I am attempting to compile an eclectic wine alphabet, with each letter focusing on everything from a grape variety, to a region, or perhaps a winemaking practice or winery. Where appropriate, I will be cooking a dish that the wine in question can accompany. This also ties in nicely with our #drinkbetter campaign, where we are putting a spotlight on wines of a certain quality to savour. The project is also a good reason for me to delve into my wine rack for some hidden gems.
There is no better way to start than with one of Italy’s most rich and decadent of wines – Amarone della Valpolicella. What I love about Amarone is its complexity, from the winemaking techniques before it reaches the bottle to the resulting wine itself. The wine I am putting on a pedestal here has held pride of place in my own wine rack for many years – Musella Amarone Riserva 2005.
Once the wine has had a couple of hours to breathe, varying aromas lead you to deep and intense flavours, everything from a nose of rum and raisin, a mouthful of sour cherries to the spice and port-like intensity on the palate. Amarone is a serious wine to be relished alongside a meal worthy of it, and with guests that will appreciate it, so I have chosen venison wellington, similarly rich and labour-intensive but worth the wait.
Don’t let me be misunderstood…
Although dating back to Roman times, and we even have accounts from Catullus describing drying grapes in such a way and left to intensify, it took a long while for Amarone to make its mark in the world of wine. Differentiating itself from the sweeter Recioto wine, the term Amarone came into being, literally meaning ‘Big Bitter’. It was only until 1990 that an exceptional vintage gave this wine the prominence it deserved – Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and propelled it into wine stardom. In 2009, Amarone was stamped with Italy’s highest wine classification, Denominazione di Origine Controllata de Garantita (DOCG).
Every Amarone starts off as a Valpolicella. The three traditional grape varieties for this wine are Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. The technique used to make Amarone is called Apassimento, where the ripest bunches of grapes are harvested by hand and those selected are dried for up to four months in ventilated lofts or custom-made sheds at the winery. The grapes reduce dramatically in size and are then crushed, therefore considerably more grapes are required to make each bottle of Amarone. Extracted from these grapes is the most concentrated, intense, sweet, high alcoholic juice. After fermentation, the wine is transferred to stainless steel tanks for up to 6 months and aged in barrel for a number of years and then only released once aged for many months in the bottle. The process of making this wine really is as complex as the finished article.
The Musella Amarone Riserva 2005 is 16.5% ABV (Amarone starts at a minimum of 14%), and you may be forgiven for thinking that this is to be found in the fortified wine section. This wine is not for the faint-hearted and it will certainly divide opinion. A red that simultaneously ticks the boxes of a port-like sweetness and full body sounds wonderful to me but does have rather a marmite effect. So easily wines can be misunderstood, especially as this is a wine to be sipped and respected, not really for quaffing (unless a momentous occasion demands it, of course!). Some may prefer to pair with red meats or others with a flavoursome cheese course, for instance.
With the Musella winery, it is evident that before anything else is the family’s unwavering devotion to their varietals and practices and especially working alongside nature, with the emphasis on producing the purest of wines that are true to themselves. In the Veneto region, the cellar is located in a 16th Century rural court, on a site of 400 hectares and wine has been made at the estate for around 800 years. The principal winemaker is Enrico Raber. Enrico is the Nephew of Emilio, who is the owner and founder of the estate.
The journey from vine to opening the bottle is all-encompassing. Everything is important, from the care with the vines, grapes, soils, climate, Biodynamic practices and methods of vinification that contribute to the ultimate enjoyment of the wine. There is a poetic aspect to such Italian wines – two of their Valpolicellas are regarded as ‘meditiation wines’. The term Vino da meditazione is often used to describe passito wines or red wines of a certain importance to be enjoyed in a slow manner, almost out of respect for the wine.
The wine matures in the bottle between 8 and 12 months before it is released. Many factors such as seasonal changes will affect ripeness of certain grapes etc, therefore each year may mean percentage differences from the respective grape varieties in the blending process. The Musella Amarone Riserva 2005 is made with Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Oseleta. The colour is a deep ruby, the palate has a savoury backbone and I can really detect flavours of black cherries, chocolate and tart cranberries. A woody character contributes to a multi-layered finish of sweet plum fruit and spice.
With regard to the cost of this wine, the 2005 vintage would now demand a price of £60 plus per bottle. The same grape varieties are used for our current Musella Amarone Riserva 2009, priced at £34.99 on the website, another excellent vintage. To make each bottle of this wine, the price of Amarone is seriously worth it for those ready to savour every moment.
Venison Wellington for two
Served with potato dauphinoise, rich beef gravy and buttered kale
For me, Amarone works beautifully with this dish, as it complements the savoury, iron-rich gaminess of the venison, as well as being a pleasant contrast to the salty prosciutto and nutty duxelles.
Instead of the loin, which is sometimes hard to obtain, plump venison steaks make for great individual wellingtons. What you surround the venison with will impart more flavour, so the zingy mustard and prosciutto inside the pastry almost meld together at the end. Some use paté, I prefer not to but that is a personal choice.
2x large, plump and rounded venison steaks
2x tablespoons English mustard,
1x tbsp hand picked thyme,
6-8 slices of prosciutto (roughly 150G),
250g chestnut mushrooms,
1x clove garlic, crushed,
375g Block All butter puff pastry (if you really want to make this pastry then hats off to you!)
2x egg yolks, beaten to brush the pastry.
Method: (to make two individual venison wellingtons) preheat oven to 190C fan
- Brush steaks with olive oil and season well.
- Heat pan until nearly smoking and sear the steaks for at least a minute on all sides.
- Brush mustard liberally all over the seared steaks.
- In a small blender, very finely chop the shallot and crush the garlic, fry in 50g butter until softened. Again, finely chop the mushrooms in the blender and add to the same pan with the chopped thyme. Cook for about 10 minutes until it looks like a soft paste. Keep cooking until the moisture has nearly evaporated.
- Overlap three or four slices of the prosciutto lengthways and spread over the duxelles thinly – <repeat> and put the steaks in the middle, wrapping the layers around the venison as tightly as possible, securing with the cling film, to look like a plump sausage roll.
- Chill in the fridge for about 40 minutes.
- Roll out two rectangles of pastry big enough to wrap up the steaks, quite thinly, ideally just less than the thickness of a pound coin (ready rolled pastry is also similar). Remove the cling film and place the chilled venison parcels in the centre, rolling up until you can just tuck in the sides underneath. Cut off any excess, otherwise this pastry will not cook at the base. Smooth all around so there are no gaps.
- Brush beaten egg yolk all over the top and sides of the wellingtons.
- Place back in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to firm up.
- Cook for around 20 minutes and the pastry should be a dark golden, caramel colour.
- Turn off the oven and leave the wellingtons in for a further 5 minutes (which crisps up the pastry and helps to deter soggy bottoms)
Potato dauphinoise (serves 2-3) Preheat oven to 180C fan
170ml double cream,
150 ml semi-skimmed milk,
two cloves of garlic (peeled),
half teaspoon grated nutmeg,
4x medium to large Desiree potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly around 3cm thick (can use mandolin)
70g finely grated Gruyère for the top
- Put the cream, milk, garlic cloves and grated nutmeg in a medium saucepan; bring slowly to a simmer.
- Add the sliced potato and completely cover with the cream. Simmer for a further 3 minutes until the potato is starting to cook.
- With a slotted spoon, transfer the potato slices only to an ovenproof dish and spread out evenly in layers, remembering to remove the garlic cloves. Pour the cream mixture over the potatoes, until they are only just covered, then push the slices down a little further under the liquid.
- Sprinkle over the cheese and bake for 30 minutes. If it is getting too brown, reduce by 10 degrees.
Gravy – Fresh beef stock, 70ml red wine, teaspoon cornflour mixed with a little cold water, any left over thyme leaves and English mustard, lots of pepper, a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Simmer the ingredients together for about 10 – 15 minutes. A large knob of butter to whisk in at the end, making the sauce thick and glossy.
Kale: Cook the kale for about 5 minutes, drain and then fry in about 25g butter for two minutes.
Serve: Bring the wellingtons to the table whole and slice into three on to warmed plates with a serving jug of the jus, and accompaniments. The colour of the meat should be a dark pink/ Ruby red and rare medium rare. Finish with a full-flavoured cheese course, if you wish, such as Gorgonzola and Monte Veronese, as these would also work wonderfully with the Amarone. Savour and enjoy!