Amarone: Italy’s big red wine

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | sept. 2018

I was having dinner in the now-closed Le Bastille French Restaurant in Chicago after an afternoon of business meetings back in the '80s when I noticed a group of people at a nearby table sharing drinks from a bottle that was covered in a paper bag. Intrigued I watched and listened as each person in the party attempted to identify the wine. A grey-haired guy that seemed to be leading the tasting looked familiar and after racking my brain for a few minutes, I recognized Patrick Comiskey, the wine critic for the Chicago Tribune. I was having the Prix-fixe steak aupoivreand a half bottle of Chateau Le Gay, a French Pomerol. Patrick recognized that I was enjoying my wine and meal and invited me over to taste the mystery wine. I tasted a small sip and was immediately reminded of a heavy alcoholic — but not unpleasant — port. I guessed port and was complimented for my close-but-no-cigar guess. It turned out to be Amarone. Patrick, who had been to Italy, spent the rest of the evening talking about this unusual wine and how it was made. I've remembered that chance meeting with a wine writer because he confirmed for me that I had a valuable asset: the ability to taste and discern wines. Now, some 40 years later, I am able to spend the currency that he conferred on me.

Italy is a country of deep contrasts; it is famous for handcrafted automobiles like Ferrari and the machine tool and metal fabrication machinery produced in northern Italy are the best in the world. When it comes to wine, cheese and other agricultural products like ham and beef, the Italians have stuck to traditions, which go back to the Roman Empire. The grapes that were used in making this particular wine were Corvina, Rondinella, Croatina and Oseleta — not exactly household names. These grapes are native to this region of Italy and for the most part not grown anywhere else. It is interesting to understand the history of this famous and expensive wine.

The Valpolicella region of Italy is located near Verona about 60 miles east of Venice in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains. The region's most famous eponymous wine, Valpolicella is a light, fruity, pleasantly drinkable wine. Its most serious wine, closely related in origin, but spiritually a world apart, isreciotodella valpolicella amarone, or simply Amarone. When I first tried it, I found it to be as flavorful as Barolo and as strong as vintage Port but hardly tannic as its translated name implies (“the big bitter one”). The wine featured in this article is big (15 percent alcohol) but not bitter.

So how did this unusual wine evolve from the simple Valpolicella everyday wines of the Veneto region? The Corvina grape, which is the principal grape of Amarone wines (70 percent or more) does not have bold flavors; this combined with the cool mountain air produce a mildly flavored wine. The vintners are forbidden by law to substitute other grapes or even plant different varieties in the Veneto region. For example, if a grower wants to start a new vineyard in the region, he must, by law, rip out an old one and even then he is restricted to the varieties designated by law. The Amarone style was developed to increase the flavor of the wine. In the Cognac region of France this is done by distilling the finished wine to make Cognac. In Italy this process is calledapassimento. The grapes are harvested and loaded into wooden boxes where the grapes lose about 40 percent of their weight over a period of one to three months. The drying process occurs during the northern Italy winter and produces a shriveled raisin-like grape that is slowly pressed and then slowly fermented in the spring for up to two months. The resulting wine is then transferred to 500-liter neutral oak or chestnut barrels to undergo malolactic fermentation. In malolactic fermentation malic acid (think the flavor of a bite of a green Granny Smith apple) is converted to soft creamy lactic acid. While in the barrels the lees are stirred once a week for a year before the wine is bottled. The finished wine is bold and in the range of 14-16 percent alcohol.

The Amarone pomace (the leftover skins, seeds and stems from the pressing) is sometimes used to enhance the flavor of other Valpolicella wines. The pomace is added to the fermenting wine and it increases the effects of the yeast adding color, alcohol and flavor. This style is called Ripasso, which means repassed or recycling the pomace. If you want to try this wine, look for the word Ripasso on the label.

Amarone is a wine that demands big flavors as well. We are coming up to gun season here and I can think of no better food to match with Amarone than a good roast of venison. If you aren't lucky enough to get a deer then a braised brisket of beef would do just as well.

The wine I selected for this article is the Amarone della Valpolicella from the Castagnedi brothers' Tenuta Sant'Antonio. The four young brothers Armando, Tiziano, Paolo and Massimo, took over their father's vineyards at San Zeno di Colognola ai Colli along the river Adige. They farm over 100 hectares of sandy, silty, river soil with scattered skeletal limestone. The wine is a mixture of 70 percent Corvina, 20 percent Rondinella, five percent Croatina and five percent Oseleta . The grapes are hand selected twice to eliminate diseased and under ripe grapes. The wine is aged for two years after fermentation before bottling to settle out harsh tannins. With all the work that goes into producing this wine it's certainly not a surprise that I paid $45 at Woodman's for this beauty. It is highly rated at 92 points by the famed wine critic Robert Parker and is capable of 15 years of aging. I would save it for some grand feast with family. The aroma is of ripe red fruit with spicy notes of licorice and black pepper and hints of dark chocolate. It is well balanced with the right proportions of acidity to sweetness with 8.5 grams per liter of residual sugar to the 6.5 grams per liter of acidity. It is soft, warm, savoury and fresh.

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