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Dreaming of Verona in Niagara: Pillitteri’s first traditional appassimento project now in barrel

mainThe first fruit from the ambitious “Verona Appassimento Project” at Pillitteri Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake is now in barrel and one step closer to the debut wine being bottled.

The project is an ongoing enterprise to produce the first Ontario appassimento (rack-dried) wine made from the traditional Amarone grape varietals of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara.

“These varieties have only been produced in a few places in the world so we feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to plant these rare varieties in Canada,” Gary Pillitteri, owner and proprietor of the winery, said.

barrelThe first vines were planted in 2009 with other plantings in 2011 and 2012 from green shoot grafted vines: the reproduction of a few vine cuttings made into thousands of vines in a matter of months. This was the first commercial application of this technique in Canada.

Before grafting and planting the vines, getting the vines to Canada was another story. With the help of local nursery Vine Tech, Pillitteri located the only phytosanitary-certified wood cuttings of these varieties at a U.S. research facility. Later, the green shoot grafting was pioneered at the Vineland Research Facility.

icegrapes“With the warm vintage of 2012 and respectable sugars in the Corvina averaging 24 Brix, we couldn’t have wished for a better vintage — much like Verona, Italy itself,” Jamie Slingerland, vineyard manager, said.

Appassimento wines are the result of a labour intensive winemaking process made from partially dried grapes to create a rich Italian-style red wine. Rack drying grapes helps to intensify flavours and increases higher alcohol content, a style sought after by many wine connoisseurs. The style of winemaking is becoming more prominent in Canada and is helping to develop new markets for Ontario VQA wines.

I tried the Corvina from barrel recently at Pillitteri and was impressed with the smoky cherry, plum and sweet tobacco notes. It was highly concentrated and rich in colour.

The Rondinella was a little lighter in colour and may take a couple of more crops before it shows its true personality in the harsh Niagara winters.

Jeff Letvenuk, marketing manager at Pillitteri, said all three varieties were kiln-dried at 15 C for a month before being put in French oak barrels.

pilboxHe isn’t sure what form the 2012 vintage will take, but it won’t be a blend of the three traditional Amarone grape varietals, more likely a Corvina blend with either appassimento Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc labelled under the top Riserva tier.

“The goal is to go true Italian with the next warm (Niagara) vintage,” Letvenuk said.

I also tasted the 2010 top-tier appassimento-style wines that are just being released at the winery and enjoyed a mini-vertical tasting of the winery’s reserve Cabernet Franc icewine.

It’s such a treat to taste older icewines, which I prefer because of the complexity that comes with age.

iceReserve icewines at Pillitteri are picked between 40-42 Brix minimum and represent the best of the best grapes from the large stable of icewine varietals at the winery.

The 2002 is a beauty (you can still buy some if you ask at the winery) with raspberry compote and strawberry cream notes on the nose and just beginning to turn to more mature red fruits with lovely toffee-caramel flavours chiming in.

Here’s what I tasted and can highly recommend from the tasting.

riservaPillitteri Riserva Famiglia Cabernet Franc 2010, Niagara ($78, 93 points) — This is made in the appassimento style with the grapes dried for 26 days and the wine aged in French oak for 24 months. It shows powerful, concentrated aromas of dark fruits, smoke, sweet tobacco, bramble and forest floor. It is big on the palate, at 15% alcohol, with smoky dark fruits, plums and spice in a persistent attack that shows length through the finish. This is just beginning to show its stuff, so cellar 10-15 years.

pilbacklablePillitteri Riserva Famiglia Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($78, 92 points) — Made in the appassimento style exactly as above. Surprisingly, the Cab Sauv is more approachable in its youth than the Cab Franc with a nose of mature maraschino cherry and blackberry jam, swirling oak spices and sweet, wet tobacco notes. The fruit gushes on the palate with cassis, currants and ripe cherry flavours bolstered by oak spice and a smoky-peaty note on the finish. Great texture and verve in this wine, with a fine foundation of velvety tannins that should serve it well for years to come.

Pillitteri Cabernet Franc Icewine Reserve 2012 ($60 for 375 ml, 93 points) — A hedonistic nose of strawberry pie, warm summer raspberries, red licorice and subtle mint and spice. It has a luxurious and velvety feel on the palate with a medley of super-sweet and succulent red fruits working in harmony. Underlying acidity keeps this sweetie stay poised and balanced through a long finish.