Amarone della Valpolicella is one of the best-known names in all of Italian wine, a label under which is found some of Italy’s most prestigious and valued reds. It is also a unique wine, as complex to make is it can end up in the glass! So what is it that makes Amarone tick? Who makes it, and where, and how? This explainer will try to answer some of those questions.
So, what exactly is Amarone?
The basic facts about Amarone are quite straightforward. It is a red wine produced in the Valpolicella region of Veneto, to the north of Verona and just west of Soave. It is often considered the top dry wine of the region (coming above Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore and Valpolicella Ripasso). Since 2010 it has been designated a DOCG (Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita), the highest classification of wine quality that Italy provides. It is made from grapes rarely if ever found outside the Veneto, of which the most importants are the Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella (the other two being Oseleta and Molinara). It will generally find itself described as full-bodied, with great ageing potential.
These facts miss something essential about the experience of drinking Amarone: it’s a huge wine, seriously huge, with alcohol levels regularly exceeding 15%. It is, above all, a luxurious wine, the most opulent dry wine produced in the Valpolicella, and a good one should just explode on the palate, with abundant red and black cherry flavours, as well as coffee and chocolate notes (indeed, the name Amarone means ‘the big bitter one’ because of the wine’s distinctive bittersweet mix). However, many can still retain remarkable finesse and elegance, and with age it can offer more subtle flavours of tobacco, stewed fruits, and even tarry notes – and always full, rich wines.
There are all sorts of reasons why these wines achieve this level of heft – the best, fattest grapes, grown on the best soils with the most sun exposure – but the principle one is what happens once those grapes have actually left the vineyard and got to the winemaker’s cellar: the process of appassimento, or drying the grapes.
That’s right – Amarone is essentially made from raisins! Once harvested, the grapes must be dried by 60% before the remaining juice can be pressed out to begin the winemaking process. The effect of this is not only to give the wine its distinct, raisiny flavour, but also to concentrate the sugars in the remaining liquid, ultimately resulting in those trademark high alcohol levels. This is important as alcohol, while flavourless itself, carries the flavours by giving the wine body, allowing the Amarone to come out as rich as it does.
This Valpolicella – what more can you tell me about it?
Valpolicella is, as stated above, a series of hills and valleys bordered by Lake Garda to the west and Verona to the south. The conditions here for winemaking, with the cool breezes from the lake moderating the very strong sunlight at the height of summer, are among the most congenial in Italy, especially for those vineyards of sufficient altitude to rise above the damp fog which settles in the valley floors. The soils, too, are extremely propitious, very varied but consisting mostly of clay, calcareous soils, chalky soils and limestones, all of which are especially suited to the long ripening seasons required to produce wines with the trademark acidity of the wines of Valpolicella.
The region is divided into three main regions – the oldest area, the historic Valpolicella Classica, to the west; the area of Valpantena in the central north; and the largest area of Valpolicella Allargata (or simply Valpolicella Doc) extending to the south and east.
But getting back to those raisins…
Ah yes, right. Well, first, let’s meet the grapes. The main star of the region is the grape Corvina, ably supported by fellow locals Corvinone, Molinara, Rondinella and sometimes the rare Oseleta (small quantites of varieties such as merlot and sangiovese are also permitted). Corvina is known particularly for its high acidity and characteristic flavour of cherries, and, usually in a blend with its fellows, is vinified normally to make fresh, zippy red wines which range from cheap and cheerful vini da tavola to the serious and unique ripasso wines.
The best grapes, however, will be selected for the special drying process, known as appassimento (wines made from the process are called passito). These grapes could be destined for either Amarone or the ancient sweet wine recioto – indeed, Amarone was initially created as an error while attempting to make a recioto!
There are a few different methods to choose from, but the basics are that the grapes are left to dry in specialised rooms until they’ve lost the necessary quantity of water to increase that concentration. That same concentration – the sheer sugary thickness of the grape must – means an exceptionally long fermentation period, anything between 30 and 50 days (for context, most wine ferments take about two or three weeks). There is some discussion about whether this makes it necessary to use selected (i.e. specially chosen) yeasts to do the job properly, while many traditionalists insist that the native yeasts (the ones which naturally alight on the grapes during the growing period) are, naturally, the best suited to the task.
That all sounds great, but how do we know? Have we asked every producer how they make Amarone?
Well, in a way, yes! Amarone della Valpolicella is a name protected by Italy’s highest agricultural production regulation, the aforementioned denominazione di origine controllata e garantita, and all producers are obliged by the Ministry of Agriculture so adhere to certain rules in order to be permitted to put the name on their labels, subject to inspection from the regional authorities.
It’s not just the government though – other organisations exist within Valpolicella not just to enforce the rules enshrined in the law, but to encourage the extra-legal traditions which make the wines of the region distinctive. One such group is the Consorzio per la Tutela dei Vini Valpolicella (‘Consortium for the Protection of the Wines of Valpolicella’), an organisation comprising 80% of the region’s growers, winemakers and bottlers, and which since 2013 has been legally empowered to represent all of them, with an aim on preserving the historical practices of the typical wine of the region through promotional and educational work.
Another such organisation is the Famigle Storiche association (Historical Families), comprising some of the oldest and most famous names in Valpolicella: Allegrini, Begali, Brigaldara, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Masi, Musella, Speri, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Tommasi, Torre D’Orti, Venturini and Zenato. These wineries’ Amarone bottles carry a special label indicating membership to the group, which is dedicated to the promulgation of the ancient winemaking practices typical of the region.
Well, what should I bear in mind when buying Amarone?
The appassimento is one reason why Amarone della Valpolicella can sometimes seem rather expensive, as there are around twice as many grapes per bottle of wine produced! It’s not the only reason however. The road to making Amarone is long and difficult, full of risks and pitfalls and potholes, and only with the best grapes from the best sites can you embark on this journey to begin with – indeed, winemakers generally buy grapes from many different sites to get the right blend for their wine, while single-vineyard Amarone wines are relatively rare. So when we want to buy a bottle of Amarone, what should we look out for on the label? How can we identify the best quality, the best value, and above all the right Amarone for us?
- Firstly, if it says ‘Amarone Classico’ on the label, this means all of the grapes have been sourced from Valpolicella Classica, the historic eastern part which gives the area its name. If it just says ‘Amarone’, then the grapes could have been sourced from anywhere in the wider Valpolicella Estesa, but don’t fear! These days many Amarone wines from the wider region can achieve the same quality as the best Valpolicella Classica has to offer.
- Check the year! Not all Amarone vintages are created equal (and you can consult our handy Amarone vintages post if you like). Amarone can age stunningly well, even over decades, so selecting the right vintage at the right time can make the difference between a good wine, a great wine, and something really special.
- See if it says ‘riserva’ on the bottle. All Amarone della Valpolicella must be aged for at least 2 years prior to release, but a riserva must be aged for at least 4. Usually this means a wine with more depth, roundness and less acidity (though to what extent can depend on the type of barrel!)
- Finally, check the maker. Many makers have fine websites (Le Ragose’s is one example) that give a remarkable amount of information on how the wine was made, where the grapes were grown and so on.
And what goes well with Amarone della Valpolicella?
So now you’ve bought your Amarone, what are you going to drink it with? Well, the truth is this can be a challenge. Unlike with some wine and food pairings, where the wine gets lost among stronger flavours from the dish, Amarone can overwhelm food with its fearsome fulness. However, it has enough acidity that, when paired with sufficiently rich dishes, it can be extremely food-friendly and produce some truly sublime pairings. Oxtail or wild boar stew are classic pairings, along with the Veneto classic bigoi co’ l’arna (thick spaghetti with duck ragù). For vegetarian options think protein (such as stronger mushrooms), and of course powerful, aged cheese.
The Short Version
Amarone is the top red wine produced in the Valpolicella region north of Verona. It is made from partially dried grapes in a range of styles, but is never shy. It spends a minimum of 2 years ageing, but Riservas will spend at least 4 and even longer prior to release.
Colour: dark purple when young, brick-red or even brownish when aged.
Alcohol: 14%+, but practically often 15%+.
Acidity: medium to medium-high.
Tannins: medium to medium-high.
Aromas: intense maraschino cherries and plums when young with a touch of cocoa powder and tobacco; when aged, cigar box, forest floor, perhaps a touch of tiramisù.
Flavours: massive red and black fruit when young, with plenty of sour cherry and some smokiness; when aged, chewing tobacco, tar, even mushrooms.
Flavours to pair with: umami, protein, richness.
If it were an animal, it would be: a panther.
Side-effects: excessive joy, even singing, and quoting of Shakespeare.
Some names to look out for: Masi; Bertani; Nicolis; Le Ragose; Zymé.