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 2009 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.
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 vintages chart below 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.