Ah Amarone, the anti-fortified wine, Italy’s greatest of bitters (literal translation: “The Great Bitter” to distinguish it from the regions sweet fortifieds, known as Rectioto). On a chilly evening, the word itself feels like a velvetty blanket on the tongue. Yet this is no mere comfort wine. One of our favorite descriptions comes courtesy of Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch’s Vino Italiano: “Amarone is the big palate tease, letting all its luscious sappy fruit flavor hang out before covering up with savory robe of alcohol acidity and tannin.” We are getting chills just thinking about it.
Below we have included a top to bottom guide of one of our favorite rich and robust red wines, Amarone.
Amarone hails from the Veneto in North Eastern Italy, and more specifically (for those of you who are not that in to geography) the region that fans out from the coastal islands of Venice (Yes, we like things that are easy to remember, too). More specifically Amarone is a style of wine that hails from the Valpolicella appellation within the Veneto (check out the map below - a picture is worth a thousand words).
The grapes are the same throughout the region: a blend of indigenous varieties Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. Are they international super stars? No, but they are the hometown heroes capable of producing layered intriguing complex wines. Corvina, meaty, rich and tannic, traditionally drives the blend, while Rondinella provides color and body, while Molinara brings the acidity. The wine that most American consumers is Valpolicella, a smooth, silky, berry parfait of a wine, almost creamy and luscious on the palate, yet possessing all of the acidity which brings levity to the palate.
This is the basis for Amarone, but the production method takes all of its virtues to another level. Despite Amarone’s status as a dry table wine, it actually begins it’s life in a manner akin to dessert wines. Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes are harvested, and then allowed to dry and raisinate on mats, a process known as appassimento. This is where the similarity between Amarone and dessert wine ends. The primary challenge for a number of producers is to allow the raisination to occur without the grapes becoming affected by Botrytis Cinerea, the so called Noble Rot. This little bacteria is responsible for the sticky, honeyed lusciousness that is Bordeaux’s Sauternes or Hungary’s Tokaji. While some wine makers find it acceptable in small doses, others prefer to keep their wines Botrytis free. To prevent this, the climate needs to not only be mild, but relatively free of humidity.
Additionally, grapes are only allowed to lose between 30 and 40% of their water weight, a relatively small amount in comparison with most dessert wines. When the process is done correctly, the fruit and tannin is concentrated from the increased contact with the skins, but not the acidity, giving the finalized dry wines the initial illusion of a port like sweetness. The fermentation process is concluded by a discretionary aging process: producers use everything from stainless steel, to large old oak barrels to smaller new oak barriques.
Because of these different criteria – the breakdown of the blend, the length of appassimento, to noble rot or not to noble rot (yes, that is the question), the type of aging – Amarones do come in a variety of styles, but there are certain undeniable characteristics:
High alcohol: This big boy tips the scales at 15% alcohol by volume and sometimes even as high as 16%. Compare that to the typical 12.5% of standard Valpolicella.
Old! Most Amarone’s are aged for a minimum of 5 years before release.
Flavor Profile: Full bodied and rich on the palate (yes, thank you alcohol), with raisiny dried fruit flavors on the tip of the tongue, an herbal bitter bite, and layers of complexity and depth throughout.
According to wine writer Jancis Robinson, Amarone is best consumed as a post-prandial (after dinner) sipper like port, rather than “slugged throughout the meal.” However, there are a host of traditional Venetian dishes that pair beautifully with Amarone.
For heavier styles, bring on the comfort food: Osso Buco, hearty meat Stews (like the aptly names Risotto All’Amarone or Brasato All’Amarone, risotto and pot roast recipes which call specifically for Amarone), pungent funky cheeses like the local Mount Veronese or some not so local blues like Roquefort and Stilton.
Is your style of Amarone on the lighter, fresher side? Seek out lamb, duck or even some more exotic poultry like squab or robust pastas.
Writer Amy Ullman is the irrationally exuberant founder of Wine for Rookies. She received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts from Harvard University in 2009 with concentrations in Economics and French. She holds the title of Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators, and is currently working on her Diploma of Wine and Spirits via the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.