So. If you’re here, you’ve probably read our other articles on Amarone della Valpolicella – the basics, the 101 lowdown and so on. And, if you’ve been there, you’ll probably be aware that, in spite of our best efforts, it was impossible to cover absolutely everything in the detail we’d have liked. You see in the end, like in many of the world’s most prestigious wine regions, the total number of things to know about the Amarone denomination is – especially at a technical level – gigantic. Probably no more than a few hundred people in the world know absolutely all (or even the vast majority) of them, and almost all of these will likely be heavily acquainted with the wine business of the region for one reason or another.
But that’s where this article comes in. No, not that, once you’ve read this article, you’ll be able to rattle off everything there is to know about Amarone from memory (though if you can – well, congratulations!). However, what we do hope is that this article can serve as a very detailed reference point, the best summary you can find in English of the many laws that govern Amarone della Valpolicella.
And ‘laws’ is the word, as the source from which we’ll be working is the ‘Disciplinare di produzione dei vini a denominazione di origine controllata e garantita “Amarone della Valpolicella”’ – or, in layman’s terms, the actual, official legal document which sets out the legislative requirements for a bottle to be allowed to carry the famous name of Amarone on its label. The current version of the law came into effect on 24th March 2010, with modifications in 2011 and 2014. This article will not be simply a translation of the entire disciplinare – that would be a little trying for all concerned! – but it will attempt to capture all of the major points as close as possible to the original text.
And so, without further ado, we start, in order.
Article 1 simply states that the DOC “Amarone della Valpolicella”, first laid down on 21st August 1968, is reserved for wines that fulfill the conditions of the disciplinare. It furthermore establishes the typologies of ‘classico’ and ‘Valpantena’, as well as the category of ‘riserva’.
- the Corvina grape, also known officially as Corvina Veronese and Cruina, is without doubt the most important variety in the blend, accounting for at least 45% of the blend and up to 95%. Corvinone, historically (but mistakenly) considered a variant of Corvina, is similar enough in characteristics that it is allowed to account for up to 50% of the blend, but only as a direct substitution for Corvina;
- next, Rondinella is specified as being permitted to account for 5% to 30% of any given Amarone blend;
- finally, up to 25% of the blend is allowed to be made up of the so-called ‘bacche rosse non aromatici’ (‘non-aromatic red grapes’, maximum 15%, with any individual variety limited to 10% of the total) and the ‘classificati autoctoni italiani…a bacca rossa’ (‘Italian autochthonous-classified…red grapes’, maximum 10% of the total).
Article 3 covers something very important and absolutely too complicated for the scope of this article: all the exact borders and delineations between the various regions and subregions, villages and valleys across the entire Valpolicella area, taking the form of a set of directions – and that is, really, astonishingly detailed and thorny. For example, a random extract reads: ‘…proceed up the aforementioned street up to the locality ‘Osteria’, opening thereby on the street that, passing near the Cemetery of Avesa…’ and so on.
So, it gets really in-depth! However, suffice to say in this article that it outlines all the various zones of production that comprise the region in which Amarone della Valpolicella is allowed to be made, and these can be enumerated here as follows:
- San Pietroin Cariano
- San Martino Buon Albergo
- Colognola ai Colli
- Cazzano di Tramigna
- Cerro Veronese
- San Mauro di Saline
- Montecchia di Crosara
Which is already quite a lot to be getting on with!
Article 4 concerns the environmental conditions and farming regulations required to making wine that is allowed to carry the Amarone label. This is important – just because wine is made within the right zone and with the correct grapes in permitted ratios, that doesn’t make it good enough. If those grapes were grown on poor terrain with inadvantageous topographical features, or using farming methods that artificially encourage ripeness, then the wine will necessarily be of lower quality, and it’s in the interests of the region to find ways to make sure that any wine called ‘Amarone della Valpolicella’ reaches a certain standard. It is specifically stated that this is ‘to confer on the grapes specific characteristics’, so as to safeguard the qualitative identity of the wine.
And so a variety of regulations are in place to govern this area. New-planted vines are excluded, as are vines situated on plains and valley-floors. Vine planting, training and pruning must be done in accordance with accepted norms and standards, namely ‘espallier’ or Pergola Veronese methods, always on an incline. Pruning itself, namely the standard two prunings known as ‘dry’ and ‘green’, are mandatory in order to keep fruitage down to a certain maximum per hectare in order to maintain berry quality (there is also a minimum number of vines per hectare, so as to not artificially inflate prices through scarcity).
‘Forcing’ ripeness, for example placing the plants under glass, is strictly prohibited. However, under certain circumstances (for instance drought years such as 2022), irrigation can be permitted (it is established that the Consorzio di Tutela della Valpolicella is empowered to make such decisions and others related to grape fitness). This, combined with the previous two rules, is to ensure that the total quantity of grapes able to be used in Amarone does not exceed 12 tonnes per hectare, and that they must produce a wine of absolute bare-minimum 11% alcohol (this latter point, of course, is somewhat moot in this case, as most Amarone wines exceed 15%, as we shall find out later, but nonetheless the law is set down here thus). In favourable years, it is indicated that more grapes can be collected according to bespoke calculations for the vineyard in question, but that it can never exceed more than 20% more than the aforementioned total tonnage.
Grape sorting for appassimento must be done in the vineyard and according to traditional methods, and cannot exceed more than 65% of a vineyard’s permitted maximum (the remainder can be used for Valpolicella and Valpolicella Ripasso). Lower productions are allowed to be established during unfavourable years – and, as with provisions for favourable years, this is a question reserved to the Consorzio di Tutela.
Article 5 governs that most particular and thorny of issues relating to Amarone – appassimento itself. Firstly, naturally, the location of everything up to bottling must (almost always) take place within the zone (or zones) delineated in Article 3, this so as to ‘safeguard the quality and be sure of the effectiveness of the control [of the Consorzio over the rules followed].’ Wineries that wish to make Amarone must have been registered, within these zones, for at least three years prior to their first production. (There are a few circumstances under which ageing and bottling can take place outside of the delineated zone, though these are really used.)
The yield of the grapes must not exceed 40%, excepting special case years in which the Consorzio sets another limit. After appassimento, the dried grapes must have a basic natural alcoholic potential of at least 14%, one of the very largest of any recognised appellation in the world. The drying process itself has to be, like the cultivation of the vines in the field, natural (so to speak), meaning that no artificial methods – dehumidification, say – are permitted to be used. Grapes selected for the process cannot have been vinified before the 1st of the December following the harvest, excepting in years where climatic conditions have allowed for earlier start-dates (as ever, set by the Consorzio), and this vinification must be according to defined local methods so as to guarantee the wine’s characteristics are those typical of the region.
The actual characteristics of the wine are discussed in Article 6. It specifies technical aspects – the aforementioned 14% alcoholic minimum, the maximum level of sugar per litre (12g/l), and the minimum level of acidity (5g/l), these to be subject to occasional year-specific modifications should the need arise. Slightly more surprising, however, is the fact that it is a matter of Italian law that the wine must have ‘a full red colour tending eventually towards garnet after ageing’, a ‘characteristic and pronounced aroma’, and must on the palate be ‘full, velvety and “hot”’ (the latter indicating the presence of alcoholic level). Of course, given that wine is always to an extent a subjective business, this is intentionally vague (what counts as a ‘characteristic’ aroma of Amarone is anyone’s guess, while ‘velvety’ and ‘hot’ could even be seen as antonymic). Nevertheless the purpose of this is to give the relevant authorities the power to exercise discretion in what might be called ‘common-sense’ cases (i.e. should someone somehow make a ‘rosé Amarone’ or something else impossible that nonetheless technically fulfils the legal requirements, common sense will be deployed to say that it contravenes specificity characteristics).
Article 7 is about terminology. For wines that carry ‘Amarone della Valpolicella’ on the label, it is not permitted to add certain other words such as ‘extra’, ‘fine’, ‘scelto’ (‘choice’) or similar technically meaningless words that are seen as attempting to hoodwink the customer into believing that there’s something particular or distinguished about the wine, when in reality there isn’t (at least, not in the way the word implies). Additional words that are permitted, for example place names or brands (think ‘Masi Campolungo di Torbe’), are allowed as they confer no necessary impression of extra quality but are instead merely descriptive. Vines and references to ageing and appassimento are likewise permitted so long as, naturally, they correspond to the producer’s registered documents. Finally, all wine must have the vintage labelled on the bottle.
Speaking of bottles, Article 8 makes it clear that Amarone must be in its traditional bottle, made of glass and not exceeding 5 litres in volume (a bottle size known in the trade as a ‘bordeaux jeroboam’). For business promotional purposes only, however, wineries are permitted to use bottles of 9 litres (a ‘salmanzar’) and 12 litres (a ‘balthazar’). At the other end of the scale, it is noted that screwcaps are permitted only up to half-bottle size.
Finally, Article 9 is the longest of the articles that isn’t simply a long list of place names, and is well worth it given that it covers ‘links with the geographic environment’. (NB: Article 10 is merely how to contact relevant authorities should you have any queries relating to the law.)
The first part covers what it calls ‘natural factors’. It notes that the Valpolicella zone of production covers the whole area from the foothills in the province of Verona, running along Lake Garda almost up to the border with the province of Vicenza, and that despite the near-radical diversity of terroir afforded by its ‘hand-shaped’ valley system, certain climatic and terrain-related characteristics can nonetheless be identified as having particular significance in contributing to the region’s special identity. This identity, it goes on to say, is remarkably mild thanks to the protection given by the lake to the west, the hills to the south and especially the Lessini mountains to the north, a Mediterranean climate where precipitation is generally limited to the winter, leaving long dry summers ideal for winemaking and rarely exceeding a metre a year. The soil is predominantly of a loose calcareous-dolomite composition (dolomite is, in fact, its own type of soil), with pronounced volcanic and basaltic deposits.
Furthermore, the region has a moderate but noticeable elevation, reaching up to 500 metres above sea level, but this is quite variable. Given this variability, the best way to guarantee a south-facing, general solar exposure is to find less-steep slopes.
The second part concerns the ‘human and historical factors’ of the region. It notes that even in the 4thC. A.D. a minister of the Visigothic king Theodoric by the name of Cassiodorus sent a letter that survives to this day, requesting for the monarch’s table a particular wine from the Verona area made by drying the grapes that he named ‘Acinatico’ and that he described as ‘wintry must, the grape’s cold blood’. It goes on to show the varying ways in which this ‘predilection’ for this style of wine was shown over the years, from severe penalties for vine destruction or theft, to the fact that the wine itself was considered so valuable as to be worthy of being paid to feudal subjects as wages. A 1503 letter makes clear the value of the by-then-named Valpolicella region for viticulture, and the humanist and scholar Scipione Maffei (1675-1755) was among those to note the peculiar ‘amaro’ or ‘bitter’ quality to the wine despite being (as was prestigious in those days) decidedly more sweet than is fashionable today, much closer to what we understand as Recioto della Valpolicella than to Amarone; it would not be until the early 20th Century when the first true modern Amarone wines would appear, first made and passed around between friends, then eventually commercially sold, for the first time in 1953. This was followed by its official recognition by the oenological authorities of Italy in 1968, to great critical success.
This success, it is mentioned, is to no small degree down to the way in which local winemaking practices harmonise with the natural environment – in particular vineyard practices. The Veronese pergoletta, for instance, also known as the ‘tendone’ or ‘big curtain’, which allows for constant vine-branch renewal and limits production, leading to greater quality. This vine-training system, when combined with carefully adapted green-pruning (or ‘green harvest’ in the jargon) are perfect for ensuring the extra-full ripeness needed to make the appassimento process worth it.
That process is then described in its most basic details by the Disciplinare. The grapes must be placed in a single layer on plastic crates, wooden slats or – the most traditional option – bamboo racks (aka Arele), in order to ensure the better circulation of air. It is there that they must remain for 100-120 days, until they have lost at least half their weight. According to the Disciplinare, this process gives the Amarone della Valpolicella its extremely peculiar profile, modifying the relationship between the various sugars, and concentrating chemicals such as glycerols, resvaratrols and polyphenols to produce ‘a wine unlike any other’. It then reaffirms the requirement to age the wine in wood before bottling. It is this process which renders Amarone among the longest-lived and greatest wines of Italy, with its intense red colour, its complex nose of dried fruit and tobacco, and its exceptionally full but soft feel on the palate.
Finally, the interconnection between this personality of the wine is deeply interconnected with the aforementioned local environment. The mild climate with long, warm weather into early autumn helps ensure the necessary long grape-maturing season, helping it reach those blockbusting alcohol levels, but also ensuring the strong presence of phenolic compounds and those esters responsible for the famous ‘floral’ elements in the wine. The medium elevation of much of the area (about 300m above sea level) along with the presence of sandy loam soils encourages the development of the malic acids responsible for Amarone’s remarkable freshness for a wine of such heft, as well as of anthocyanins and complex polyphenols (especially in the autochthonous Rondinella grape). Finally, it’s noted that the calcareous marne soils contribute not only in the development of these characteristics, but also of tannins in the grapeskins that give the resulting wine its deep colour.
All of this goes to produce Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG, a tremendous amount of detail and precision all of which is laid down in the law of the Italian Republic. It might seem almost whimsical that such documents should concern themselves with subjective matters like aroma and flavour, but this all serves to demonstrate how seriously it is taken. The making of Amarone is more than a business; it is an ancient tradition, handed down from generation to generation, and it is important that there be relatively strict and useful regulations to ensure that the wine retains its basic personality, its soul even, so that something produced by Masi today might bear some resemblance to something that Cassiodorus would’ve recognised on that royal table over 1600 years ago.