Amarone: From Sweet to “Bitter”

amarone grapesFor those who don’t know Amarone, a bit of background. Valpolicella is an ancient wine region – the Greeks made wine here before even the Romans arrived – and the name itself is thought to be a mash up of Latin and Greek meaning “Valley of Cellars.” Situated between Verona to the west and Venice to the east, Valpolicella always enjoyed strong local demand for its light, aromatic, red wines made from native grapes Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. And, today, the overwhelming bulk of wine made here is still in a light, easy-drinking, style for drinking casually and young.

A couple of thousand years ago, though, the Greeks and Romans liked their wines strong and sweet – in part because they are better able to withstand storage in porous containers like clay amphora – so they invented a style of winemaking today called appassimento. Ripe grapes were harvested in autumn and then laid out on straw mats (today more hygienic plastic mats or slatted wooden bins are used) under the roof of a shed. As the cool breezes blew over the grapes, they gradually lost water, leaving sweeter and sweeter juice behind. When the dried grapes were made into wine, they had more alcohol than regular wine and, usually, a big slug of residual sugar as well.

That’s “Amaro!” Winemakers in the Veneto continued making this strong, sweet, wine – called Recioto della Valpolicella in modern times – right through the mid-1950s. Then, something strange happened, although no one really knows how. We’ll go with the most popular legend: a winemaker left his fermenting batch of Recioto in the vat for several weeks longer than usual. The yeast in that vat somehow found the strength and muscle to keep working through the heavy sugar load past 12% alcohol, through 13% and all the way to 14% or so. At that point, there was no residual sugar remaining, and when the winemaker tasted it, he declared it “Amaro” – or “bitter” – compared to his normal sweet red Recioto.

This dryer style of wine – called Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone at first and today simply as Amarone della Valpolicella – found fans and soon became Valpolicella’s most famous and important wine. It’s one of the biggest, most intense, wines made in Europe, commonly coming in at 15% abv and often reaching 16% and beyond. Usually, it’s so jam-packed with the flavors of dried fruit, balsamic, earth, leather, crushed flowers and more, that it needs to be paired with big, rich, foods (Osso Bucco is a classic match). Or, as is often done in Italy, enjoyed after the main course with strong cheeses and dried fruit.

Back To The Future In The Vineyards. Begali is a small family estate located in the Valpolicella DOC in the Veneto region since the early 20th Century. The family farms about 10 hectares of vineyards on the rolling hills near the tiny town of Cengia. As with most of the better vineyards in Valpolicella, the better sites are quite rocky and poor, with richer patches of soil planted with cherry trees. The vineyards are planted mainly to Corvina and Rondinella, although some of their older vineyards include some more obscure local varieties.

In 1986, then young Lorenzo Begali and his wife, Adriana, decided to break with family tradition and keep some grapes to make their own wine. While over the years, Lorenzo has been joined by his children, Giordano and Tiliana, and gained a lot of experience, his basic winemaking approach remains unchanged. Ripe grapes are harvested in September/October and the best bunches pulled out for Amarone. These grapes go into slatted wooden bins that are stacked in an open-sided shed to allow the cool Autumn breezes to blow through every day. They rest there, giving up their water and gaining in concentration, from October – January, when they go into wooden fermenters and yeast is allowed to go to work.

Once the Amarone fermentation is almost done, the must is pressed and the wine placed in large, neutral, oak barrels to finish fermenting to dryness. It then ages for three to three-and-a-half years in barrel before blending, bottling, and aging a further year in bottle. A simple, straight-ahead Amarone winemaking process that turned out excellent results from the first vintage.

Amarone PergolaThe Pergola Secret? But Lorenzo wasn’t satisfied and began to look at his vineyards in search of still higher quality. Traditionally, Valpolicella vineyards were trained in a manner called Pergola Veronese. The vines run up 5-6’ poles in the vineyard and then leaves and grapes run flat across an overhead structure creating a canopy over the vineyard soil. This made it easy to graze livestock in the vineyard, kept the grapes well ventilated, and made vineyard work a bit easier – reaching up to pick grapes vs. bending over towards the ground.

In the 1970s and 1980s, most Valpolicella growers abandoned Pergola Veronese in favor of the horizontal training along wires commonly seen in France and California. Some argued that these international trellising systems allowed for higher vine density, decreased vigor, and improved ripening of fruit. Others admitted that the main attraction was that horizontal trellising allowed for the introduction of mechanical harvesting in flat, high-volume, vineyards.

The Begali family had retained some Pergola Veronese vineyards and noticed that they were better able to manage yields and achieve slow, steady, ripening of the grapes – especially in hot, sunning, years with the Pergola left grape bunches in mottled shade. Today, all of Begali’s Amarone grapes come from Pergola Veronese vines because, as Wine Advocate explains, “Begali will tell you that his secret is in overhead, pergola-trained grape vines. This traditional growing system has gone out of fashion only to return to fashion more recently. It is commonly thought that pergola allowed for too much vigor, but Begali argues that this system actually reduces yields when managed properly.”

A Gem From A Great VintageWhile the critics haven’t published reviews of 2011 Amarone wines yet, there’s already a strong consensus that this is one of Valpolicella’s best harvests in recent years. A warm Spring brought early flowering, then a cool early summer let the fruit mature slowly before an outright hot September brought the grapes to full, luscious, ripeness.

As Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner explains, “The 2011 vintage is exceptional and will give Amarone enthusiasts something special to look forward to when the bulk of these wines are released. Not only will 2011 be remembered for its top-notch quality, it has all the prerequisites for long cellar aging. The power, structure and soft tannins of these wines compare closely to the beautiful 2007 vintage.”

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