Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone della Valpolicella. It’s not difficult to pick out the black sheep of Italy’s iconic reds. A gentle giant of sorts, Amarone counts among the most peculiar and polarizing of the world’s collectible wines—sometimes monolithic, sometimes elegant, and often deceptively both. Created through the appassimento process, where grapes are laid to dry for several months post-harvest and pre-fermentation, Amarone translates as “the great bitter,” but perhaps “bittersweet” would be more apt. The wine’s juxtaposition of dark herbaceous tones with the impression of sweetness accounts for many of its idiosyncrasies—that and the fact that several Amarones count among the world’s highest alcohol dry red wines. The category’s unique profile can pose a challenge to beverage directors looking to incorporate it into their programs. But the diversity of expressions bottled by Valpolicella’s top producers also creates a breadth of opportunities afforded by few other red wine regions.
The appassimento tradition carries a long history in the Veneto region. In the fifth century AD, Cassiodorus recounted a wine called Acinaticum, made of raisinated grapes and believed to be a forbearer of Amarone’s sweet counterpart, Recioto della Valpolicella. He writes (in translation by Jeremy Parzen), “On the palate, it swells up in such a way that you would say it was a meaty liquid, a beverage to be eaten rather than drunk,” a description that could easily accompany many wines made of the same methods today.
Despite Recioto’s ancient roots, Amarone’s birth was much more recent. Legend has it that Amarone came into being when a forgotten barrel of Recioto continued to ferment to dryness. Traditionally, a Recioto did not require any action on the part of a winemaker to maintain its sweetness. The yeasts, overwhelmed by high sugar and alcohol levels, would simply stop metabolizing or die, especially during the colder months. Amarone did not exist as a commercial wine until the 1950s, when producers such as Bolla and Bertani brought the category to market. Over the ensuing decades, Amarone continued to gain international recognition, earning a reputation as one of Italy’s signature red wines. Plantings of Corvina swiftly multiplied and production of Amarone industrialized, while artisan families simultaneously continued honing the appassimento tradition.
Valpolicella extends from the banks of the Adige River in the west, just opposite Bardolino, to Soave and Soave Superiore, whose borders overlap Valpolicella’s eastern edges. The Valpolicella Classico zone encompasses most of the region’s western third, and Valpolicella Valpantena sits just further east in the middle of the appellation. Soils vary across this broad swath of land, though Valpolicella Classico’s soils are more generally calcareous, while the western portion near Soave shows more volcanic influence.
The vineyards of Valpolicella Classico as seen from Quintarelli in Negrar
Although Valpolicella Classico yields some of the finest Amarones and houses many of the region’s most historic producers, notable exceptions can be found elsewhere. Bertani, for example, produces an Amarone della Valpantena, and Dal Forno grows its wines further east, in the Illasi Valley. Iconic white wine producers Prà and Pieropan also choose to make Amarone from vineyards in this eastern section, closer to their wineries in Soave. Many producers will concede that exact placement within Valpolicella is much less important than hillside plantings, where across the appellation they find that a higher quality of fruit can be achieved than on the plains.
The first day of the 2016 harvest at Dal Forno, in the eastern reaches of Valpolicella
Despite the peculiarities of the appassimento process, viticultural practices for Amarone production differ minimally from those of a normal red wine. Some producers train their vines to the pergola, some employ Guyot training, and others utilize both. Some producers will harvest their grapes prior to full maturation. Allegrini, for example, reports picking for Amarone approximately 10 days before they begin harvest for their other red wines. Dal Forno, by contrast, will only put their ripest grapes into their Amarone.
The greatest variance from traditional red wine viticulture is the importance of loose clusters. In preparation for the appassimento process, producers favor grape clusters with a more open structure to promote greater airflow and hinder grey rot. Dal Forno will go so far as to cut off the bottom half of every grape cluster, preferring the riper, looser top portion. Most resort to more simple solutions. Clonal and rootstock selection can both further encourage openness, as can planting on hillside sites that reduce vigor. Interestingly, several producers describe the benefits of shatter (where a grape cluster doesn’t develop completely) in achieving looser structure and better ventilation.
Corvina Veronese constitutes the largest portion of the Amarone blend, a required 45 to 95%. Its name derives from the Italian word for raven, and confusingly, several other Italian varieties bear similar titles—Corvinella, Curvin, Corbina. The most famous is Corvinone, which can serve as a substitute for Corvina for up to 50% of the final composition of an Amarone. While long believed to be a mere clonal mutation of Corvina, Corvinone was proven to be a genetically distinct grape in 1993. In fact, Corvina is much more closely related to several other indigenous Veneto varieties, such as Rondinella, Dindarella, and Oseleta, all of which can be found in Amarone production. Rondinella, a direct progeny of Corvina, is required at a minimum of 5% to 30%, and DOCG regulations permit up to 25% of indigenous or “non-aromatic” red grapes, with no one variety exceeding a share greater than 10%.
Due to its thick skins and resulting structure, Corvina has a strong affinity for the appassimento process. In Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Ian D’Agata goes so far as to call air-drying “an absolute necessity,” as Corvina has difficulty naturally achieving the ripeness and concentration needed for a traditional red wine. Corvinone can provide further backbone to an Amarone with its firmer tannic structure. For producers aiming to make an Amarone with more heft, Corvinone can be a key ingredient.
While Corvina and, sometimes, Corvinone serve as the foundation, much of any given Amarone’s character comes from the choice of blending varieties. Rondinella, the only mandatory addition, can provide more herbaceous, savory flavors to complement the cherry tones of Corvina and Corvinone. Rondinella is also much more consistent in the vineyard, less prone to botrytis and more resistant to cold temperatures and drought. The less-pigmented Molinara can provide remarkable acidity and lift to an Amarone, though some producers have turned their backs on the grape in fear of diluting the concentration and color of their wines. Oseleta, which has been greatly revived due to efforts by the producer Masi, amplifies tannin and structure, a suitable alternative to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, both also permissible. Dindarella’s loose clusters make itself amenable to the appassimento process, and Croatina is what D’Agata calls a “softening agent,” contributing a textural creaminess to an Amarone.
The appassimento process takes place in a room called a fruttaio. Here, the grapes undergo a drying period, where clusters are scattered across bamboo shelves or stacked in crates, which both permit airflow from beneath. Some producers may string clusters from the ceiling, allowing for 360-degree exposure. Barring a special request on behalf of the Consorzio, the drying process must continue until December 1. Most quality producers, however, will wait until the New Year to press their fruit, allowing 80 to 120 days or more for drying. During this time, the grapes can easily lose 30% to 50% of their total weight.
The fruttaio at Serego Alighieri, purchased by Dante Alighieri's son Pietro in 1353; the property remains in the family, with the wines produced in collaboration with Masi
The architecture of a fruttaio should also be considered. An ideal drying room sits on the second story or above, with windows facing north to south to optimize ventilation and minimize humidity. Additionally, a study at Masi asserts that grapes dried in the foothills of Valpolicella are more prone to botrytis, ultimately leading to Amarones of increased glycerol levels. At higher elevations, the influences of fog and humidity are reduced, amounting to Amarones of more tannic structure. In this sense, there can be unique terroir to each fruttaio, like what one might say about Sherry bodegas.
Still, wineries are provided with several tools to regulate conditions to their favor, if necessary. The most basic is the installation of fans for improving circulation. Marilisa Allegrini explains, “Closely monitoring humidity in the air during the first week after harvest (keeping it below 60%) is an important step to making sure our grapes are healthy during the appassimento process.” At Allegrini, they take advantage of dry, windy days, but will close the windows and door and turn on the fan in more humid circumstances. At Dal Forno, they have engineered their own fanning system. Between each row of drying shelves are three fans stacked on top of one another. They roll along a track to provide uniform ventilation.
A more controversial practice is the use of dehumidifiers, or “drying machines,” which can raisinate grapes quickly. Bulk producers will more typically employ this method, then press their fruit as soon as legally possible.
The importance of a longer appassimento process is more than just romance—a lot goes on inside the grape beyond simply losing mass. Studies conducted at the University of Verona and Masi have found that a grape doesn’t “die” upon harvest, but rather a series of new genes are “turned on” to combat the stress of dehydration, while genes that aid in achieving ripeness are “shut off.” These alterations in genetic activity and subsequent protein synthesis may ultimately lead to drastic changes in varietal expression by comparison to wines vinified from freshly picked grapes. Furthermore, Corvina has proven to have significantly higher modulation intensity (the rate at which genes are switched “on” and “off”) than other varieties tested, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Oseleta. This may be in part due to Corvina’s slower rate of dehydration, in certain circumstances twice as long as some international varieties.
Grapes drying in the fruttaio at Quintarelli
An accelerated drying period can also inhibit the attack of botrytis, both in its noble and grey forms. While producers debate the merits of noble rot infection, the Center for Vitivinicultural Experimentation in Verona finds a direct correlation between botrytis and resulting glycerol levels in wine (as well as volatile acidity). Masi further reports that “the ratio of glycerol to gluconic acid is crucial.” The former is indicative of noble rot, while the later results from grey rot. Amarone with a higher level of glycerol can provide a textural viscosity and the impression of sweetness while remaining quite dry. Michele Dal Forno notes that in recent years, they have fermented their Amarone down to two grams per liter of residual sugar. The luscious mouthfeel signature to their wines purportedly derives from the glycerol, not sweetness. Corvina has proven more susceptible to botrytis than Molinara or Rondinella. Furthermore, according to Masi, a fruttaio under conditions manipulated for a rapid drying process is less likely to develop botrytis than one that adheres to more traditional practices.
Upon conclusion of the appassimento process, the grapes are so rich in sugar content and potential alcohol that most quality producers find the use of cultured yeasts critical for a successful fermentation. Indigenous yeasts struggle to continuously ferment the given material, and will either die off prematurely or halt during the colder months. Francesco Quintarelli asserts that such an interruption can leave the wine vulnerable to higher levels of oxidation or volatile acidity. In some sort of middle ground, both Dal Forno and Masi have isolated their own strains of indigenous yeasts capable of successfully fermenting Amarone without pause.
Traditionally, élevage took place in large Slavonian oak botti, leaving a diminished impact of wood on the Amarone. Bertani and Quintarelli maintain this tradition. Today, it is not uncommon to see the use of smaller vessels such as tonneaux or barriques constructed from American or French oak. Several producers will also incorporate new barrels into their program. Dal Forno famously ages their wines in 100% new barriques. Other producers, such as Tommaso Bussola, employ some combination of these methods.
The blend of grapes, the ripeness at harvest, the duration of appassimento, the development of botrytis, the barrel program, the degree of residual sugar—whereas all winemakers make choices, it seems for Amarone the imprint of producer style is amplified. By result, the category shows tremendous breadth. “In a manipulated wine like this, just like Champagne, there are so many variables going in that it’s hard to have a linear view,” says Gianpaolo Paterlini, wine director at San Francisco’s Acquerello and 1760.
With so many factors dramatically contributing to an Amarone’s final expression, can terroir play any significant role, or is it completely masked by the appassimento process? From Champagne, we know that highly complex winemaking procedures don’t have to inhibit a wine from communicating a sense of place. “The terroir is already expressed into the grape,” says Raffaele Boscaini of Masi. “The point is eventually, in some case, the appassimento can give something more, can change a little bit the terroir.” Considering a more European definition of terroir, which encompasses human traditions, Amarone could not be more greatly tied to its land.
Marilisa Allegrini agrees. “The concept of terroir is linked to local tradition in winemaking, such as Amarone is to the Valpolicella.” But, she warns that the greatest adversary of terroir expression in Amarone is residual sugar. She calls high levels “a shortcut to concentration and richness, and one that should be avoided if a winemaker’s desire is to communicate a true sense of place.” Paterlini agrees that beyond alcohol or any other metric, “it’s the residual sugar that will change how you perceive the wine.” DOCG regulations permit 12 grams per liter residual sugar for Amarones with a strength of 14% ABV, along with an additional 0.1 grams per liter for each 0.1% increase in alcohol up to 16%. Amarones above 16% ABV are further allotted 0.15 grams per liter residual sugar per each 0.1% uptick. As mentioned, the effects of botrytis can augment the perception of sweetness, as can high alcohol; several high-quality producers ferment much drier than the legal limit. Still, truthfully high residual sugars can be considered a marker of large-scale Amarone producers, who sell their wines at lower prices.
In the past half century, Amarone has witnessed tremendous growth in production and success on the international market. From 1970 to 2010, plantings of Corvina and Corvinone increased 50% in Italy. Roughly 8 million bottles of Amarone were produced in 2005, and by 2016 that number grew to over 14.5 million. During that same timeframe, the percentage of Valpolicella wine exported multiplied from 54% to 80%.
Some question how it’s even possible to industrialize a wine like Amarone. “It’s so labor intensive and expensive to produce a wine like this, because it takes so many grapes. It’s a tradition that doesn’t really make sense today,” says Shelley Lindgren, co-owner and wine director of San Francisco’s SPQR and A16 and Oakland’s A16 Rockridge. One producer further explains that there are ways to save money in the production of Amarone, namely with higher yielding vines and drying machines. But, he asserts that at absolute bare minimum, it requires five euro of raw material to make a single bottle of Amarone. He’s confounded by bottles priced at 12.99 euros in supermarkets. I’d never noticed an Amarone so cheap and questioned if these examples reached American shores. But then I walked into Trader Joe’s, and on the shelf, I saw a bottle of Amarone from a name unknown to me. The price? $16.99.
With monolithic expressions of Amarone flooding the market and discussions of ripeness and alcohol levels pervading the industry, the possibilities for Amarone in a beverage program may appear nebulous. Yet Valpolicella’s top-quality producers collectively create an incredible diversity of wines. “I think people taste Amarone once, and they think that they know what it is,” notes Gianpaolo Paterlini. “They don’t realize what breadth there is."
“In my opinion, the low alcohol conversation is mostly driven by somms and wine buyers,” Paterlini continues. “Very few people are coming in and saying they can’t drink something with high alcohol.” While Amarone by nature reaches alcohol levels that exceed most every other dry red wine, the alcohol percentage doesn’t necessary reflect in the wine. The selections tasted for this article varied from 15% to 17% ABV on the label, but I could find no direct correlation between the exact alcohol level and its perceptibility. And even among the wines where the alcohol was more apparent, that element did not necessarily detract from the wine’s sense of balance. “Alcohol, like acid and like tannin, acts as a preservative, and so you want to be able to sense that. In a balanced wine that has tannins, you still taste the tannins,” explains Clark Terry, marketing director for Berkeley-based Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, which imports Quintarelli.
Because of its diversity of expression, Amarone provides myriad opportunities for inclusion on a wine list. Some producers consider Amarone a vino da meditazione: a wine for reflection, best consumed alone at the end of the meal. Michele Dal Forno asserts, “The best way to enjoy a good Amarone is by itself.” If anything, he’ll see his father, Romano, enjoy a glass with some Parmigiano. In this circumstance, an Amarone might perform the same role as a Port, offered as a digestif or to accompany the dessert or cheese course. “Cheese is the first thing that I was told to pair with Amarone, more than red meat,” says Paterlini. And while most fine Amarones don’t retain high levels of residual sugar, “Italian desserts tend not to be so sweet,” explains Lindgren, so neither overwhelms the other.
But many Amarones do not prohibit inclusion earlier in the meal. Marilisa Allegrini explains, “We want Amarone to be enjoyed with food.” She finds that service temperature can greatly affect the expression of her family’s wines. Chilled a few degrees below cellar temperature, she enjoys their Amarone with toro sashimi. Served slightly warmer, she suggests braised meats, such as osso buco, or Peking duck. Boscaini pairs Masi’s Amarones with a sauce made of wild mushroom, dried plums, and a stick of cinnamon to season steak. Paterlini, who continues to search for more non-cheese applications, has discovered two recent dishes at Acquerello to successfully complement Amarone. He serves a lighter, brighter style of Amarone with New York steak with figs, and in the winter, he says, “you can’t pour anything else” alongside venison with prunes.
Yet Amarone is not appropriate in every situation. “It’s, like, the biggest wine,” says Lindgren. “A lot of times, we have difficulty pairing California cuisine with it.” Napa Valley Cabernet, she notes, can present the same challenges, requiring creativity. She recalls one party wanting to enjoy Amarone with every course of the meal. When the crudo came out, she promptly arrived with complimentary bubbles to refresh their palates.
For those who may be hesitant to commit to an Amarone for the entire duration of a dinner, Lindgren often selects the wine for her pairing menu to introduce people to the category. Paterlini has found similar success incorporating half-bottles of Amarone into his beverage program at Acquerello. Guests can either begin with or move on to something else. He’ll even suggest following one half-bottle of Amarone with another, more opulent rendition, showcasing the diversity of styles. For Paterlini, one of the wine’s most pleasing attributes to guests is its lower level of perceptible tannin. “Amarone, for me, is never very tannic,” he says. “It’s always relatively smooth for how rich it is, and that’s a big selling point for me in the restaurant. It doesn’t have the same tannins that Cabernet does, for instance.” Lindgren finds that many Amarones are a relative bargain for diners, in comparison to some other big reds. “Just to make these wines is an expensive process for the winemakers of Amarone, and they still come in as a value when compared to California,” she comments.
The wines for this article were tasted in the company of Shelley Lindgren of A16, A16 Rockridge, and SPQR, Gianpaolo Paterlini of Acquerello and 1760, Clark Terry of Kermit Lynch, and Stacy Ladenburger, editor for GuildSomm. The wines were tasted as listed below, in an attempt to order them from perceived dryness to sweetness. Beyond the tremendous breadth of the category, the tasting also illuminated how little effect the specific alcohol percentage weighed on the expression of the wine.
The 10 bottles tasted, holding 10 different styles of Amarone
Ever since their first vintage of what was then called Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone in 1958, Bertani has been a leader in the commercialization of the category. Some even consider them the inventor of modern Amarone, but today, their rendition tastes utterly singular. A blend of 80% Corvina and the rest Rondinella, Bertani’s Amarone della Valpolicella Classico ages for roughly six years in 60-hectoliter Slavonian oak casks. The 2007 moves with a vibrant, kinetic energy, with notes of orange peel, salt, and dried rose petals. “Even though it’s been in barrel for a long time, it feels like a wine that can age,” suggests Lindgren. Bertani’s Amarone is also the only wine of the afternoon that tastes completely dry. “To me, Bertani’s approach sort of makes them an outlier,” says Paterlini. “This is built on acid and structure, not on sweetness and extract.”
From reviving indigenous grape varieties to bringing appassimento methods to Argentina, Masi has spearheaded some of the most prominent research into Valpolicella wines and the drying process. While they make several bottlings of Amarone, Costasera is the most ubiquitous. Warmer and more chocolaty than the Bertani, it meets typical Amarone expectations. Relatively low in alcohol at 15%, Paterlini suggests, “It’s a good entry if you’ve never tasted Amarone before. It’s representative.” Costasera is a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara and ages for two years in 80% Slavonian oak botti, with the remaining 20% in smaller vessels.
Brigaldara produces a distinctly elegant style of Amarone. “It’s so high-toned and bright and fresh, even though it says 17% on the label,” says Paterlini. Interestingly, the wine uses the maximum legal amount of Corvinone, at 50% of the blend. After one year in barrique, it is aged for two additional years in 25-hectoliter casks. This Amarone shows a beautiful medicinal character, capturing the “amaro” aspect of Amarone: Bergamot orange, black sesame, pine sap, and thyme. Lindgren praises the wine for its chamomile-tea quality.
Prà remains a leading producer of white wine next door in Soave; their Amarone grapes grow nearby in Valpolicella’s eastern reaches. Lindgren, who’d recently hosted Camilla Prà at her home, reports that Prà typically picks their grapes for Amarone earlier than other producers. A blend of Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, and Oseleta, the Amarone is aged for two years in tonneaux and barriques, followed by one year in 20-hectoliter oak casks. The resulting wine is fleshy, gamey, and piquant, with an attractive smoky mesquite quality. Lush and tactile, it is very approachable.
Also from Valpolicella’s eastern sector, Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Amarone della Valpolicella Selezione Antonio Castagnedi balances a juicy mid-palate with a tannic through-line. The wine is a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, Oseleta, and Croatina and ages for two years in 500-liter French oak casks. Brambly and chocolatey, it gains nuance with a scorched-earth, dusty tannic quality. “It really opens up in the mouth and really closes up in the finish,” notes Paterlini. Adds Lindgren, “It doesn’t hit you over the head, like some Amarones. The tannins are definitely pronounced, but it has generous fruit.”
“Quintarelli is soulful. You stick your nose in there, and it’s emotional,” says Paterlini. It seems to elicit a similar response from each of us tasting. Despite its perception as a beacon of traditionalism, Quintarelli also remains one of the most distinctive wines in the category—if given this flight blind, we all likely would have identified it with ease. Francesco Quintarelli attributes much of this Amarone’s finesse and elegance to its long élevage, roughly seven or eight years in large casks. It’s not a perfect wine; it’s slightly volatile, but that seems to only add to the wine’s intrigue, fitting into its balance. High-toned, with notes of kirsch, raspberry balsamic, and fresh red roses, it offers an elusive combination of flavors and textures that is decidedly un-modern. “The Quintarelli, for me, has everything you look for in an Amarone,” continues Paterlini. “It has dried fruit. It has sweetness. It has a silky texture. It’s rich, but it doesn’t feel heavy at all.”
To describe this Amarone succinctly, it is fresh—a descriptor aligned with Allegrini’s house ambition to make a food-friendly Amarone. Marilisa Allegrini also cites her family’s strict selection against botrytized bunches, utilizing techniques to avoid botrytis development in the fruttaio and meticulous removal of any clusters that nonetheless become affected. The resulting Amarone, a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Oseleta, shows remarkable lift. It is herbaceous, with notes of pine needles, sage, graphite, smoke, and black pepper. For lovers of more savory Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine offers an excellent transition into the world of Amarone.
Tommaso Bussola’s wines demonstrate that Amarones tipping closer to the opulent side of the spectrum do not have to sacrifice complexity for size. While originally adhering to more traditional principles, namely utilizing old oak barrels, Bussola introduced barriques into his program in the 1990s, when he found his own style. Today, the Amarone is a blend of Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara, and other varieties, and it is aged in a mixture of large new Slavonian oak barrels of 12 and 25 hectoliters, American oak barriques, and French oak tonneaux, both used and new. “The Bussola is the first wine where you can really sense some heat on the nose, but I love it,” says Paterlini. The palpable alcohol gives the wine more than a Port-like character. It tastes autumnal, like crackling embers in the fireplace. Bussola also provides a relative value among Amarone’s most pedigreed producers.
When I left my visit at Dal Forno last year with my sister tagging along, she commented that they reminded her of the Royal Tenenbaums—not for any sort of dark Wes Anderson melodrama, but because of their collective spirit of innovation. Walking through the facility, they pointed out new devices they engineered in every corner, from vacuum-sealed automatic punch-downs to the rolling fans in their fruttaio. The result of their hyper-meticulous efforts is an Amarone of profound structure that rewards patience. “It sells itself,” says Lindgren, speaking to the wine’s status among collectors. Paterlini prefers Dal Forno with a bit more age, offering verticals of the wine back to the 1980s at Acquerello. The 2009 was austere and deeply concentrated when first opened, with flavors of mint, blackberry compote, and mocha. I took the vestiges back to my apartment and continued to follow for several days. Its structure held longer than several of the other examples, and after a day or so started to show more blue fruit character—blueberry, fig, and high-toned florals. Dal Forno is also another prime example of how top-shelf Amarone can be made far outside the boundaries of the Classico zone.
Zenato rightfully closes the afternoon’s tasting: a wholly hedonistic expression of Amarone. Paterlini shares that Zenato is one of his best-selling Amarones at Acquerello, satisfying guests with its sheer opulence. The Zenato family entered the wine industry in 1960 nearby in Lugana, just south of Lake Garda, focusing on the production of Verdicchio (locally called Trebbiano di Lugana). Eventually, they looked west to Valpolicella, where they continued their success with red wine. Their Amarone is made from Corvina, Rondinella, Oseleta, and Croatina, aged for three years in oak barrels. Viscous and spherical, the wine tastes of plum pudding and tobacco leaves. This style of Amarone can heartily hold up against richer desserts and serves as a textbook vino da meditazione.
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I recommend a visit. Great wine great food great people.