In September I finally made it to the home of Masi, just north of Verona in Italy’s Vento region. I say ‘finally’ as Masi have consistently been one of my favourite wine brands since I started in the wine trade, having worked and developed a close relationship with them over the last five years or so.
Apart from their truly lovely wines at multiple price points, their efforts within and beyond the realm of winemaking in Veneto are wonders to behold.
Masi’s motto is ‘Veneti Valori,’ meaning ‘Venetian Values,’ which refreshingly is not some empty marketing slogan but instead is something of an maxim of the company that permeates every decision they make, from winemaking to cultural initiatives and beyond.
This almost parochial zeal and their efforts to maintain and develop traditional winemaking methods is truly admirable, especially when pursued in that intensely passionate yet jolly way that is seemingly only possible in family-run wineries such as this.
But Masi takes these ‘Venetian Values’ further, extending their influence into the arts and culture scene of the Veneto. One example is their annual “Masi Prize,” which for the last thirty years has celebrated and highlighted the successes of those with Venetian roots in their respective professional fields.
From this they developed the offshoot “Fondazione Masi” which itself aims to cultivate and develop those very characteristics that are lauded in the Masi Prize, thus completing a cycle of patronage that, again, is not for the marketing ‘optics’ but instead, from what I’ve seen, is a sincere and earnest effort to develop and promote the arts and culture of their locale.
But not everything is in sepia for Masi, with cutting-edge initiatives nestling comfortably aside old-school techniques. For example, instead of a single winemaker they have a “Technical Group” that makes informed, scientific decisions in place of the caprice or ego of a single winemaker; they experiment with ancient grape varieties long forgotten but resurrected via modern cloning methods; they use barrels of different woods and shapes; ancient techniques are developed for use in new countries and new varieties; and much more besides.
So between the tangible quality of their wines, the less tangible efforts in the cultural sphere, the admirable mix of tradition with progress, not to mention the terrific warmth and good humour I’ve encountered in every level of their organisation, it’s been easy to fall in love with this staunchly proud northern Italian wine company.
So come September a trip to the Veneto – the choice of which, ahem, may or may not have been influenced by all of this in the first place – meant that I could finally visit a place that has for too long been number one on my list of wineries to visit.
The Drying Lofts
Our tour was serenely conducted by the affable and charming Claudia and involved an incredible wine tasting at the end. But more of the latter later.
Claudia led us first to Masi’s famous drying lofts, where freshly-picked grapes are laid out to dry on bamboo racks. This method, which is native to the Vento region and traces it roots back to Roman times, results in grapes that will have lost 30-40% of their water content in a process called apassimento.
The result of this is that with less water the flavours of the grapes are concentrated, and from here one of two traditionally Venetian styles of wines are produced.
Firstly, a wine can be made using only these semi-dried grapes – which, for record, are Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara – with the result being the famous Amarone, a big, beefy wine full of concentrated flavour and coming in normally at a whopping 15-16% alcohol. They recommend it be drank at the end of a meal – slowly – hence Amarone often being called a ‘contemplative wine’.
Otherwise a Ripasso can be made. Traditionally the grape musts (the used skins, seeds, etc.) used in the production of Amarone were added into regular Valpolicella wine, the high sugar content of the musts kicking off a second fermentation, increasing the alcohol and adding more complex flavour. In other words the usually light, bright and cheery Valpolicella is ‘beefed up’ into something that some call a ‘baby Amarone.’
Masi were the first to commercialise the Ripasso method as it happens, but over the years have diverged away from using leftover Amarone musts and instead use the fresh semi-dried grapes. The reason for this, I was told by president of Masi Sandro Boscaini during his last visit here a couple of years back, was first and foremost quality and freshness. Though the traditional method has its place, it was felt that the result was often similar to making tea from a used teabag. A strong analogy, and one that perfectly encapsulates Masi’s way of doing things: tradition, yes, but not at the expense of quality.
So an alternative was found: instead of using leftover Amarone musts why not use fresh apassimento grapes? Tradition is maintained, and the end product is improved. Again, pure Masi.
But, back to the tour.
We were incredibly lucky to have timed the tour as we had – during the harvest – so that when we arrived at the drying lofts the grapes were being laid out to start their slow apassimento process.
In this over-marketed and media-saturated age we’ve all become immune to the abuse of terms like ‘hand-crafted’ and the likes, but it was reassuring to see that in Masi at least when they say that the grapes are laid out on the racks by hand, then they are actually laid out by hand, bunch by bunch, carefully and slowly so as not to bruise the grapes.
This was the sight that greeted us when we arrived: a team of Masi employees – unusually older than I expected (isn’t the more laborious vineyard work done by travelling students and the likes?), kitted out in fresh Masi t-shirts and working intently, yet slowly.
Having enjoyed Masi’s apassimento wines immensely for the last five years, seeing this process happen before my eyes was akin to meeting a hero, and I must admit, geekily, of being a little giddy at the time watching it unfold in front of me.
The drying racks are made of bamboo as per tradition – a typical Masi choice. Of course there are more efficient ways of carrying out this process nowadays, for example by using special drying crates to sort the bunches in the vineyard – thereby removing a costly step in the process – and/or then using heaters to accelerate the drying process.
But Masi don’t do traditional for tradition’s sake, as we learned earlier, and the use of bamboo racks isn’t for the benefit of the marketing department. Again, when Sandro Boscaini was here, he made a very interesting parallel: in the days before refrigeration the bet way to preserve salmon was by smoking it; nowadays of course this isn’t necessary, but it’s still done since a beneficial corollary of this technique is its flavour enhancement.
Likewise it is not entirely necessary to use slow, laborious drying methods on bamboo racks these days but the truth is that this process allows for better quality results. Simple as that.
And in a family-run business, where quality and pride take the place of the profit margin and shareholder demands of more commercial organisations, decisions like this are taken with an eye to future generations, not year-end balance sheets.
But Masi are no luddites, and their drying lofts are nevertheless regulated by complex high-tech atmospheric regulation system that ensures the grapes don’t go mouldy and that conditions are as ideal as they can be to produce the best wine possible. Again, Masi’s trademark blend of the old and the new.
So what was to others a simple drying loft was to me the very essence of Masi: its history, present and future; its philosophy and morals; its tradition and progress; all rolled into one innocuous room.