Amarone is a rich red wine from the Valpolicella region of northern Italy. This weekend (Subs: January 28-30) saw the official release of the 2013 vintage at Anteprima Amarone in the Palazzo della Gran Guardia in the beautiful city of Verona. Eighty-three of the 2013 wines were presented at the palace, along with a chance to taste older vintages.
Most wines labelled Valpolicella contain Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella grapes, plus other approved red varieties such as Molinara, Spigamonti and Oseletta. Amarone della Valpolicella – usually known simply as Amarone – is made in a style unique to the region, about 50km from Venice. Grapes for Amarone are air-dried for up to 120 days after harvest to concentrate flavours. The result is an intense wine that can be cellared for several decades, and which is regarded as one of Italy’s three greatest red wines.
Amarone represents an example of terroir or that “sense of place” associated with great wines. The grapes of Valpolicella are grown elsewhere around the country and the world, but only in this region does the combination of land, climate, culture and winemaking produce such intensity of flavours and longevity.
Traditionally grapes were collected in wooden trays called “appassimento” and dried on cane tables. The modern approach is to dry bunches in plastic trays in special rooms with huge fans. These controlled conditions stop grapes from spoiling. Each tray contains about 5kg of grapes, spread in one layer so the weight of grapes does not start fermentation. As the grapes shrivel they lose about 40 per cent of their bulk but develop profound flavours through the concentration of sugars and pigments. Ultimately 100kg of grapes will produce only about 40 litres of Amarone.
Grapes are harvested in late September or early October. Most winemakers dry their grapes for about three months, though some choose the maximum 120 days permitted under local regulations. Frozen winter temperatures help stop grapes from rotting. The drying process changes the acids within the grapes and softens the tannins in the skins.
Near the end of January or start of February whole bunches are crushed and undergo a low-temperature fermentation to produce a ripe and intense full-bodied wine with low acids. Alcohol levels can be as high as 18 per cent. The legal minimum is 14 per cent. Wines rest in barrels for at least two years and are then cellared, before being released four years from when they are made, which explains why the 2013 Amarones are available this month. Riserva versions of the wine are cellared much longer.
Amarone is expensive because of the amount of time the wine is cellared, along with high production costs. Winemakers must endure occasional poor years when harvests are small, such as in 2014. Rain during harvest can cause grapes to rot before they dry. Winemakers need to be diligent in removing low-grade grapes that can cause mouldy flavours in the wine.
Sales totalled 330 million Euro last year, a 5 per cent rise on the previous year. The region produced almost 14.5 million bottles in 2016. About 80 per cent of sales are overseas. Major export markets include Germany, the US, Switzerland, the UK and Canada, though sales to Asia are rising and China is starting to pay close attention. Quality Amarones can be just as magnificent as high end Bordeaux, yet the prices are lower.
Diego Tomasi, director of the CREA-VIT Centre for Viticultural Research, said drying of the grapes increased flavanoids in Amarone significantly. The region has old soils with lots of limestone and calcerous clay. “Limestone is synonymous with elegance in winemaking, just as in Burgundy.”
Giovanni Nordera, winemaker at the Pasqua estate, said 2013 was a “strange vintage” with lots of rain in winter but a warm and mostly dry spring and summer, with some spring rain. “Grapes were harvested at perfect maturation and we have high hopes for the wines of this vintage.”
If fermentation is stopped early the resulting wine contains residual sugar (more than 4 grams per litre) and is known as Recioto. In fact Amarone is Recioto that has been fermented longer. The clue to this is the fact the Italian word “amaro” means bitter and the name Amarone means the “great bitter”, to distinguish it from sweet Recioto. Occasionally Recioto is made into a sparkling wine, though these are rare.
Put another way, Amarone is the child of Recioto because both wines are made from the same dried grapes. Marcello Vaona, assistant winemaker to his father Giampaolo Vaona at the Novaia estate, noted that Recioto was far better known in the region a generation ago.
Some locals say Amarone started as a mistake but that might be an urban myth. The story offered involves a winemaker who lost track of a barrel of Recioto. Natural yeasts started fermentation again and the remaining sugar was converted to alcohol. The resulting wine had a bitter taste, which explains the name.
Giancarlo Begnoni, 82 in November this year, has been the winemaker at Santa Sofia for more than 40 years. He said the Bertani family made the first Amarone in 1958. Marcello Vaona said Recioto was the more prestigious wine in the region until 30 years ago. “But Amarone has overtaken it and now enjoys a global reputation while Recioto is fading.”
One thing the region’s winemakers agree upon is the need for time for Amarone to develop. “To appreciate Amarone you need to open a bottle after a minimum of 10 years. It can be difficult to wait this long,” Marcello Vaona said with a laugh.
The Valpolicella region produces other fine wines as well as Amarone and Recioto: Valpolicella, Valpolicella Superiore and Valpolicella Ripasso. Valpolicella is a fresh wine made from the same grapes as Amarone but released young; 2015 is the current vintage. The cepage or proportion of grapes in the blend depends on the winemaker. Valpolicella Superiore must contain at least 12 per cent alcohol and spend at least a year in barrel. The current vintage is 2014.
Pomace is the technical term for the pulpy residue remaining after grapes have been crushed. Valpolicella Ripasso is made by adding young Valpolicella to the Amarone pomace for about 15 to 20 days. The result is a wine with lower acidity but higher alcohol than basic Valpolicella. Ripasso designates both the winemaking technique and the resulting wine.
Amarone received DOC status in December 1990 and in December 2009 Amarone and Recioto were promoted to the status of Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). Next week’s column will talk more about Valpolicella wines.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of the Consorzio per la Tutela dei Vini Valpolicella, the group responsible for the promotion of Valpolicella wines, at Anteprima Amarone 2013.