Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella are the hallmark of the region, and the technique behind them – known as appassimento – is almost as old as its hills, with evidence of it being utilised in the region at least as far back as the 6th Century. But while the basics of the technique are quite well known, the precise science as to what it does to the wine and why it is used is much less so – unsurprisingly, given the rather intimidating way in which wine chemistry information is sometimes presented. But we here at Vineria all’Amarone believe it doesn’t have to be this way! So here is (hopefully) a somewhat accessible guide to what appassimento is, what it does, and why it is so prized in Valpolicella.
What is it?
It is sometimes believed that Amarone is made from raisins which, while not strictly true, gets the general idea across. After harvesting in September and October, the grapes are collected in a special room called a fruttaio where they are dried, for as much as four months, often on special racks called arele. Bamboo is a favoured wood for drying for its ability to absorb excess water and resistance to bacterial infection.
What does it do?
Detached from the vine the grape begins, essentially, to die, but what it does in the process of doing so is what matters to the appassimento. Because it is no longer processing water from the mother plant, the berry’s metabolism changes from aerobic to anaerobic (meaning without oxygen), which causes the grape to lose water, thereby increasing the concentration of sugars. Furthermore, this process also results in a conversion of fructose into glucose, a simpler, sweeter sugar to our palates which is more easily converted into alcohol, resulting in stronger wines.
Another affect this has is, as the skins begin to break down, an increase in the concentration of phenols and polyphenols – complex naturally-occuring chemicals in all grapes, but especially in the dark skins of red wine grapes. These chemicals are divided into two kinds: flavonoids, which contain the crucial tannins which give red wine that drying, bittering, structuring sensation; and non-flavonoids, which contain (slightly confusingly) many of the flavours characteristic of these bigger red wines (such as spices), as well as the resveratrol and trans-resveratrol chemicals associated with some of the health benefits of red wine.
Finally, and crucially, the grape metabolises much of the sharper malic acid but not tartaric acid, meaning that the resulting Amarone wine will have a softer, rounder mouthfeel than it would had it not gone through the raisining process.
Appassimento is often reduced to one word, concentration; however, it pays to know what exactly is being concentrated. By forcing the grape to metabolise itself, to reduce the harsher acids and less fermentable sugars, and to increase those chemical elements that promote intensity of flavour and mouthfeel, the process turns a big wine into a huge one, the freshness of Valpolicella Classico into the roundness of Amarone, and giving us all those rich flavours and deep layers we all know and love. The technique has been the heart of the region for milennia – and now, at last, we are simply finding out why.