Thursday, January 27, 2011

Amarone

What is Amarone?

Amarone is a style of red wine produced in the Valpolicello area of the Veneto in northeastern Italy. Think Verona and Romeo & Juliet and you are there! While great diversity certainly exists, typically the wines are dry, fresh, full-bodied with lots of extract, high alcohol (15-16%), and complex with great depth and flavor concentration.

Amarone is made from the best grapes of that region.  The region dates back to the Roman Empire, when grapes were dried to concentrate their sugars and create a sweet wine.  This drying process evolved as Recioto, a sweet wine which is still produced. Legend has it that a chance fermentation continued all the way to dryness surprising the producers who tasted it.  Expecting their customary sweet wine, they pronounced it "Amaro" or "bitter".  As yeast strains evolved that could withstand the resulting higher alcohol, producers realized that they had something special, and paid more attention to this uniquely rich dry red wine.  It was named Recioto della Amarone della Valpolicella, but in 1990, the name Recioto was removed from the label, and was reserved for the local sweet wines that still had residual sugar.

Many poeple may have shied away from these wines for the fear of them being too strong and of being of 15-16% alcohol. This misconception may be due to the fact that people were simply trying the wines too young. The current release on the US market is 2005.  Amarones from 2000 are just beginning to open up.

The Vineyards and the Grapes


The best Amarone wines are made from grapes from the best hillside vineyards, where poor soils force the vine roots to dig deep for water and nutrients. These poor soils also keep yields in check, ensuring small, concentrated berries packed with flavor.
Indigenous grape varieties from the region are also key to Amarone’s uniqueness. Corvino is the main player (called the Queen), providing backbone, structure, body and acidity. Other indigenous varieties such as Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara and the lesser-known Oseleta are all important ingredients in the final mix, each adding its own special flavors and dimension to the wines.  The lighter grape Molinara, is no longer considered an important component of Amarone, but is often used in Valpolicella Wine, and also used to make Ros├ęs. 

How the wines are made


Key words that come up again and again when talking about Amarone are ‘selection’ and ‘drying’. Amarone wines are made from carefully selected bunches of the best grapes. These grapes are then dried (or dehydrated) before fermentation. Traditionally the grapes were dried on wooden racks at ambient temperatures. Today many producers use special temperature and humidity-controlled rooms for this process to ensure that mold does not attack the grapes.

This drying process, which lasts between three and four months, is critical to the unique character of Amarone. During the drying process in special ventilation rooms, where the grapes are no longer on the vine, molds can develop.  Besides well ventilated areas, most producers have installed warm air blowers to control humidity.

As the grapes shrivel, sugars, acids, tannins, flavors, extract and other grape compounds concentrate. Additionally various reactions occur within the grapes themselves creating more complexity. Once dried the grapes are crushed and then fermented until dry.

Most wines undergo an extended maceration on the skins, just to make sure that all of the complexities and goodness from the shriveled skins ends up in the wine. Then the wines are matured in oak for at least two years for ‘normale’ Amarone and four years for Riserva.

2010_10_08-Amarone03.jpg
Masi is one of the Amarones you can find at Doris Italian Market. Other Amarones include Bertani, Brigaldara and others depending on the store...
 Within the Amarone style of wines, there is great diversity between producers depending on such factors as the vineyard location, drying time for the grapes, length and temperature of fermentation, size of barrel and length of maturation as well as the final blend of grapes.

DOC or DOCG

Traditionally recognized simply as a style of Valpolicello, Amarone enjoyed DOC quality status. However, after much determined lobbying to seek its own denomination of quality, Amarone was finally granted the more elevated status of DOCG, beginning with the 2010 vintage. However, we won’t see this designation on a bottle of Amarone for a few years until the 2010’s enter the market circa 2013 to 2014.

When you consider that the first DOCG wines weer announced in 1980, it's rather remarkable that it took until 2010 to give this designation to Amarone.  However, in 1980, the powerfully concentrated, yet richly deep perfumed Amarone was not well known, except by collectors. Besides, the area of Veneto, home of Amarone, was more famous for the its white Soave.

Regions and their producers applying for DOCG status have to show 10 years of record keeping and documentation, and when reds, like Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino were awarded their DOCGs, they didn't have to do anything differently from what they had already been doing. 
In the recent case of Amarone, however, some fine producers in general, and a group of twelve Amarone families in particular, decided to put some teeth into their newly awarded "G", and rise to the meaning of the "G", which stands for Garantita.  They decided that standards had to be raised, production had to be limited by lowering the yield per hectare to ensure quality, with no new plantings scheduled until 2013.  Producers had to agree to abide by all of the stricter regulations that come with being a DOCG wine, such as minimums for alcohols and extracts. 

The recently created Amarone Families Association has agreed on an increase of the amount of Corvina, from 40-80% to 45-95%.  The percent of Corvinone has also been increased, since its thicj skins and low yields make it suitable for drying.  DOC Amarone had permitted 10% "foreign" varieties, such as Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The newly designated DOCG Amarone willa lso be allowed to use those varieties, but may also use 10% of indigineous smaller varieties, such as Oselata and Negrara.

The unique taste of Amarone


Common tasting notes of Amarone acknowledge the vibrancy of the wines, their freshness, the way that the high levels of tannin were so seamlessly integrated with the fruit. Despite having alcohol levels between 15% and 16% these wines are extremely balanced, warm in some cases but never aggressive or intrusive.
Additionally, even in the most ‘modern’ style, the oak was never overt, instead adding subtle background and complexity to the fruit.

Ripasso
In the late 20th century, a new style of wine known as ripasso (meaning "repassed") emerged. With this technique, the pomace of leftover grape skins and seeds from the fermentation of recioto and Amarone are added to the batch of Valpolicella wines for a period of extended maceration.

The additional food source for the remaining fermenting yeasts helps boost the alcohol level and body of the wines while also leaching additional tannins, glycerine and some phenolic compounds that contribute to a wine's complexity, flavor and color. As the production of Amarone has increased in the 21st century, so too has the prevalence of ripasso style wines appearing in the wine market, with most Amarone producers also producing a ripasso as a type of "second wine".

An alternative method is to use partially dried grapes, instead of leftover pomace, which contain less bitter tannins and even more phenolic compounds.

The first Valpolicella producer to commercially market a ripasso wine was Masi in the early 1980s.When the style first became popular in the late 20th century, it was rarely noted on the wine label. There was also debate about whether it was even permitted to be included under DOC regulations. If it was mentioned at all it was relegated to the back label wine description notes. Today the term ripasso is freely permitted to be used, with several examples on the wine market labeled as being made in the ripasso style. In late 2009, Ripasso della Valpolicella received its own DOC designation.

Amarone at the table


Full-bodied, with lots of tannin and extract, these wines call for meat and hearty rich dishes. Aged ribeye or roast venison both came to mind several times during the tasting. The wines’ bright acidity and tannins are well able to break down even the richest of dishes. As we get further into fall and winter approaches, this might be the time to try an Amarone, if it has not usually been on your list of go-to wines.

Given the rigorous selection process, time spent drying the grapes and long maturation times these wines are not inexpensive. For a good quality Amarone, be prepared to pay $50 and above. Not for everyday drinking, these are wines for special occasions, wines to gift and in particular wines to lay down and open in five to ten years.

Check with your nearest Doris location about which Amarones they carry as well as Ripasso and Valpolicella wines. Salut!

(sources: Beverage Dynamics Magazine Jan/Feb 2011, vintages.com, wikipedia)



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