Amarone con Amore
Amaraone is made in the laborious and time intensive process called appassimento, in which grapes are dried for several months before the crush. The drying concentrates sugars and flavors, breaks down acids, transforms tannins and helps account for Amarone's notoriously high prices.
by Anthony Giglio
I recently attended the christening celebration for a baby girl hosted by her Italian-American family in New Jersey thatcould have rivaled a Kardashian wedding, except that Bruce Jenner didn’t order his daughter’s cake from Hoboken’s most celebrated baker, Buddy Valastro—a.k.a. “The Cake Boss.”
When white-gloved waiters appeared with the five-tier cake draped in snow-white fondant and crowned with the baby’s initials on a Swarovski crystal tiara, women in the room could be heard weeping. My wife leaned close to me and whispered that there wasn’t a bride in the room who wasn’t jealous. The guys at my table only gave each other quizzical looks and pulled harderon the red wine, which, surprisingly, was an inexpensive yet juicy 2008 Bolla Valpolicella.
Seeing the label took me back, like Proust’s madeleine, first to my childhood, when I snuck my first taste of Bolla Valpolicella in my grandparents’ basement, and then to meeting Fancesco Bolla on my first reporting assignment to Italy back in the early 1990s, when I was introduced to the full potential of Valpolicella wine. Far from the $10 bottle at the christening or the Bolla from my grandparents’ basement, Francesco opened a bottle of Amarone della Valpolicella, and it simply blew me away.
If you’ve tasted Amarone, you know what a lasting impression this cherished wine can leave on your memory. Hailing from Valpolicella, a wine region in western Veneto just north of Verona, Amarone is one of Italy’s most prized red wines. It is made in the laborious and time intensive process called appassimento, in which grapes are dried for several months before the crush, which is responsible for Amarone’s notoriously high prices. In Valpolicella, the appassimento technique dates to Roman times when it was used to make Recioto, a sweet wine favored by the emperor Augustus during his rule 2000 years ago that is still popular today.
In the case of Amarone, which has its roots in Recioto, grapes are dried no less than three months before being crushed, during which time they lose at least 30 percent of their volume. The drying process concentrates sugars and flavors, breaks down acids and transforms tannins.
After the grapes are crushed, and the fermentation process is underway, instead of halting fermentation to retain the residual sugar that results in the sweet Recioto, Amarone is left to fully ferment so that the yeast can covert the sugar into alcohol, producing a dry wine. Because of the high concentration of sugar in the dried grapes, Amarone has a higher alcohol content than any other Italian wine, often exceeding 15 percent. But these aren’t like the high octane New World bruisers made famous by California. The best Amarones are certainly bold and big, but they remain nimble on the palate while delivering full flavors often characterized by notes of berry, chocolate and coffee.
The original viticultural zone, called Valpolicella Classico, east of Lake Garda, includes Fumane, Negrar, Pescantina, Marano di Valpolicella, San Pietro in Cariano, Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella and Sant’Anna d’Alfaedo. In 1968, when Valpolicella gained DOC status, the zone was vastly expanded to include regions of the surrounding plains. Now the Valpolicella DOC is second only to Chianti in terms of overall wine production, but the majority of Amarones still come from the best vineyards in the original Valpolicella Classico area.
Amarone della Valpolicella, like the standard non-appassimento wines from the Valpolicella Classico DOC, must be made up of 40 to 80 percent Corvina grapes, 5 to 30 percent Rondinella and no more than 15 percent Molinara or other indigenous varietals.
While Amarone has its roots in Recioto, it was discovered by mistake when a winemaker failed to halt the fermentation process soon enough, resulting in a bitter, dry wine, which is why it takes its name from the Italian word for bitter, amaro. Amarone was always considered a mistake until the 1950s, when pioneer winemakers at Bertani and Bolla, among others, began to experiment with Amarone techniques and various yeast strains that could stand up to the high sugar levels of the dried grapes. The results were a huge success. “Because of the drying process,” says Cristian Ridolfi, winemaker at Bertani, “you get a complex, big wine of great elegance and roundness. The tannins are sweet.”
Luca Sabatini, export director of Cantina di Soave, an award-winning cooperative that makes Rocca Sveva Amarone, agrees. “Tasting Amarone for the first time leaves an indelible memory that never leaves you,” he says. “I thought I’d never tasted anything with such depth and complexity in my life.” Sabatini thinks their 2009 vintage is flawless. “The aromas of dark cherry and red berry, and silky flavors of dried fruit and chocolate in this particular Amarone are, to me, perfection.”
Within two decades of the first Amarone bottling, the wine became one of the most famous in Italy, and today it is regarded among the very top. In the U.S., it remained a rarity until the last 20 years.
Today, thanks to technological improvements, the process is more precise and streamlined. Winemakers often dry grapes in climate-controlled rooms, which helps maintain the quality of the grapes, preserves freshness and prevents the botrytis fungus from forming.
After the grapes are crushed and fermented, the wine is typically aged for several years (upwards of five on average) in large, neutral Slavonian or French oak barrels, though there’s been a trend in the past quarter century to experiment with newer oak that imparts more flavor.
We sampled bottles from a range of producers whose prices span $45 to $125. While we found that styles varied from producer to producer, the wines shared the common characteristics of sour cherry and wild berry aromas, followed by dried fruit, chocolate and hazelnut, and they were all profoundly delicious.
Amarone tends to be powerful, earthy and rich, and not always subtle. While this sounds like a perfect fit for fans of broad-shouldered New World reds, some of Amarone’s Port-like characteristics might seem overwhelming at first—not so much the notes of dried fig, raisin, bittersweet chocolate and coffee, but the pronounced alcohol that dominates many of these wines.
Pairing with food runs along the lines of big wine, big food. I’ve enjoyed these wines in Veneto with every type of roasted game, and at home I love nothing more than a glass of Amarone with a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano and some crusty bread. Ridolfi is less picky about pairing Amarone. “I love Amarone anytime,” he says, “especially by itself, to enjoy its strong personality.”
Illustration by Natalie Ascencios
Because of their notoriously high price tags, Amarones are not for every occasion. But most producers of Amarone also offer a related, if less singular, wine at a fraction of the cost. When they realized that Amarone grapes retain some of their concentrated and unique flavor even after they are crushed, winemakers started blending fermenting Valpolicella wine with leftover Amarone pomace in a process called Ripasso (meaning “repassed”).
Note: All of the producers below also offer a Ripasso: a related, if less singular, wine at the fraction of the cost. made by combining Valpolicella wine with lefotver Amarone pomace (the post-crush grapes, which still retain some of their concentrated flavor).
Amarone della Valpolicella, Selezione Antonio Castagnedi, 2007
The bouquet brings to mind violets and cherries, followed by vanilla and graphite, all of which come to life on the palate in waves in this well-structured beauty.
Amarone della Valpolicella, 2007
From Allegrini, one of the most important producers in
Amarone della Valpolicella, 2003
Bertani’s Amarones remind me of their spectacular Villa Novara estate—they are always impressive,
grand and exquisitely tasteful. The 2003 vintage brims with licorice and wild cherries, and formidable tannins guarantee years of shelf life.
Amarone della Valpolicella, 2004
From one of Veneto’s more traditional producers, Le Ragose’s 2004 Amarone is wonderfully fresh and sweet, bursting with raspberries and layered with licorice. Silky tannins add elegance and balance.
Serego Alighieri Vaio Armaron, Amarone della Valpolicella, 2004
From vineyards that Dante’s son purchased in 1353 (which remain in the family), this elegant, nuanced Amarone boasts flavors of Marasca cherries, licorice, menthol and coffee.
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