Wine Ink: Amarone is wine made from time
Along with serendipity (a new discovery) and lagniappe (a little something extra), it is amongst my favorite words.
In Italian, it refers to the process in which grapes are dried and allowed to shrivel to allow the sugars to concentrate. This is used to produce the rich, deep, dark, Amarone della Valpolicella or simply, Amarone, wines.
But to me, the word invokes the slow passage of time that is both a hallmark of these intensely beautiful wines and representative of a way of life.
Amarone is a product of patience and each bottle tells a tale of the intense labor, love and time that go into making them. In every mouthful, the quest for quality is clear. The marriage of these factors make Amarone amongst the most intriguing wines you will ever taste.
When ordering, ask for “Ah-ma-ROH-nay.” The name is derived from the Italian word for bitter or tart, amaro. A good Amarone will play between the dance of a bit of bitterness, followed by a beguiling sweetness on the finish.
Amarone comes exclusively from the Veneto region of Italy in the northeastern part of the country. Blessed by the presence of the waters of Lake Garda, the area is stunningly beautiful. It is also a very important place in the world of Italian wine, home to the white varietal Soave and the lighter style red, Valpolicella.
The winemaking history in Veneto goes back centuries and the Romans made a wine in the region called Recioto. High-alcohol, intensely sweet wines, they were made by drying grapes for an extended time on straw mats to increase their sugar content and produce wines that could travel easily on foot or horseback without spoiling.
But Amarone is a more recent revelation. In fact, the first bottling of the wines dates just to the 1930s. The legend of Amarone goes that one day, who knows when, someone left a batch of Recioto in a barrel too long and the magic of nature and a healthy dose of yeast conspired to take most of the sweetness out of the wine. A new style of heavily concentrated, yet dry wine was born. Serendipitously so, one might say.
Amarone is a blend of three regional grapes, Corvina, which dominates, Rondinella, and Molinara. These grapes are given as much hang time as possible and are harvested late in September or even in early October. Just about now. Hand picked, the grapes are placed on bamboo mats to dry for up to 120 days in the process with the name I so adore, appassimento.
This allows the sugars to concentrate and removes so much moisture that, by February, the grapes weigh as little as 35% of what they weighed when harvested. To produce just one bottle of Amarone, upwards of 20 pounds of grapes must be harvested and dried. This time and labor-intensive way of winemaking is what gives Amarone its unique character.
While still based on concepts originally used by the Romans centuries ago, the appassimento is now augmented in some wineries by the use of drying lofts that nurture the grapes in perfect drying conditions. In a system pioneered by the Masi Vineyards, one of the region’s most renowned makers, The Masi Technical Group, has created a process called NASA (Natural Appassimento Super Assisted) that provides temperature and humidity controls to replicate climatic conditions of the best Amarone vintages of the past.
Amarone has become an exceedingly sought after, though hard to classify, wine. Some bottlings retain the sweetness of the fruit, while others more accurately reflect the bitterness for which it owes its name. Tannic at times, depending upon the maker, the wine can have a thick, viscous feel in the mouth, coating the teeth and leaving a stain on the teeth. Dark purple lips and tongues are part and parcel of the Amarone experience.
The flavors of leather, smoke, coffee, cola, chocolate, caramel, spices, prunes, raisins and more all can be found in the wines in varying quantities. In 2009, Amarone was awarded DCOG status as one of Italy’s most scrutinized and prized wines.
Two of the hallmarks of Amarone are that the wines are high in alcohol, according to DCOG regulations they must be at least 14 percent and they are generally fairly expensive. This is a result of the labor and the amount of product that is used to produce the wine. But if you are looking to add a little lagniappe, a little something extra to your wine experience, indulge yourself in a bottle of Amarone.
It is truly a special wine.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.