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The Grandi Marchi fine Italian wine tasting in the city earlier this month was a reminder as to why Masi Agricola is one of the Great Houses of Italian wines. Masi Agricola is not only a high quality producer of one of the three greatest red wines of Italy – Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG – but also leads the region in innovation, research and in a standard of excellence that raises the entire category.
Masi is synonymous with Amarone, the powerful, dry red wine made from dried grapes. Historically since Roman times, fermentation of these concentrated grapes would end naturally, leaving significant residual sugar. In the 1950’s however, producers like Masi began to ferment the must until fully dry, creating a full-bodied red wine of well over 14% alcohol.
Masi continued to innovate, creating new categories of dried-grape wines such as ripasso, which is made by re-fermenting the local medum-bodied dry red wine made conventionally with fresh grapes with the leftover pomace of an Amarone wine to make a fuller-bodied, darker and more structured Valpolicella DOC. In 1964, Masi went beyond basic ripasso by double-fermenting the dry wine, not with the pomace, but with whole semi-dried grapes that would otherwise have gone into making Amarone. They called this ‘supervenetian’ wine Campofiorin IGT.
Masi’s research is not limited to new product development, but also to conservation and study of indigenous grapes for typicité of the wines. In cooperation with Rauscedo Nursery Vineyards Cooperative (the equivalent of UC Davis’ Foundation Plant Services) and the Viticulture and Oenology Department of the University of Milan, Masi operates an experimental vineyard of about 50 different grape varieties which are micro-vinified and aged in state-of-art facilities.
The experimental vineyard project is important because Amarone is a blend of potentially several red grapes including Corvina for structure and aroma (40-80% of blend), Rhondinella for acidity (5-30%) and up to 15% of other authorized red grapes of which no single variety can constitute more than 10%. Molinara was removed as a required component in recent years due to its potentially lighter body and paler color. Masi however continues to use a small percent of Molinara for its flavor and contribution to typicité in the wines. Winemaker Andrea dal Cin believes the movement against Molinara was due in part to ‘Parkerization’ of wines. Another secondary grape that Masi prizes is Oseleta for about 10% of the blend, for its opaque color and powerful structure adding longevity to the Amarone. Masi has also been producing a 100% Oseleta wine called Osar since 1995.
Research extends to quality control, because only through quality can one taste the wine’s true expression. With dried grape wines, there is always a risk of botrytis mold development which can lead to volatility. In small doses, volatility can give lift to a wine’s aroma but too much simply masks the wine’s flavor. Masi developed an advanced environment-control system called NASA (Natural Appassimento (aka drying) Super Assisted) that dries the grapes while minimizing the risk of botrytis.
The Grandi Marchi always raise the bar, and Masi shares its knowledge through annual technical presentations at Vinitaly, the largest trade fair for Italian wines, and through publication. In addition, it recognizes excellence through its annual Masi Prize awarded to those deemed to have contributed the most to the culture of wine. Past American winners include icons Zelma Long and Robert Mondavi.