A Q&A WITH RAFFAELE BOSCAINI
For Amarone lovers, Masi is a household name. One of the oldest wineries in Valpolicella, it was founded in 1772 by the Boscaini family when they purchased a plot of land called Vaio di Masi, or Little Valley of Masi, from which the company takes its name.
Since then, Masi has been a leader in perfecting and updating the old Roman technique of appassimento—drying grapes before pressing—which is used for their five types of Amarone and three Recioto. Masi also pioneered Ripasso, the double-fermentation “baby Amarone” wine that today is all the rage.
Last week, I had the chance to sit down with Raffaele Boscaini, General Coordinator of the Masi Technical Group and son of Masi president Sandro Boscaini. The occasion was Risotto Rendezvous, a pairing of Masi wines with various risottos at theInternational Culinary Centerin New York.
LIFE ON THE FARM
You’re the seventh generation at Masi. What’s your earliest childhood memory related to the winery?
I remember when I was 6 or 7 years old, my grandfather would say, ‘Come with me. We’ll go to the vineyard and check the grapes.’ He’d see if the grapes were ripe by gently squeezing the clusters. He’d say, ‘This is too tight; it’s not ready yet,’ and let me try with my small hand. That was important, this relationship between man and the environment. The possibility of a hand. You have instruments, which understand better. But it was very close to reality.
I’m now transferring this passion to my kids. My daughter, who is seven years old, I let sip a little wine and talk to her about wine—and she listens. She says, “I like it,” “I don’t like it.” Once she said, ‘My girlfriends told me that red wine is not good because it’s too strong. I say that, rather than say ‘too strong,’ say it’s more intense.” [Laughs] A seven year old!
It was your father, the sixth generation, who created the modern-day Masi.
Sandro, my father, saw that in our territory many vine-growers were starting to plant Cabernet or Merlot—international varieties—in order to have bigger wines. He said, ‘Come on! I have my origins here. I don’t need to copy something else. I can make Amarone, which can climb to success because it’s a unique wine.’ Masi was one of the first to believe in Amarone and distribute this great wine. At the beginning, it was not that famous, but almost a curiosity—something done in Valpolicella with these dried grapes. Most of the wine coming out of Valpolicella was simple wine for everyday drinking.
Amarone emerged after WWII. But nobody knows exactly when or where it started.
Correct. It was a curiosity. Some started to produce small quantities almost for their own consumption, maybe some bottles for Christmas time.
But by 1958, after my father had taken over, my grandfather did the first selection of single vineyards for Amarone, the first cru. He looked at the small parcels up in the hills and said, ‘Okay, from those vineyards we can do something different. The soil is so different, the conditions…” He took eight parcels, if I’m not mistaken, and produced single-vineyard wines, just to see which ones were better.
He did it a very simple way, like the simple man he was. He produced these Amarone from different parcels, then went to his friend Giorgio Gioco—of the renowned 12 Apostoli restaurant in Verona—and said, ‘You have great consumers here. Can I bring you my wines, you let them taste, and you give me the feedback?’ As simple as that. So he came out with this survey, basically, and identified two vineyards, Campolongo and Mazzano, that make excellent wine. And a third, Mezzanella, which makes grapes for a wine that’s actually midway between an Amarone and a Recioto, called Amandorlato.
When you speak about historic cru with a blended wine like Amarone, are you talking about old field blends?
Yes. You go in the field and see a few plants of Molinara, a good amount of Rondinella, and big quantities of Corvina.
Do you still intermix like that when planting new vineyards?
No, nowadays we have separate rows, because the grapes are different. But in the past—when we’re talking about Campolongo or Mazzano, very ancient vineyards—we don’t even know the exact percentage of the vineyard.
How old are the vines in your cru?
We are replanting gradually, at 10 percent every five years, but the average is over 25 years old.
THE MASI HOUSE STYE
Is there a Masi Amarone house style?
Absolutely. First of all, it must have this cooked fruit character, more than ripe fruit. It should have this illusion of sweetness—which is not actual sweetness, not residual sugar—coming from the botrytis. Botrytis comes naturally on Corvina grapes and builds up glycerin, which gives smoothness, gentleness, and this illusion of sweetness. Even if other producers say, “We don’t want to have noble rot,” we believe it’s one of the keys to the pleasantness of Amarone.
Do you get botrytis in all your vineyards?
Almost all. The exception is Mazzano. Being at high elevation and very exposed to the wind, it’s much more dry. You see the results in the bottle. It’s more austere, robust, and masculine, without this gentleness.
Another important element to the Masi house style is the role played by Molinara. It’s a grape the DOC doesn’t even suggest anymore. It used to be mandatory; not anymore. But for me, it has a good role in the blend. It gives fresh acidity—which, for a long-lasting wine like Amarone, is vital—and a particular flavor that recalls, I don’t know, red bell pepper, which gives some freshness in the flavors.
The last point is about the use of the wood for aging. I don’t like barrique; 600 liters is small enough. I always say to our technicians, “Wood is not an ingredient. Use it like the chef uses salt and pepper, just to smooth the angles.” The wine should speak for itself.
THE ORIGINS OF RIPASSO
Tell me about Campofiorin, the first Ripasso.
That was the late 1950s, early 1960s, when my father first started to work with the company. He and my grandfather looked at our production and said, “Okay, we have these great wines: Amarone and Recioto. And we have this pleasant everyday wine, Valpolicella. But nothing in the middle.” So my grandfather and our former enologist, Nino Franceschetti, looked at documentation of how wine was made in the past, even looking at Tuscany and the governo system. They tried to do this new thing: to pour the Valpolicella made a few months before over the left-over skins of Amarone after fermentation, which are rich in sugar and still warm. That second, low fermentation accentuates the color and alcohol a little bit and adds new aromas, new flavors, new sensations.
In 1983, we tried to do it in a better way. Since then, we don’t use the Amarone pomace anymore, but squeeze dried grapes and ferment them in order to have a cleaner process. They’re around 20 percent. The wine itself is more clean, more aromatic.
The thing is, since the DOC accepted the Ripasso, they say that the Ripasso must be done with the pomace of the Amarone. So in fact, our double-fermentation wine is not called Ripasso. It’s Campofiorin, the name of the vineyard.
Actually, the name ‘ripasso’ had been invented by Masi in 1964, but we donated it to the Chamber of Commerce in 2003.
AMARONE AND FOOD
When is the last time you had Amarone for dinner at home? And what did you serve?
I love to cook. The last time I had Amarone at home was with my latest recipe invention. I made a pan-seared filet, quite rare. On the side, I prepared a sauce with porcini mushrooms, dried plums, and a stick of cinnamon. To me, it was very good.
Amarone is easy to pair with food, as long as you have food with the same weight. In terms of tannins or acidity, it’s already balanced. So you don’t need fat because the wine is so tannic. It already is balanced. So it can go with easily with many things.
Proof soon followed. Michelle Lawton of Joyful Plate brought out four risotti to pair with six luscious Masi wines (recipes provided by the cooking school at Serego Alighieri, the historic Amarone estate owned by descendents of Dante, with which Masi collaborates). One of the most unique was Risotto with Lemon and Mint, whose summery flavors worked surprisingly well with this typically stick-to-your-ribs winter dish. This recipe paired beautifully with Masi’s Masianco 2010, a 75/25 blend of fresh Pinot Grigio with semi-dried Verduzzo.
RISOTTO WITH LEMON AND MINT
4 cups vegetable stock
½ cup unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
8 shallots, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1-1/2 cups risotto rice ½ cup white wine
1-1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Finely grated zest of 3 lemons
2 tbsp light cream
Handful of fresh mint, coarsely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the stock in a saucepan. Heat until almost boiling, then reduce heat until barely simmering to keep it hot.
Heat the butter and oil in a deep skillet or heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for 1-2 minutes, until softened but not brown. Add the garlic.
Add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon until the grains are well coast and glistening, about 1 minute. Pour in the wine and stir until it has been completely absorbed.
Add 1 ladle of hot stock and simmer, stirring until it has been absorbed. Continue to add the stock at intervals and cook as before, until the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender but firm (al dente), about 18-20 minutes.
Add the parmesan, lemon zest, cream, some mint, salt and peper. Mix well. Remove from heat, cover, and let rest for 2 minutes.
Spoon into warmed bowls, top with chopped mint and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.