Amarone: A Short History of an Intense Wine

Amarone wine glassAmarone is one of the biggest, most intense wines made in Europe, commonly coming in at 15% abv and often reaching 16% and beyond. It comes from Italy’s Valpolicella region, situated between Verona to the west and Venice to the east, and its history goes back to ancient times.

The Greeks made wine in Valpolicella even before the Romans arrived – and the name itself is thought to be a mash up of Latin and Greek meaning “Valley of Cellars.” The region has 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.

Strong and Sweet to Please the Ancients

amarone grapes

Grapes for Amarone are air dried to concentrate the juice.

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.

Going Dry: That’s “Amaro!” for Today
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. 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.

Roccolo Grassi’s Amarone
Marco at Roccolo GrassiIf you love great Amarone and don’t know the name “Roccolo Grassi” yet, then you’re in for a real treat.

When Wine Advocate first tasted winemaker Marco Sartori’s 2003 Amarone, they called him “one of Veneto’s most promising young producers.” And since then, the praise keeps coming. Now, his 2013 Amarone joins Marco’s 2006 as his second Wine Advocate 95 point red and showcases a distinctive, thoughtful, and utterly delicious approach to crafting this unique Italian powerhouse red.

Like all Amarone estates, the Corvione, Rondinella and Croatina grapes used here are allowed to air dry after being picked, but with an important difference. Traditionally, grapes destined for Amarone are not picked terribly ripe so the drying process is responsible for both most of the wine’s body and much of its flavor. Marco takes a different approach, allowing his grapes to hang on the vines longer to achieve more natural ripeness and flavor and then air drying for a shorter time than most – 90 days vs 120. This means his Amarone has plenty of classic dried fruit and chocolate character, but also an uncommon level of freshness and amazing complexity and finesse.

Roccolo Grassi Amarone della Valpolicella 2013 is going to age beautifully and take on even more savory tobacco/herb and meaty notes over the next 15 or so years. But it’s so delicious now for the ripe fruit that there’s no reason to wait to start digging into it right now – or at least on the first combination of cold night and warm fire you encounter this year. Especially at our best in the USA prices on six-bottles or more while this special offer lasts.

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