Though every European wine region has its share of ‘noble’ families, running wine estates on land that has been passed down through multiple generations, sometimes a tour of Italian producers feels like one has plunged into the bloodstream of Debretts (or its Italian equivalent). Frescobaldi, Antinori, Ludivico, Ricasoli; the Marcheses, Barones and Contessas come thick and fast.
In the rolling hills of Valpolicella, mid-way between Verona and Lake Garda, the Masi name is one of the most illustrious. And behind it lies the Boscaini family, where Sandro Boscaini is one of the most commited wine producers I have come across, his family planting thier first vineyards in 1772. A noble history indeed, and yet Sandro seems to me to embody an extraordinary work ethic and undying passion for the job of steering this remarkable company. Joined by several family members, he oversees a fascinating business, on one hand staunch defenders of a winemaking tradition and family history, on the other outward looking, restless and inquisitive, with an outpost in Argentina and experimental cooperations that have taken their expertise in appassimento to a bewildering range of countries, from China, to Hungary, to Brazil.
Appassimento is the technique of drying freshly harvested grapes to concentrate their flavours and sugars, before fermentation. A painstaking historical method lies behind Amarone, Masi’s raison d’être, where grapes spend up to 120 days spread out on shallow bamboo trays, slowly drying in lofts in the winery, or in the vineyards. Note the trademark logo on the back label of Masi bottles, ‘Appaxximento’, to certify their long, traditional appassimento. The brief video below shows grapes in the Masi drying loft.
“For appassimento, the ferment alone takes a further 30 to 45 days,” says Sandro, “but some producers shorten the appassimento process with forced ventilation and other techniques.” He is suspicious of lower alcohol Amarone at 14% or 14.5%, suggesting that means it has been fast-tracked and will be an inferior product. Masi is dedicated to Amarone, their technical group studying the whole process for 35 years and, for example, developing and refining their own yeasts from their cellars, tuned to the technique.
Andrea Dal Cin is Masi’s technical director. Each winery has its own winemaker, but Andrea oversees quality across all, including in Argentina. He has been with the company for 17 years: “A very interesting time, with many developments,” he says. Among these is ‘NASA’, or Natural Appassimento Super Assisted, a computer-controlled system installed in the drying lofts that can control all sorts of parameters like temperature and humidity, but also monitor wind speed and other natural factors, adjusting and placing limits to create optimum appassimento conditions over the correct (i.e. long) process of up to 120 days. By this time the dried grapes have around 17% potential alcohol.
So what does the appassimento journey acheive? Andrea explains: “the bunches will see 30% to 40% weight loss, with concentration of colour, sugar, aroma and tannin. Partial Botrytis creates glycerine and smoothness. But more than that, genes in the grapes that are normally switched off, switch on after 60 or 70 days. This produces interesting compounds that are totally different from fresh or semi-dried grapes.”
With such a technique producers have to be crareful to avoid unwanted flavours and oxidation, or excess Botrytis which Andrea says can give “a maple syrup aroma,” that is not wanted. In the laboratory, Corvina can acheive 45% Botrytis after 80 days, Molinara around 25%, and Rondinella only 5% because of its thick skins. At Masi that is controlled to no more than 5% overall.
For Amarone, grapes undergo 100% appassimento. A related technique called the ripasso method was developed by Masi and trademarked, but the family gifted it to the Conzorzio for anyone to use. Ripasso involves fermenting wines on the skins of Amarone grapes, “like making a second cup of tea from one tea bag,” as Sandro explains it. The technique was developed after the Second World War, and while historic, it is no longer used at Masi.
In the new era they prefer to make similar style wines, like their big selling Campofiorin (the best selling IGT wine in the world according to Sandro), by blending semi-dried and fresh grapes. The fresh grapes are fermented while the other grapes dry for a shorter time than for Amarone, then they are put together for a second fermentation, a ratio of around 70/30 fresh to dried. For white wines there is a short appassimento for a small proportion of the grapes.