When used to produce a standard table wine, the result is generally a light-bodied, fruity wine that is best served young and slightly chilled, very similar to Beaujolais. However, by allowing these grapes to partially dry on racks before being pressed, in a process called appassimento, the wines they produce are transformed into rich, full-bodied wines that are among Italy’s most prestigious.
The process of making Amarone is expensive, time-consuming and filled with risk. After the grapes are harvested, they are dried on straw mats or bamboo racks for 120 days.
“During this time, they lose between 35 and 40 percent of their weight,” said Desroches.
If the drying conditions are too moist, or if the drying room is not ventilated enough, or if the grapes are bunched too closely, or if their skins are broken, the grapes can develop a mold that can ruin all of the grapes.
Conversely, at the end of the drying process, Masi wants the grapes to develop a particular kind of mold called botrytis cinerea – also called noble rot – which is the mold that creates sweet wines like Sauternes. The botrytis gives the grapes higher glycerin levels, which in turn give the wine a soft, round mouth-feel with velvety tannins, and a sensation of sweetness, even though Amarone is a dry red wine.
“Masi’s Amarone has less than eight grams of sugar, which is less than cheap California Merlots,” said Desroches. “But it has a sweetness in the mouth because of the glycerin.”
Production of Amarone, as we know it today, didn’t begin until 1950, and the wine didn’t really become popular until the 1980s. The early Amarones had very high levels of oxidation, partially because the wines needed 25 to 30 years of aging to really be appreciated, Desroches said.
“Sandro wanted to have an Amarone with as little oxidation as possible,” he said, noting that part of the problem was that the fermentation cycle was taking as long as 13 to 16 months. Because the grape drying process created more residual sugar in the juice, it took longer for the yeast to convert the sugars into alcohol so that the resulting wine would be dry as opposed to sweet.
“The key was developing the right yeast to control the fermentation process,” Desroches said. “Sandro was able to cut down the process to four to five months and this reduced the oxidation. This produced the Masi Amarone style, which is drinkable and pleasant after five years. This is part of the reason for the big success of Amarone today and was Sandro’s the first big innovation.”
In some ways, Boscaini’s second big innovation was more important than the first because it created a new category of good quality wine that was more affordable than Amarone, thus opening up Valpolicella to a much wider wine market.
“Sandro was searching for something in between the big Amarone and the light Valpolicella,” said Desroches.
Boscaini used the lees and pomace – leftover skins and seeds – of the grapes being used to make Amarone and mixed this with already vinified Valpolicella wine. He then added more yeast to create a second fermentation of the mixture and created what is now known as Ripasso Valpolicella, which is sometimes called “Baby Amarone.”
This second fermentation process added flavor and body to the wine and the extracted tannins from the pomace add structure.
Eventually, Boscaini improved the process by using partially dried grapes instead of pomace and lees, but with grapes that were only dried about one month instead of 120 days. This method created the “Supervenetian” style of wines.
Over the years that Boscaini has led Masi, the company has become one of the most important wine producers in Italy, with a portfolio of more than 40 different wines. Six of those wines were sampled at a West Indies Wine Company Sommelier Series tasting led by Desroches on Jan. 16. The wines were served with small bites provided by Chef Dylan Benoit and Mizu Restaurant.
The first white wine sampled was Masi’s Bossi Fedrigotti Pinot Grigio [Retail: $22.59]. What was immediately noticeable about this white wine in comparison with other Pinot Grigio wines was its light copper tint, which it gets from having some maceration time with the pink-gray grape skins.
“You will notice the aromas of green apple and beautiful acidity,” said Desroches. “If you remember one thing about this wine, remember its beautiful acidity.”
Next tasted was another Pinot Grigio, the Masi Masianco [Retail: $18.09], one of Masi’s Supervenetian-style wines that use the appassimento technique. This is a blend of Pinot Grigio and 25 percent Verduzzo grapes that are dried for 30 days and then vinified in oak barrels. The result is a richer Pinot Grigio with floral and honey aromas and flavors of peach and apricot.
“This is a wine for fun,” said Desroches. “It’s more mainstream than the previous wine.”
The Rosa dei Masi [Retail: $17.99] is the winery’s recent entry into the rose wine category. Made from Refosco grapes, this is a unique rose in that it incorporates the appassimento technique, with 15 percent of the grapes being dried for one month. The result is a full-bodied rose with lots of berry flavors that could pair well with many different foods.
“The beauty of this wine happens in your mouth, not in your nose,” he said, noting that in this early release of the wine, Masi wasn’t satisfied with the aromas, but it was very satisfied with the taste.
Moving to red wines, the Masi Campofiorin 2009 [Retail: $ 20.99] is the original Supervenetian/Ripasso wine. Made with a blend of 70 percent Corvina, 20 percent Rondinella and 10 percent Molinara grapes, this is a rich and velvety wine that has aromas and flavors of cherries. For the price, it is a great value.
The 2008 Costasera Amarone [Retail: $46.59] is a classic example of a Masi Amarone that is drinkable and enjoyable when young.
“The tannins aren’t harsh,” said Desroches. “They are smooth, round and rich.”
On the nose, the Costasera showed aromas of cooked fruits like plums and cherries, and was fruity on the palate, with hints of bitter chocolate and coffee beans.
The tasting ended with Corbec [Retail: $36.99], which comes from Masi’s winery in Argentina. This intriguing blend of Corvina and Malbec grapes uses the appassimento technique to produce an elegant and velvety wine with flavors of lush ripe cherries and a long bitter chocolate finish.