The great names of European wine have about them something of the feeling of venerable old age. It seems impossible to imagine the cultural life of the continent without the great houses and chateaux, without Barolo and Barbaresco, or Bordeaux and Burgundy. However, while it is true that the vineyards have been planted for as long as millennia, the wine landscape we’re so familiar with today has undergone many changes and movements, with certain regions going in and out of fashion, hitting golden or leaden ages, benefitting or suffering from climate changes.
The two most decisive factors, however, might just be accident and innovation. Of course the two often go together – according to the mythology Champagne was invented when the monk charged with removing bubbles from the wine, Dom Perignon, tasted a faulty sample and decided it was better than the stuff that had gone right.
Amarone is another such case: a history of ancient vines, changing tastes, and one happy accident.
The phenomenon of straw or raisin wine was well-known in the ancient Mediterranean. The Greek poet Hesiod describes the method in Works and Days, while Pliny the Elder goes into some detail in describing the various dessert wines produced around Italy, North Africa and the Greek islands. The region that is now Valpolicella is likely to have first been mentioned by the writer Cassiodoro in the 6th century, and was known to be very favoured by the Ostrogothic nobility then predominant in northern Italy. This wine is likely very similar to wine made in the area to this very day.
But that wine is not Amarone; in fact, all of the wines mentioned above were sweet wines, as are almost all those made by appassimento in our own time, from Cypriot Commandaria to Tuscan Vin Santo. Indeed, most of the ancient ones would have been flavoured with honey, spices or even pine resin (like modern Retsina). In modern Valpolicella, this sweet straw wine is Recioto – a dessert wine made from grapes dried for even longer than for Amarone. In order to achieve the signature sweetness the fermentation is stopped before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, for which the most traditional method is to transfer the wine into a new cask in such a way as leaves the yeasty sediment in the previous barrel. However, even though this sediment was known to be the cause of fermentation, it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur in the 19th Century that the microscopic nature of yeast was known, and so often a considerable amount of yeast found its way into the second barrel, carrying on with the fermenting, and leading to wine that, for the winemakers, was unacceptably strong, dry, and bitter – or ‘amaro’ in Italian – and was pretty much always thrown out.
Thus was the straw wine of the region even into the 1930s, as less-than-thorough filtering techniques permitted pockets of yeast to sneak in and ‘spoil’ the wine by turning it dry, as well as barrels simply forgotten about and accidentally allowed to ferment fully. Tastes in wine had been gradually changing, however – in the mid-19th Century, the new ultra-dry style of Champagne, nicknamed brut after a scornful review from one critic, had caused a particular stir among British consumers, and upending the established sweet-tooth for the fizz that had long been considered the pinnacle of the style. The ancient Romans had also prized sweet wines above all others, but the times, slowly, were beginning to change.
According to legend, then, it was in 1936 in the cellars of what is now Cantina Negrar that the manager of the winery, Adelino Lucchese, decided it would be worth keeping and trying a little of one such mistake, just to see. Turns out, good move! Upon trying it, founder Gaetano Dall’Ora is meant to have cried out ‘sta olta te l’è proprio indovinà!’ – ‘you’ve really guessed it right this time!’ His next tasting note proved prophetic: ‘this is not amaro – it’s amarone!’ (meaning ‘great bitter’).
The first bottles were produced in 1938, but it wasn’t until 1953 that they were first marketed and sold, under the name Recioto Amarone della Valpolicella. Despite its relative novelty, the wine steadily gained and gained in reputation over the decades for its huge, dry-yet-fruit-forward style as well as its ageability and smoky subtlety. In 1990, it earned DOC status, and in 2009 DOCG, the highest protected classification of wine in Italy, those techniques once considered errors now cemented in law, the guarantors of quality in one of the country’s most important wine names.