Saturday, 21 January 2012

Giuseppe Quintarelli: Never To Be Forgotten

Giuseppe Quintarelli
Giuseppe Quintarelli, the incomparably gifted and inspirational maestro of the Valpolicella region, has passed away aged eighty-four after suffering from Parkinson's disease for some years. Each of his wines, from his Valpolicella to his Amarone Riserva, has such effortlessly beautiful poise, concentration and sense of place that it is easy to overlook the dedication, the skill and the love that the quietly unassuming "Bepi" lavished upon them. A deeply religious man, he believed in patience, diligence and the pursuit of perfection in the vineyard and the cellars. "The secret of my wine? I follow my rules, I do not run behind the fashions. You must have rules, but also update without abandoning traditions.”

Never one to latch onto a current trend, at times he struggled to sell his wines. As Burton Anderson observed: “It’s simply that the philosophical Bepi, after travelling and observing the progressive techniques of others, decided that there was nothing to be gained from changing the methods learned from his father and grandfather.”

A label from Giuseppe Quintarelli's
Amarone Della Valpolicella 1997
His approach was renowned as being strongly traditionalist, with only a few concessions to modernity. Although his Amarone spends seven years in Slavonian oak botti, and it was only relatively recently that labels ceased to be hand written and hand applied to bottles, S. Quintarelli was relentlessly experimental even as he adhered to the traditional techniques passed down to him. He was the first in the region to plant Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, using them to brilliant effect in his barrique-aged appassimento wine Alzero, as well as blending them with Corvina in his Primofiore. He began production of a dry white wine, something very unusual in the Valpolicella region, and he was also the first person in the area to experiment with Nebbiolo.

Strict grape selection resulting in uncommonly low yields for the Veneto, combined with painstaking attention to detail and the patience to allow his wines to evolve in their own time, means that a bottle bearing the Quintarelli name is never going to be cheap. Prominent Italian wine journalist Franco Ziliani puts it far better than I ever could when he states “the wines of Quintarelli are completely different from the standardised, repetitive and boring wine commodities that you so often find among Amarones today. They are very expensive, rare and not so easy to understand. They are wines that require intelligence, experience, culture, patience and time, all elements so different from the simple, fast appreciation of wine today.”

The last time I visited S. Quintarelli, I was fortunate enough to taste most of his then available wines. His 1995 and 1997 Amarone were nostalgic delights: powerful but fresh, ripe and voluptuous without being at all overblown, yet with the rustic, spiced, earthy character once so typical of the region. The stunning 1995 Recioto was one of the most shockingly complex, harmonious and beautiful wines I think I will ever taste, sweeter and more approachable in its youth than the Amarone and surely the wine that completely defines the phrase vino di meditazione.

“Quintarelli was the guru of Valpolicella,” says Romano Dal Forno, who studied under Quintarelli whilst establishing his own winery. “He was an example, especially in those years where quality was not the main concern of winemakers in general.”

In a world where science and technique so often supplant passion and respect, I can only hope that the uncompromising, obsessive and perfectionistic devotion that drove S. Quintarelli will be continued by his successor and nurtured in the way that its unique results demand.

I send my sincere condolences to all of S. Quintarelli’s family, and to everyone fortunate enough to have had their lives enhanced by the man and his wines.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Smoking Profusely

My new toy
I’ve just spent most of the day trying out my new smoker. Keeping the sawdust smouldering (as opposed to flaming furiously or grumpily going out) seems to be a rather hit and miss affair, but I’m hoping to climb a steep learning curve over the course of my next few attempts.

The best news was how cool the smoke actually was. The only way that I could keep the sawdust alight was to build a small fire out of kindling in the firebox and then place charcoal on top of it once it was lit. When the charcoal started to glow white hot, I just added oak shavings to the embers and checked on the smoke production every twenty minutes or so. I’d assumed that this would result in a hot, or at least a warm, smoking, but it was just not the case. It was only when the sawdust or coals burst into flame that any heat was produced, but I'm equally prone to believe that a chilly, blustery January day didn't hurt one bit in maintaining a low smoking temperature.

It did seem as though I used a lot of sawdust, but after twelve hours of dry curing and about five hours in the smoker, this was the result:

Not bad for a first attempt
It certainly smelled smoked and it was cured but not cooked. It was not sufficiently cured and smoked to be kept for any length of time, but it was going to be fine to keep in the fridge for a day or two or to freeze either whole or sliced.

As it happened, this piece of meat was earmarked for a choucroute garni the following day and was washed down with a particularly pleasant bottle of Leitz Riesling Rüdesheimer Magdalenkreuz Spätlese 2003.

Leitz, Riesling Rüdesheimer
Magdalenkreuz Spätlese 2003
This pale lemon gem was just 8% ABV and was a delight from beginning to end. Baked apple, lemon and lime citrus and gentle kerosene aromas wafted across the nose. The palate was sweetish but with balancing acidity – possibly lacking a little zip due to the heat of the vintage – and was flavoured with citrus and honey dipped green apple fruit. Rich and ripe, with a touch of minerality in a supporting role. Just starting to show its age, but very pleasant nonetheless.

And the meat? It was somewhat short of salt, but this was easily remedied during cooking. I’ll double the curing time for my next attempt. The smoke was subtle, its presence noticeable and enjoyable without being overwhelming. After simmering for two hours it was beautifully tender and a joy to eat with the choucroute, a selection of wurst, a boiled potato or two and a charming glass of Riesling. Truly a meal fit for a king and an inspiring start to my smoking career.

The proof of the pudding...