Masters of Appassimento: Masi

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.

SandroIn 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.

On this trip I also visited two estates where the wines are wholly produced and distributed by Masi. See parts II and III of this report on the Amarone wines of  Serego Alighieri, and the Proseccos of the Canevel family.

The Wines

masi winesFor 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.

(2019) A small proportion of Verduzzo in this blend was fermented in 600-litre French oak and that nutty creaminess comes through, with more subdued pear and a gentle grassy background. The palate has weight and structure, fine fruit sweetness and rich texture, but really fresh acidity that powers the finish.
(2019) The blend is 70% Corvina, with 25% Rondinella and Molinara, with no appassimento of the grapes. A light balsamic richness, deep cherry and a touch of creaminess from 20% oak ageing. Plenty of sweetness but smooth tannins too, fresh acidity, and a light but elegant finish.
(2019) Again, 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella and 5% Molinara. Now made with a blend of fresh and dried grapes instead of Ripasso. 15 months in 600-litre and giant 9000-litre vats. Delicious aromatics from a 5* vintage, dried cherry and red liquorice. Andrea says this should age for 20 years without a problem. Delicious smooth palate, glycerine and touch of umami, but finishes on sweet fruit.
(2019) A blend of 80% Corvina, and 10% each of Rondinella and Oseleta. From volcanic soils high in the hills. The nose is taut, with graphite and minerals rather than anything overtly fruity. 15 months in oak adds a little creamy weight, but it remains taut and showing beautiful extract with tight tannins and firm acid backbone, a smooth but elegantly austere wine with great length.
(2019) Brolio means ‘Clos’ in the local dialect, this is a single vineyard IGT Veronese wine. Same blend as Toar, and a small production. More ripeness and richness compared to the Toar, with 30% dried Corvina and 24 months in 600 litre casks giving both meatiness and openness, the initial hit of sweet plum and cherry fruit giving way to lovey acidity and firm tannic structure.
(2019) Comes only from the slopes with long sunset exposure - hence the name - and at least 90 days appassimento, followed by 24 months in oak - mostly large barrels - and a year in bottle. Delightful dried cherry and herbs, a nice note of mneatness, but elegance too. Andrea says it is a "25 year wine." In the mouth lovely lifted cherry and floral aromas come to fruition, delicate and energetic flavours despite being a big wine - a gentle giant - with such lovey precision yet warmth and weight with that touch of sweet dried fruit in the finish.
(2019) Similar grape blend as the regular Costasera, from the same vineyard, but has 10% Oseleta. Appassimento never less than 120 days. The Oselleta has a real impact again, giving, like the Toar and pure Oselleta also tasted, a firm, graphite character, tightening up the picture, and the ripe cherry and florals just showing throug beautifully. The beautiful sweetness of the fruit here is all-encompassing, with a salty touch to the acidity, such ripe chocolaty tannins and fabulous length: fruit, elegance, touches of cocoa and spices, but all about freshness and tang.
(2019) Small production from a single vineyard at 400 metres with clay-rich soils, the vines 100% pergola-grown, with average age of around 45 years - some 60 years old. A really bright, almost rhubarb touch to very sweet cherry fruit, touches of tobacco and dried rosemary perhaps, very aromatic. The palate has masses of deep, sweet fruit, with definite sweetness here, and although there are dried cherry and raisin flavours, there is no hint of oxidation or overripeness really: just an intensity into a long, smooth and sweet finish. This should have considerable ageing potential too.
(2019) From a windy vineyard and 100% limestone and rocky white soil. Dried herbs and a more austere nose, taut and dusty aromatics, immediately appears more serious than the Campolongo, with a dried herbal character. The palate too has a drier character - I suspect a little drier technically, but the profile so different, so much tighter and higher in acidity, tight tannins and a graphite sense of precision to this. Long too and finishing with great fruit concentration, it has fine length and I suspect needs more time when it may well merit a higher score too.
(2019) Beautiful, resolved nose, a touch of delightful oxidation, coffee and chocolate but still that cherry ripe red fruit clarity. In the mouth it is silky and dense, a flood of quite meaty and fleshy black fruit, super ripe tannins and lovely plum and cherry skin acidity giving length. A beautifully resolved and complete wine.

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