There is no other important red quite like Amarone. Amarone is a celebration of the senses. Its heady fragrance overflows with scents of cherries, ripe plums and violets, as well as intriguing wisps of plump raisins and Church incense. Its zone of production, its grapes and the method used to turn those grapes into wine is absolutely unique, and has earned Amarone its place as one of the world’s great dry red wines.
It comes from the Valpolicella zone in the Veneto Region in Northern Italy. Some of its vineyard sites date from the Bronze Age, and scientists, based on the fossilized remains of prehistoric vine leaves and grape clusters, believe that grapes have been vinified here since the 8th century B.C. (map) Amarone’s vineyards fan out around the beautiful city of Verona. The zone’s natural boundaries are the Lessini Mountains to the north and the Veronese plain to the south, with the Soave zone to the east and the Adige river to the west.
This wide area is divided into three main sub-zones. Valpolicella Classico is to the north-west of Verona. The word classico refers to the historic area of production. Vineyards, cherry orchards and olive groves are this sub-zone’s main crops. The climate is temperate due to the protection to the north offered by the high plateau of the Lessini Mountains and the Dolomites, and it is further mitigated by nearby Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake. Styles in this sub-zone vary from austere to opulent, depending on the vineyard site, and the goals of the winemaker.
The narrow Valpantena Valley is to the north of Verona. Winemaker and consultant to some of Valpolicella’s top producers, Flavio Peroni says: “A Valpantena wine needs time to mature. These wines have a higher acidity and are less cherry-like in favor and their perfumes are of soil and smoke.”
The third sub-zone is often referred to as Valpolicella-est, and, as this name implies, it lies to the east of Verona. Its dramatic range of hills and abrupt gorges are the result of prehistoric volcanic eruption. The soils, as a consequence of this turbulent beginning, are rich in marine fossils. Generally speaking, the wines tend to be rounder and softer. But as always, the final style of a wine depends on the skill and the intentions of the winemaker.
As is the case with Bordeaux, Amarone is made from a blend of grape varieties, each of which adds to the overall harmony and elegance of the wine. Of the principal ones, Corvina and Corvinone give body and structure. Rondinella provides color and a cherry note to the bouquet, and Molinara offers a bracing shot of acidity and aromatic perfumes. These varieties, all native to the area around Verona, are the result of centuries of natural selection as they adapted to their environment. Pliny the Elder, a canny judge of viticultural matters in general, noted as early as the first century B.C. that these distinctive indigenous Veronese cultivars “are so much in love with their territory that if transplanted to other regions they lose their glory and quality.” Small amounts of other grapes may be added to the blend. Among these varieties are the indigenous Croatina, Marzemino and Oseleta, as well as international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
The winemaking technique used to make Amarone is also specific to this area. This dry wine is made from semi-dried grapes, a technique that dates back to Roman times. The process is called appassimento and it is what sets Amarone apart from other full-bodied dry red wines.
Those producers following the traditional method of production pick the grapes destined for Amarone first. Harvesters walk through the vineyards selecting only the healthiest and ripest bunches. These bunches are transferred to the winery’s drying lofts and laid in crates or on bamboo-covered open shelves. These drying lofts have windows along two sides that allow for a soft cross-breeze. The drying process is often aided by the judicious use of large fans and dehumidifiers. The grapes are dried, not completely to the point of becoming raisins, but to a halfway point where they are shriveled but still retain dense, rich juice. This period lasts for between sixty to one hundred days, during which the grapes lose between 30 and 40% of their initial weight and their sugar content is dramatically increased. The evocative fragrance in these lofts during drying fills the air with the sweet scent of almonds and the ghost of juicy fruit.
The grapes are then pressed into thick, sugary must. Simply put, fermentation is the result of yeasts feeding on the sugars and converting them to alcohol. Due to the abundance of sweetness in the juice, fermentation can last for months. It is interesting to remember that the vinification period for wines made from fresh grapes usually happens in around eight days. This singular, slow fermentation creates flavors and fragrances that are not found in wines made from fresh grapes. When vinification is completed, the wine is left to mature for one to six years.
The high levels of fruit, alcohol and balancing acidity means that Amarone is a wine that has a great potential for ageing, while still providing ample fruit in youth.
The first thing to look for when tasting an Amarone is balance/harmony. The alcohol, which can sometimes reach almost fortified wine levels, must never seem like a separate element. Second, one should always find a scent of cherries (cherries under spirit, fresh cherries, sour cherries, black cherries) when the main grape is Corvina. A predominance of Corvinone, on the other hand, often gives the sensation of plums.
Young Amarone has powerful fruit buoyed by zesty acidity and warming alcohol. During its first decade the tannins become more muted. As the fruit fills out, the wine develops a silkier texture and its rich fragrance of cherries and plums is gradually overlaid with spicier hints. After about ten years, the aromas of leather and mushrooms develop and the spicy notes take on distinctly oriental tones that are reminiscent of Church incense. If the Amarone you have tasted does not have these elements, then, forgive me for giving you bad news – but – it is not a top-notch Amarone.
Over the past decade two distinct styles have emerged that have nothing to do with the location of the vineyards, rather the difference has to do with the decisions made the winemaker. There are those who aim for traditional vini da meditazione and those who produce lighter more immediate wines that can be served with game, red meats in general or with cheese-based dishes.
The term vino da meditazione refers to wines chosen to drink, like Vintage Port, outside of mealtimes, with good friends and good conversation. As Romano Dal Forno, one of the area’s top producers says: “When you have a wine that is complete, you don’t really need an accompaniment. To my way of thinking, Amarone is not a wine for drinking within the context of a meal. Amarone lies outside the normal classifications. And anything that is outside the norm must be special, must provoke an emotion.”
Among the historic producers in the zone is Quintarelli. Giuseppe Quintarelli was an institution in Valpolicella. He was a highly individualistic person who made wines that reflected his personality: forceful, yet soft-spoken at the same time. After his death, his eldest daughter Fiorenza and her husband and son are now running the estate. They plan on maintaining Giuseppe’s style and methods. Quintarelli wines are unique for the long barrel aging they undergo and for their subsequent long aging capacity. “My grandfather considered Amarone a vino da meditazione,” says Francesco Grigoli, Giuseppe’s grandson.
Romano Dal Forno was a longtime friend and admirer of Quintarelli, and his wines too are noted for their longevity. While Quintarelli’s vineyards are located in the Classico zone, Dal Forno’s estate is located in the Illasi valley. “The message I want to communicate – and sometimes mine is like a voice in the desert – is this: In our zone we make Amarone, Valpolicella and Recioto – we never resorted to making other wines just to follow fashion,” says Dal Forno, referring to the tendency among some producers to create wines based on international grape varieties. “And I will remain true to my convictions – ‘til death do us part,’ as they say in the wedding vows. If you want to make a great Amarone, you start with the grapes. It took many years for me to be able to produce the best raw material.”
Another producer who has significantly influenced the fortunes of Amarone is the Masi wine company. Masi was the first to really make international headway in the marketing and commercialization of the wine and the company became a pioneer in the concept of cru (or single-vineyard) wines in the Valpolicella area. Masi is also noted for its constant research into local viticulture and winemaking practices. “Amarone is a true example of wine from a specific territory that gives the consumer a genuine historic, hand-crafted masterpiece,” says Sandro Boscaini, the President of the Masi wine company.
I asked Boscaini to define how the production of Amarone has changed in the last fifteen years. “In the vineyard, positive changes have come about through a more careful selection of the clones of indigenous grapes and by substituting the old vineyards or by planting new ones, and through more sophisticated viticultural practices, including the reduction of chemical treatments and reducing the yield per hectare. In the cellar the fermentation process is more controlled with the help of selected yeasts and enzymes for malolactic fermentation, and there is a more refined and controlled maturation using proper barrels.
“Unfortunately, [with increasing popularity] other changes have also come about,” says Boscaini. “Starting with the drying of grapes coming from flat land, thus making a mass market Amarone which has the effect of creating a sort of double market.”
There is an ever-growing list of wineries that have consistently achieved high quality and won awards and accolades internationally. They can be counted on to give you a real taste of the “handcrafted masterpiece” to which Boscaini referred. Among them are Viviani, Guerrieri-Rizzardi, Speri, Tommasi, Tedeschi, Cantina di Negrar, Stefano Accordini, Antolini, Begali, Venturini, Ca’ La Bionda, Brunelli, Speri, Cecilia Beretta, Bertani, Terra di Pietra, Roccolo Grassi, Pietro Zanoni, and Vicentini. But, let me assure you that this list could go on and on.
I urge you to do a little research on your own before buying an Amarone. Look up the name of the producer, discover who has endorsed his or her products and, if you have the opportunity, taste before you buy. Once you have found your favorite Amarone, give it the respect that is its due: sip it, savor it, and indulge in its opulence.