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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Amarone – A Modern Classic

We recently ran across an Amarone (typically a wine we think of for winter foods) with a classical styling that means you can enjoy it with summer foods like grilled pork tenderloin or baby back ribs. It got us thinking about Amarone’s story …

The ancient Romans pioneered the art of intensifying their wines by drying the Amarone fruit.

The ancient Romans pioneered the art of intensifying their wines by drying the Amarone fruit.

Along with Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone is often called one of Italy’s “Three Kings” – the greatest of the peninsula’s top red wines. But this Italian classic is actually a latecomer to the Italian wine scene – and may only exist due to a fortunate accident in the 1930s.

Some background. Roman winemakers pioneered the art of creating darker, stronger, and – importantly to Roman wine lovers – sweeter wines by drying ripe grapes on straw mats before fermentation. The loss of moisture during four to six months of air-drying meant that the grapes had too much sugar to easily ferment into alcohol before winter chills brought fermentation to a stop. The wine made this way in the hills around Verona was called “Recioto” by the Romans.

A Lucky Accident
As time passed, winemakers in what is now called the Valpolicella region turned their attention to the light, dry wines based on the Corvina grape that the region is known for today. However, many wineries (and even more families) continued making Recioto for home consumption with sweets or after a meal. Although no one knows for certain, at some point around 1935, it appears that one of these small lots of sweet Recioto was forgotten over the winter. When the weather warmed again in spring, the fermentation re-started and ran along until the sugar was gone – leaving the winemaker with a big, bold, and unexpectedly dry wine surprise.

No one is sure who discovered this new style of wine, but multiple wineries began experimenting with it, making what came to be called Amarone. By the mid-1950s, commercial quantities were available from several sources and over the 1960s and 1970s, the wines became famous for their heft, power, and distinctive dried fruit aromas and flavors.

Accordini’s Amarone 
As the first Amarone experiments were underway in the 1930s, the Accordini family was already in their 110th year farming and making wine from what would become the Amarone cru of Le Bessole. As Valpolicella became more and more popular in the 1960s, the family replanted Le Bessole and added more land to their holdings. During the mid-1970s, they launched their commercial winery – featuring the Amarone from their home vineyard of Le Bessole.

The 2007 Amarone Le Bessole is a great example of pure, intense, and perfectly balanced Amarone made in a traditional style. It’s a blend of classic Amarone grapes – 70% Corvina, 20% Rondinella and 10% Rossignola. The ripe grapes are left to dry for about 3.5 months on racks in a temperature and humidity controlled room to gain plenty of concentration but avoid undesirable botrytis rot or volatile acidity bacteria. After a slow fermentation, the wine is aged in neutral wood and then in bottle until it’s ready to enjoy.

Come by Saturday, 12-4, (July 19, 2014) for a taste – or to talk about Italy’s three kings with importer Maurizio Farro.