By Frank Cipparone
As we head into the darker, colder days of winter it’s time for full-bodied red wines with densely concentrated flavors. Definitely the season for Amarone. Those who love it may be surprised to learn it was an accident. Like any wine worth its grapes it has an interesting story to tell.
Unlike many of Italy’s pre-eminent wines, Amarone hasn’t been around for centuries even though its roots go back thousands of years, to a time when Veneto was controlled by Rome. Red wine in the region was made by air drying grapes, producing a recioto style that was sweet and strong enough to store and be transported in porous clay amphoras.
Fast forward to the 1930s. There was no well -planned process for making Amarone, no gathering of winemakers that thought “Hey, this is a great idea. Let’s do it.” According to local lore, the cellarmaster of Villa Novare in Negrar came across a forgotten barrel of Valpolicella recioto. The yeasts had kept on doing their thing, increasing the alcohol level, decreasing the grapes’ sugars, and drying out the fermenting juice. Sampling what he thought would be sweet he was stunned by the mildly bitter taste. He christened this unexpected result amarone, “the big bitter.” Two years later Valpolicella winemakers began bottling it.
Amarone is basically made from the same grapes used for Valpolicella – Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinalla and Molinara. To eliminate any confusion, the new wine was called Recioto Amaro, then Recioto Amarone before officially becoming Amarone when it received DOC designation in 1990. The first commercially bottled Amarone had come from Cantina Valpolicella di Negrar in 1953. In short order, larger wineries like Bertani, Bolla and Masi jumped on board and spurred Amarone’s popularity and global success. By 2005 8,000,000 bottles were produced; in 2016, the number had almost doubled to 15,396,000. A fortunate “accident” had morphed into a marketing phenomenon whose consumer image would eventually surpass that of Barolo and Brunello.
To understand Amarone you have to know appassimento, the process used to make it. Harvested grapes are taken to a fruttaio to air dry for 80-120 days. They can be hung in clusters from the rafters for maximum aeration, laid on straw mats, or stacked in ventilated shelves. During those months they will lose 30-50% of their original liquid weight, increasing the ratio of sugar to juice while maintaining acidity. As they shrivel the level of extracted fruit increases, which comes off as sweetness but is actually concentrated ripeness. It’s the reason for Amarone’s dual personality – dark, thick texture like a sweet wine that fills the mouth with a fruit overload but still has an alcoholic kick and dry tannic backbone.
Because Amarone comes from two distinct production zones, climatic differences dictate the number of days air drying is carried out. The location of each fruttaio, the direction of air flow and solar exposure, and humidity must be taken into consideration. Some wineries use louvred windows to control the elements, others employ humidity controls. Those near Lake Garda have a moderating natural buffer against winter temperatures.
To ensure quality the regulations governing Amarone della Valpolicella are the strictest in Italy, specifying which grapes are permitted, setting the dates for the harvest, and the minimum length of time for drying. Vineyards must be within the boundaries of the extensive Valpolicella production zones. Leftover skins and seeds are used to make Recioto della Valpolicella, which is not exactly the same as traditional recioto, but a more plumped up standard Valpolicella.
For wine lovers, one of the attractions of Amarone is its ability to age well. From the time it’s bottled it can last ten to fifteen years if stored properly and develop flavors and aromas of spice, tobacco leaf and ground espresso beans. Those aged in large casks can go longer, up to twenty -five years, and become earthy and nutty like a vintage Port. Some producers favor smaller barrels that result in a denser, more powerful style full of jam- like cherries and blackberries.
The downside for consumers is the cost. Inexpensive Amarone doesn’t exist. If you see one priced under $20 keep moving. There are sound economic reasons for its elevated price. First, it takes $6.00 of natural materials to make a single bottle. Those costs can be cut, but what you’ll get is a mass- produced generic wine. Second, the expenses for winemakers are up front. Amarone must be aged a minimum of two years before it’s released, but many wineries will hold it longer, delaying the time to recoup their original outlay. Approximate shopping guidelines would be:
• $17-25 – the absolute minimum characteristics to still be considered Amarone
• $25 -35 – a well- made young version, with 2-3 years aging in barrel
• $48-70 – deeper and more intense from maturing for 4-6 years
• $80 and up – a wine of unequaled excellence from a prestigious winery, one in high demand produced in limited amounts.
In the end it comes down to preference. Traditional producers such as Tommasi, Le Ragose, Righetti, Zenato and Boscaini make Amarone that is elegant, smooth, medium bodied, spicy and only lightly bitter. If full, luxuriously rich, dark and mouth-filling is what you’re after, Masi, Allegrini and Tomasso Bussola are for you.