A Passion for Appassimento Wines in Walla Walla
Originally published March 17, 2012 at 7:00 PM
Gino Cuneo has been making wines in Oregon, with both Washington and Oregon grapes, for more than two decades. His recent move to Walla Walla has accelerated his efforts to replicate some of the most unusual and labor-intensive wines in the world — the appassimento-style wines (amarone and recioto) of the Veneto.
By Paul Gregutt, Special to the Seattle Times
I'M NOT sure if it should be considered the last grape crush of 2011 or the first of 2012. But on a chilly, late January afternoon, at the Artifex custom crush facility in Walla Walla, several truckloads of barbera and grenache grapes arrived and were fork-lifted into the waiting de-stemmer.
The grapes were shriveled and sweet smelling. This was not ice wine. In fact, the fruit had been harvested at the Coyote Canyon vineyard back on Oct. 19. For the next three months, it was laid out on drying racks in the workshop of Gino Cuneo.
Cuneo has been making wines in Oregon, with both Washington and Oregon grapes, for more than two decades. His recent move to Walla Walla has accelerated his ongoing efforts to replicate some of the most unusual and labor-intensive wines in the world — the appassimento-style wines (amarone and recioto) of the Veneto.
Appassimento, loosely translated as "raisined," is an Italian winemaking technique that dates from Roman times. Back then, it was done to concentrate and sweeten wines that were otherwise too sour. Today, it's back in style as a means of adding complexity rather than just sweetness.
If you're interested in the process of making this wine, check out a YouTube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWsDE8AWZXU.
Cuneo's appassimento wines, bottled under the Tre Nova label, are not entirely traditional. He has experimented with a half dozen different grapes, none of them the varieties (corvina, rondinella and molinara) that are used in Italy. In some years he has hung the bunches from the rafters, in others used homemade drying racks. The finished wines may be dry or off-dry; the sweeter styles are bottled in 375 ml.
The 2008 Tre Nova Ripasso ($20) is a sangiovese/barbera blend made by mixing regular red wine with wine from shriveled grapes. It doesn't reach the complexity of amarone, but it does capture some of its dried-fruit, dried-leaf and forest-floor character.
The 2008 Tre Nova Seccopassa ($28) is entirely fermented from dried grapes — sangiovese and barbera fruit sourced from the Ciel du Cheval vineyard on Red Mountain. Smooth and spicy, it has sweet-tomato, dried-red-fruit and Italian-herb flavors. The shrinking of the grapes reduces their water content by about a third; hence, more sugar, which converts to more alcohol. Fermented to complete dryness, here the alcohol reaches a hefty 16.8 percent.
A slightly sweeter version is the 2006 Tre Nova Dolcepassa ($35/half bottle). I am not sure how an Italian winemaker would respond to this appassimento pinot noir, but it is most likely the only one being made in America. Here the fermentation is stopped just short of complete dryness, though it does not approach the sweetness of most dessert wines. Peppery and earthy, it has a strong flavor of dried herb, with a finish offering tannic grip and a little heat from the 16.5 percent alcohol.
Cuneo also makes a 2007 Tre Nova Bonatello Riserva Sangiovese ($25), ripe and chewy with a spicy, chocolaty finish. No dried fruit here, just a very ripe, oak-aged wine from Wahluke Slope grapes. All these wines are distributed by A&B Imports.
You can't help but admire Cuneo's effort, his spirit of experimentation and dedication to making wines that are well off the beaten path. Results are mixed, as I saw when tasting some older, experimental bottles that were graciously offered. But the Northwest is fortunate to have individuals such as Gino Cuneo who are willing to explore the edges of the enological earth, the real winemaking frontier.
The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries" is now in print. His blog is www.paulgregutt.com.