Amarone 1997, The year that was

Reproduced from Year 5, Issue #31 of Spirito di Vino Asia...

A one of a kind historical tasting of 1997 Amarone and Recioto wines from Italy’s Valpolicella gathered a group of erudite and passionate wine lovers to discover their aging potential

Few adults who were in Hong Kong then will ever forget 1997. The first half was magical and electrifyingly boiling with the anticipation of the handover on 01 July when China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong after more than a century of British colonial rule. I still remember that night marking the moment with (quite) a few bottles of Champagne on a junk boat in the middle of the “fragrant harbor” as we watched HM Yacht Britannia departing Hong Kong with Prince Charles and Governor Patten on board at the culmination of a much emotionally charged handover ceremony.  The other half ended with the Asian financial crisis hitting Hong Kong with full force threatening the Hong Kong dollar peg and stock markets became increasingly volatile suddenly making many people realize that Hong Kong was not economically invincible after-all. Certainly, we each have a story to tell as to where we were when these two major episodes in the history of Hong Kong engraved our memory forever.

In the same year, something quite different but equally extraordinary occurred in Valpolicella and the rest of Italy.  Few Italian wine producers will forget that vintage which some have declared as “the best of the century across the board” in the country of “Il Bel Paese.” From Piedmont to Tuscany, from Sardinia to the Veneto, few vintages since have so uniformly over-performed all over Italy except perhaps 2010 and 2007. For the Veneto 1997 is considered the best year since and many of its producers had predicted great things for the wines produced that year.

And so, it was fitting to conduct a tasting followed by sumptuous dinner of 1997 Amarone and Recioto wines as Hong Kong was celebrating its twentieth anniversary under the “one country two system” special administration. For the occasion, Tin Lung Heen, the 2-star Michelin restaurant of the Hong Kong Ritz Carlton Hotel was chosen not only for its delicious and innovative Cantonese cuisine but also for its breathtaking views over the harbor and across it offering one-hundred-and-eighty-degree views of Hong Kong island’s majestic skyline.  Organized jointly by the Valpolicella Consorzio, responsible for the protection and promotions of the wines from the namesake region and the author of this article, the event saw a group of erudite and passionate wine lovers attends a two-part event which included a sit-down blind tasting followed by a five-course dinner designed by Michelin starred Chef Paul Lau Ping Lui, highly regarded as one of the top Cantonese chefs in Hong Kong, and included innovation with traditional cooking methods and techniques.

During the tasting session, each of the sixteen participants was invited to take copious notes on each of the eight wines served without knowledge of the producers nor the crus from which they came from. They were also solicited for individual scores on a twenty points basis. After a period of one hour, a discussion of each of the wines ensued and a vote was taken to establish the three most favorite wines of the group. A summary of the discussion for each wine can be found on page XX of this article together with the group scores. Some of the wines truly impressed with their aging ability. Especially those of Michele Castellani from his well-known and excellent vineyard of I Castei in the heart of Valpolicella Classico, both in the Amarone and Recioto styles which scored the highest of the group.  In fact, most enthusiastically agreed that these two wines not only offer tremendous drinking pleasure now but still have structure and concentration, while remaining elegant and fine, to continue developing superbly over some time to come.

After a resting period during which the participants enjoyed a glass or two of the delightful Nicolis Valpolicella Classico DOC 2016 while sharing their further thoughts on the previous tasting, the dinner session kicked-off with two Ripasso styles wonderfully paired with a premium selection of Cantonese appetizers from the Chef.  In fact, the organizers were a little nervous at the outset of the dinner - we believed that the wines would work well with Cantonese cuisine but we were a little apprehensive as to how the guest would perceive the ability of the wines to match the delicacy of the dishes.  In the end, however, the general consensus was pleasantly convinced that the various styles of Valpolicella can indeed accompany the cuisine of the region.

Valpolicella, in the northeastern part of Italy, enjoys some of the best ripening conditions in Italy.  Located north of Verona, it borders the Garda lake to the west and is protected by the Lessini Mountains to the east and to the north. The region is characterized by a series of north-south valleys that run through it making the area complex and exciting to grow grapes.  Unsurprisingly with such a diversity of micro-climates, several grape varieties are grown in the area and various wine-making techniques are used to produce four main styles of wines, each clearly distinctive from each other. Wines labeled simply as “Valpolicella” are generally light bodied with a fresh red fruit character and almost imperceptible tannins.  They are fresh and lovely to drink slightly chilled on their own or with a light dish.  These wines are not made for aging and should be enjoyed when they are vibrant and “fun” to drink. Those labeled “Ripasso” are medium bodied and display darker fruits character with aromas of blueberries and black cherries, they can be slightly more tannic but their texture is usually velvety and delightful to drink with light to medium weight dishes. Unsurprisingly, they constitute 42% of the entire region’s production and offer tremendous value. “Amarone” needs little introduction for it is well known all over the world with its full-bodied structure and powerful tannins featuring a structure that can age for decades which our tasting attempted to ascertain. In Italy, these wines are often called “Vino da Meditazione” or “wine to meditate” for their power and intense black fruit character is reminiscent of port and perhaps best enjoyed, when young, on their own after a meal rather than with food.  Finally, the fourth main style is that of Recioto, a uniquely sweet red wine which can offer tremendous pleasure potential on its own or with food.

Clearly, the dinner offered participants a unique opportunity to experience the possibilities that the region has to offer and the many promises ahead.