I met Andrew in 1982, growing up in a suburb of Toronto.
Andrew was a weedy, pale kid with greasy hair and a late-onset growth spurt that hadn't yet took. I didn't look any better. He also had the air of a kid with too many older brothers: smirking with premature, second-hand knowledge, yet a bit off-put that he'd be expected to live up to the reputations of others. My mother didn't like him.
I did. We would stay up late, after everyone else's curfews, share pineapple-topped pizza, listen to records, and ride our bikes home through the snow.
We've been friends ever since. Which mightn't be exceptional if I hadn't moved away two years into knowing him. Not many fourteen-year old boys are dogged correspondents. Andrew was. Not frequent, just dogged.
But this isn't actually supposed to be a story about Andrew. It's a story about wine.
I went back to Toronto about fifteen years after our first pizza. Work had me living downtown for a few months. It was like a paid-for extended homecoming vacation. I was still in touch with only a few people from those early high-school years, but as soon as I was back in town, Andrew was as constant a companion as our respective professional distractions would allow.
In the intervening years, Andrew had gone from being someone my mother didn't like to someone she might have tried to set up with my sister. Tall, handsome, and gentlemanly in a sophisticated and knowing, yet deferential way. He was now a rarer thing than a dependable adolescent pen-pal: a good-looking and intelligent man who was also modest and sweet natured. The pasty kid had become suave.
He had also become a professional sommelier. People call them wine waiters, but that's not even close to right. A well-qualified sommelier is an absolute expert: a portal of vast wine knowledge, and the ultimate afficionado of enjoyment. A midwife of sparkling, sensual gustatory experiences. If a restaurant has a good sommelier, putting yourself in his or her hands is the smartest wine decision you're ever likely to make.
Well, that was Andrew. His profession was wine, and he was as passionate about it as he was under-stated. Watching him, one day not long after our reunion, he struck me as everyone's fantasy wine guy: the sort who would guide you toward the perfect bottle while making you look like an expert in front of your date.
By the time of my Toronto home-coming, I had been living in Australia for a while, and had developed a taste for wine. I didn't know much about it. I just liked it. So, I was keen to learn a bit from Andrew: enough to stop wasting my money on vacuous wine with pretty labels.
As that autumn edged into winter, Andrew and I would dine out on my expense account and he would teach me about wine. He got a free dinner; I got a free wine course; we both got to hang out with our oldest friend. Occasionally, on the weekend, we'd raid the local wine shop, together. And that was where it happened.
Andrew pointed me toward an end-of-stock special on a wine with an unprepossessing label. “Buy as much of that as you can carry,” he advised. I had never heard of the wine before. It was an Italian red. The biggest word on the bottle was “Amarone.”
That specific wine was a 1988 Boscaini “Ca' de Loi” Amarone, and I think it cost $15 Canadian. Not sure what Andrew was going on about, I think I only bought a couple of bottles. I didn't know if I'd like it, I couldn't carry much wine with me when I eventually went back to Australia, and, you know, I didn't want to buy a lot of 15-dollar wine.
It's hazy, now, the circumstances under which I opened the first one. What's crystal clear is my reaction. I was immediately hooked. It was a massive thing, with a nose-grabbing, head-spinning perfume, explosive flavour, and layers on layers of nuance roiling beneath its power. The first sip lingered in my mouth for minutes after I'd swallowed. I had never had anything even remotely like it. It tasted like a love affair, and it became one.
I went back to the wine shop the next day. Smarter folk had snapped up most of it. I bought what was left: less than a case. A $15 dollar Amarone, I soon learned, is a rare thing, indeed.
Amarone is made differently than every other wine on the planet. It's a finicky, labour-intensive process, that takes ages and produces low volumes. The best grapes in the vineyard are hand-selected and harvested a little earlier than those used to make the region's other, lighter wines. The grapes are then laid out – again, by hand – in wooden baskets, to dry for three to six months. By then, they look more like raisins than grapes, so, when pressed, they don't give up much juice. You'd be challenged to engineer a higher-cost wine-making process. The pay-off, however, is that the dribble of juice that comes out of the dried grapes is dense, super-rich stuff. And that makes one hell of a wine.
For almost ten years since that first experience in Toronto, I have bought Amarone whenever my budget would allow. I'd reach for my wallet and feel like I was tithing at church. But it isn't just price that adds gravitas to the purchase; it's also time. Amarone can't be quaffed lightly. The temptation to drink it is almost irresistible, but even an 8-year old Amarone is still a baby with a full life ahead. Drinking it is infanticide. The older Amarones get, the more magical, the more entrancingly layered and nuanced they become. They begin to beguile.
You can tell, can't you, that in the years since plying Andrew with free dinners in Toronto, I've succumbed fully to oenophilia. I returned to Sydney, and the seed Andrew had planted grew to full-blow passion. I watered it on a steady diet of big Aussie reds. To taste and learn in Australia is to trellis your palate to the particularly sumptuous, bold flavours of its native wines. The bottles are full of startling sun and Aussie brashness somehow turned into liquid music. I left behind a cellar full of them, aging, when I moved, yet again, a few years ago. I hanker for them often, even now, living in France, immersed in vinous splendour. Yet, in all that wonderful wine awaiting my return, the most treasured, the brightest dark gems, are still the Amarones.
Given the sustained passion of the love affair, I recently decided it was high time to meet the parents. They are Boscaini, Masi, Alighieri, Bertani, Speri, and more, all in Valpolicella, the region in Italy's north that is Amarone's birthplace. I had never been, but the itch had festered for years. Whenever someone I knew would go to Venice, all I could think about was its close proximity to Valpolicella.
So, at the back end of a recent trip to the Piemonte region – no slouch, itself, in the wine department, being home to Barolo, Barbaresco and others – Flame-Haired Angel and I hopped a train to Verona, then made for Valpolicella in a rented car. It is a symptom of my disease, I presume, that my heart actually beat faster as I began to see the pergola-trellised vineyards particular to the region. When the discreet signs on the gates of the most storied Amarone cellars began to pass, one after another, I nearly had to pull over.
For the next three days, Flame-Haired Angel and I did little in our waking hours but taste Amarone and eat food matched with it. The eating part is more heroic than it sounds. Amarone is a big, powerful, shovel-in-the-head kind of wine. All that thick juice from the semi-dried grapes does more than just produce thick flavour. Having lost so much of its water to evaporation, the juice is viscous with sugar and, since fermentation turns sugar to alcohol, the final product is boldly alcoholic on top of being bold tasting. It pulverizes most food like a bug under a boot heel. So, to stand any kind of chance, meals have to be robust and hearty. We had already been in Italy for a week. We'd hardly been eating light. Three days of Amarone-strength meals – with a bottle split between us at each sitting – took some stamina.
But the wine was worth it. We drank and drank, walked through vineyards and olive groves, watched the late harvest, fondled drying grapes, ate home-made salami proffered by one winemaker's mother, shook sticky purple hands, and drank and drank some more. Our enthusiasm was rewarded with every new meeting. I wasn't so much drunk from the wine – okay, there was one night – as giddy from the stupid joy of it all. Every day began as if waking from a happy dream and still being in it. It felt like the continuation of a long passion, which, of course, it was.
And it felt like being with a very old friend. Thanks, Andrew.
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Below is a partial list of the Amarones we tasted. (This doesn't include the other Valpolicello wines tasted on the trip, including Ripassos, Passitos, Reciotos and, of course, the Superiore and Superiore Classico wines.) I'm not much on tasting notes, but a few impressions are too indelibly redolent to escape mention.
Le Ragose Amarone Classico, 1995. One of my favorite Amarones. A beautiful wine at 10 years, and looks to get better for another ten.
Serego Alighieri Vaio Amaron, 1999. Another favorite. Young, but beautiful.
Masi Campolongo di Torbe, 1999. One of the classic examples, along with its sibling, below, and showing every bit that it deserves its laurels.
Masi Mazzano, 1999.
Nicolis Amarone, 2000. Fine, but unexceptional.
Nicolis Amarone Ambrosan, 2000. This wine is a real victim of international marketing: over-oaked and showy. It's been so over-worked in the winery, to give it panache, that it just doesn't smell or taste like an Amarone.
Monte Faustino Amarone della Valpolicella Classico, 2001.
One of the great new finds of the trip, from a tiny producer who hosted us in his grape-drying loft.
Villa Espinosa Amarone, 1998.
Sanzenel Amarone, 2000. A less muscular, more feminine wine.
Bertani Amarone, 1998. A monster of a wine from one of the most famous producers. So tight and closed up, even at almost 8 years old, that it's virtually undrinkable. In another 15 years, I bet it will be fabulous.
Speri Amarone Classico, 1998. Another old favorite. Gorgeous even in its youth, will only get better.
Corteforte Amarone Della Valpolicella, 1999. Attempts to be more than it is. Rustic and a bit harsh, astringent in the mouth.
Domini Veneti Amarone, 1999. A very competent example, but not a singer of arias.
Le Bertarole Amarone, 2000. Another wonderful find from the trip, made by a father/son team.
Boscaini Paolo Amarone, 2000. The worst wine we tasted on the trip, incredibly rustic. It was 8 Euro a bottle, and tasted like it. It's too bad, as the people who make it are lovely.