Amarone: One of Italy's Greatest Symbolic Wines

Any lovers of Amarone out there? Despite being one of Italy's most symbolic wines it is little understood and often much under-appreciated. A recent tasting of the best the region has to offer certainly opened my mind.

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What is Amarone?

Amarone is a style of red wine produced in the Valpolicello area of the Veneto in northeastern Italy. Think Verona and Romeo & Juliet and you are there! While great diversity certainly exists, typically the wines are dry, fresh, full-bodied with lots of extract, high alcohol (15-16%), and complex with great depth and flavor concentration.

While I have tasted many an Amarone in my time, I've tended to avoid them in recent years, finding many too austere and powerful for my typical table and guests. I've also been concerned about drinking wines of 15-16% alcohol. Well, how I have been proven wrong. I was simply trying the wines too young. The current release on the US market is 2005, but the youngest wines I tasted today were from 2000 - ten-year-old wines that are just about opening up.

The Vineyards and the Grapes

The best Amarone wines are made from grapes from the best hillside vineyards, where poor soils force the vine roots to dig deep for water and nutrients. These poor soils also keep yields in check, ensuring small, concentrated berries packed with flavor.

Indigenous grape varieties from the region are also key to Amarone's uniqueness. Corvino is the main player (called the Queen), providing backbone, structure, body and acidity. Other indigenous varieties such as Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara and the lesser-known Oseleta are all important ingredients in the final mix, each adding its own special flavors and dimension to the wines.

How the wines are made

Key words that come up again and again when talking about Amarone are 'selection' and 'drying'. Amarone wines are made from carefully selected bunches of the best grapes. These grapes are then dried (or dehydrated) before fermentation. Traditionally the grapes were dried on wooden racks at ambient temperatures. Today many producers use special temperature and humidity-controlled rooms for this process to ensure that mold does not attack the grapes.

This drying process, which lasts between three and four months, is critical to the unique character of Amarone. As the grapes shrivel, sugars, acids, tannins, flavors, extract and other grape compounds concentrate. Additionally various reactions occur within the grapes themselves creating more complexity. Once dried the grapes are crushed and then fermented until dry.

Most wines undergo an extended maceration on the skins, just to make sure that all of the complexities and goodness from the shriveled skins ends up in the wine. Then the wines are matured in oak for at least two years for 'normale' Amarone and four years for Riserva.

Within the Amarone style of wines, there is great diversity between producers depending on such factors as the vineyard location, drying time for the grapes, length and temperature of fermentation, size of barrel and length of maturation as well as the final blend of grapes.

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DOC or DOCG

Traditionally recognized simply as a style of Valpolicello, Amarone enjoyed DOC quality status. However, after much determined lobbying to seek its own denomination of quality, Amarone was finally granted the more elevated status of DOCG, beginning with the 2010 vintage. However, we won't see this designation on a bottle of Amarone for a few years until the 2010's enter the market circa 2013 to 2014.

The unique taste of Amarone

As I tasted through the flight of 12 wines yesterday I was most struck by the vibrancy of the wines, their freshness, the way that the high levels of tannin were so seamlessly integrated with the fruit. In particular, I was struck by the fact that despite having alcohol levels between 15% and 16% the wines were extremely balanced, warm in some cases but never aggressive or intrusive.

Additionally, even in the most 'modern' style, the oak was never overt, instead adding subtle background and complexity to the fruit. Many of the wines I describe as rich, full-bodied, even powerful, yet we had no blockbusters — power being beautifully balanced by elegance in many cases. I was also struck by the intense focus of the wines, how each wine, while displaying a character that was undeniably Amarone, showed its very clearly defined unique personality and sense of place.

Amarone at the table

Full-bodied, with lots of tannin and extract, these wines call for meat and hearty rich dishes. Aged ribeye or roast venison both came to mind several times during the tasting. The wines' bright acidity and tannins are well able to break down even the richest of dishes. As we get further into fall and winter approaches, this might be the time to try an Amarone, if it has not usually been on your list of go-to wines.

Given the rigorous selection process, time spent drying the grapes and long maturation times these wines are not inexpensive. For a good quality Amarone, be prepared to pay $50 and above. Not for everyday drinking, these are wines for special occasions, wines to gift and in particular wines to lay down and open in five to ten years.

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Wines to Try

All the wines came from a group of wineries known as the 'Famiglie dell'Amarone d'Arte' - which is translated as the Amarone Families - a group of 12 historic Amarone families dedicated to the production of the highest quality Amarone.

1. 2000 Musella Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva DOC - Probably the most 'modern' of the wines tasted. While a little austere it was rich and intensely flavored, showing vibrant fruit and lots of firm tannins. Long length. Needs more time.

2. 2000 Zenato Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva DOC- Sergio Zenato - Very classical Amarone in style showing both color and aroma evolution and development. Lots of earthy, leathery aromas and flavors, with hints of roasted meats. Rich but elegant.

3. 2000 Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico - Elegant, classical, savory showing lots of vibrant fresh cherry and plum fruit. Well-integrated smooth fine-grained tannins. Richly textured with a very long length.

4. 2000 Tedeschi Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico Capitel Monte Olmi - One of my firm favorites. Very elegant, savory, rich and earthy with lots of minerality. Very refreshing and packed with lively bright fruit. Aromas and flavors just kept evolving in the glass. Smooth, complex and very lingering.

5. 2000 Nicolis Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico Ambrosan - A richer, more powerful style showing lots of ripe baked red fruits. Full-bodied with firm, structuring tannins. Smooth all across the palate with a very long finish.

6. 1997 Tenuta Sant'Antonio Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico Campo Dei Gigli - Thirteen years old and still fresh as a daisy. Rich, but elegant showing lots of enticing savory forest floor, earthy aromas that draw you in. Hints of floral notes add an extra dimension. Smooth with a very long finish.

7.1997 Venturini Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico - Another favorite. More traditional style, showing lots of tertiary development - earthy, leathery aromas. Ripe sweet fruit on the palate, lots of minerality, hints of dried herbs and a long focused finish.

8. 1997 Begali Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico Monte Ca Bianca - Complex, layered, savory nose that kept on evolving in the glass. Full-bodied, richly flavored with bright fruit flavors still showing strongly across the palate. Refreshing with well-integrated fine tannins. Long with a lovely lifted floral note on the finish.

9. 1997 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico - Yet another firm favorite of the day. Extremely complex, layered, rich, powerful with strong minerality and brimming with bright fruit. While smooth and generous on the palate, it was precise, taut and focused. Long, lingering finish.

10. 1997 Speri Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Vigneto Monte Sant'Urbano - Rich, intensely flavored showing predominantly tertiary aromas and flavors. Lots of earthy, spicy, meaty notes with hints of medicinal herbs. Smooth and long.

11. 1988 Masi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC Costasera - The second oldest wine tasted. While showing mainly tertiary aromas and flavors, it still retained its vibrancy and freshness. Sweet baked cherry and plum fruits prevail across the palate. Warm but balanced with a long, savory finish.

12. 1986 Brigaldara Amarone della Valpolicella DOC Classico Recioto - Showing much more evolution both in color and aromas. Still fresh and lively it was extremely savory and leathery. Complex, rich and elegant. Lifted notes on the finish.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

Related: What's the Difference? DOCG, DOC, and IGT Italian Wines

(Images: Mary Gorman)

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Drinks, Italy, Wine

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.

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