ould the real Amarone please stand up? That’s the question being asked in the Valpolicella hills north of Verona, home to Italy’s grandest and most beloved red wines. Despite the “quality-ahead-of-quantity” trend that has made the Italian industry reconsider its output, Amarone bottling has boomed. Two million bottles in 1990 became four in 1997, with the 2008 vintage expected to yield some 15 million. Lower quality Amarone has also flooded the market, blurring the brand and pushing prices down.
But real Amarone is still out there and commands premium prices. It’s dark, red velvet in glass with a perfect balance of acidity, structure, soft tannins and alcohol. Still young after 10 years, it can wait another 10, even 20, in the cellar, until its fruity flavors to mellow into notes of leather, coffee and chocolate.
I still remember my “virgin” taste of Amarone at the famed Bottega dei Vini in Verona. I watched the waiter swirl and swish the wine. “It looks like you are dancing with the wine,” I told him. Without skipping a beat, he replied, “No, Signora, faccio l’amore con questo vino.” (No, I am making love to it.)
Like its cousin Ricioto della Valpolicella, Amarone is made from native grape varieties that usually include corvina (and/or corvinone), rondinella, and molinara. Traditionally, the grapes are picked about a week before full September maturation and left to dry for several months on well-ventilated racks. During this so-called appassimento process, which dates back to Roman times, the grapes lose about 40 percent of their weight and flavors. Sugars and color become more concentrated.
In January, the grapes are pressed and undergo weeks of fermentation and maceration, followed by three or more years of aging in large barrels, botti grandi, and another six months to a year of in-bottle aging. Ricioto and Amarone differ in that Ricioto’s fermentation is stopped, leaving the residual sugars that give it sweetness, while Amarone’s fermentation is allowed to continue until all the sugars have been consumed and the wine’s alcohol level reaches 15-to-16 percent. Amarone was only “discovered” in the 1930s and wasn’t sold commercially until the 1950s.
Responding to the proliferation of lower-quality Amarone, 12 traditional producers (Allegrini, Begali, Brigaldara, Masi, Musella, Nicolis, Speri, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Tommassi, Venturini, Zenato) banded together in 2009 to form a group called “Le Famiglie dell’Amarone d’Arte” (“The Amarone Families”). They pledged to ensure higher production standards. Their wines are identified with a distinctive “A” logo. Recent vintages (2000-2006) usually run between €25 and €70.
Other small, family-owned, “terroir” producers rely instead on long-established reputations. Giuseppe Quintarelli makes his legendary Amarone using the most traditional methods in Cere, a hamlet of Negrar in the Valpolicella Classico zone. He releases his wines only when he’s ready, usually aging them seven or more years. “More than anything else, one can never force nature,” he’s been quoted as saying. “One must be calm, have the right method, and have a lot of passion.” Labels are hand-written and glued on individually. The recently released Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone Selezione 2000 sells for about €500.
One of his “disciples,” Romano Dal Forno, produces Amarone east of the Classico zone, in Valle d’Ilasi. Quintarelli was reportedly believed the area was better suited for growing corn, but Dal Forno proved otherwise, releasing his first Amarone in 1983. He’s has gradually extended his vineyards holdings and aims to produce 15-20,000 bottles annually. One of his interesting experiment includes the elimination of molinara grapes. Dal Forno Amarone della Valpolicella 2000 is hard to find even at €420.
Bertani, a very traditional producer near Negrar, also in the Classico zone, was founded by two brothers in 1857. The company “quality” production long before the word became fashionable. Like Dal Forno, they have cut molinara grapes out of the mix and age their Amarone for six years in botti grandi. Bertani Amarone 2000 is more affordable at €80 to €100.
Another interesting artisanal producer is Marinella Camerani’s Corte Sant’Alda. Gambero Rosso awarded her the coveted “Grower of the Year” Award in 2009, praising her adoption of soil survey and classification methods. Her Mithas Amarone 2000 sells for €120. Recent vintages like the 2004 come in more reasonably at about €50 euro. Monte Dall’Ora also produces a notable organic Amarone in the Classico zone (2005; €45).
An alternative to cheap Amarone or pricy versions of the real thing is “Ripasso,” known officially as Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso. Masi invented it in 1964 (Masi Campofiorin Ripasso) by adding leftover Amarone-used grape skins to regular, dry and red Valpolicella wine (made from the same grape varieties as Amarone). This “re-passing” or ripasso produces a second fermentation and transforms relatively simple and unstructured Valpolicella into what has been affectionately called “Baby Amarone.”
Updating the process, producers now add grapes that have gone through a month of appassimento rather than just using the leftover skins. Masi Campofiorin 2006 sells for about €15. Some excellent 2004-2006 Ripassos come from Tommasi (€17), Tedeschi (€15), Corte Sant’Alda (€25), Bertani (€13) and Tenuta Sant’Antonio (€14).