Words of Wit, Wisdom and Wonder on Wine & Spirits

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Amarone Mi Amore

Italians are passionate about three things: food, wine and fashion, though not necessarily in that order. And while fashion from Italy is continually evolving, as it should be, and new young chefs from Rome to Milan are always putting new spins on their cuisine, leave it to the Italians to strive for even greater perfection when it comes to red wine.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than with the peculiar, dark ruby claret otherwise known as Amarone Della Valpolicella, or Amarone for short. Made for years in the Venetian region of Italy, Amarone is unique in that the wine is made from grapes that have been air dried on bamboo racks, ostensibly to further elicit the concentrated flavors in the fruit. This unorthodox drying process and vinification method, while increasing the alcohol content of the wine and thus its ability to age, also creates a certain power and complexity that is curiously unlike any other big ruby claret, including those of Bordeaux.

To be sure, Amarone is one of the most expensive and painstaking wines to produce, with an end result that is often lost even on Italian wine enthusiasts, some of who dismiss the wine as bitter. Ironically, Amarone in Italian means “big bitter.” Which begs the question: why even bother? Ask any winemaker in the Veneto and he’ll explain it thus—it’s a labor of love.

To better understand Amarone, it helps to realize that Italian red wine was not always particularly well thought of by wine lovers on either side of the Atlantic. Not too long ago most Americans thought of Italian wine in terms of cheap, barely drinkable Chianti that invariably came in straw wrapped flasks that sold for under $5. It was more a curiosity then a serious wine.

 Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara are the Amarone varietals grown exclusively in the Veneto

Indeed, the Italian word for flask, “fiasco,” was an apt description of its contents and half explains how the word may have seeped its way into the American vernacular in the first place. But lest one thinks the Italians poor winemakers think again. No one would argue that following the war years, Italian winemakers had a tradition of keeping the best wines for themselves and exporting gallons of plonk (including sickly sweet versions of sparkling wine from the Asti region known as Spumante), masquerading as serious wine.

But in the last two decades, many red wines from Italy have grown increasingly elegant and distinctive, inspired in no small part by the huge Tuscan reds that have taken the market by storm. Wine collectors everywhere have been stocking their cellars with plump, well upholstered Barolos, fragrant and sophisticated Barbarescos and the majestic, if often massive Brunello di Montalcino. Without a doubt, Amarone belongs in this lofty group of rossi giganti.

In the hilly Veneto area surrounding the beautiful city of Verona, more than 3,000 acres are under vine. Grape varietals known as Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara are grown almost exclusively here and most are blended into popular, medium and light bodied red wines known as Valpolicella and Bardolino, both best drunk when young.

This same blend of grapes also goes into Amarone, officially known as Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone. The word "recioto" is derived from a dialectic corruption of the Italian word for ears, orecchi, as in orecchiette, the famous pasta of Bari. While on the vine, the uppermost clusters of grapes are called the "recie," which are those that get the most sunlight and thus become ripest at harvest. These are the special clusters that are hand picked and spread out to be dried for the making of recioto, otherwise known as Amarone.

After the grapes are picked they are left uncrushed for a period ranging from a single month to up to three, depending on how dry the growing season was and the temperature of the room where they are stored. After a few weeks the grapes begin to desiccate, shriveling into raisins. The loss of water naturally intensifies the sugar content. The grapes are checked for mold on a daily basis and any fruit that is infected is discarded to prevent the mold from spreading.

As the heart of winter begins, sometimes as late as January, the grapes are finally crushed and vinified. Understandably, the amount of juice yielded in the crush is less than half of what it would be had the grapes been crushed when first picked. To quote Spencer Tracy, “there ain’t much meat on them bones but what’s there is cherce.” And extremely concentrated, which raises the sugar content to as much as 30 percent, an increase of more than 10 percent over the standard for fresh juice. Changes in the wine’s acids also occur, and the fermented juice takes on myriad complexities in both aroma and flavor. With residual sugar content somewhere near 3 percent, the alcohol content rises to 14 percent and sometimes higher. Powerful stuff this Amarone, which certain wine historians believe is descended from a late harvest wine known as “acinato” that dates back to the days when Roman soldiers were out conquering the world.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the modern Amarones are decidedly less potent than their ancestral wines. Still, the word most Italian wine aficionados use to describe them is “assertive” and justly so. Depending on the growing season, most modern day Amarones begin to reach their peak from four to seven years after harvest and retain their power and charm for another decade. A fun fact: Amarone is the fourth biggest seller in Italy, behind Chianti, Asti and Soave.

 Cesari makes some of the finest Classico Amarone della Valpolicella

The best vintages render iron-fisted wines that are almost black in color, with roasted fruit flavors at the core that echo with hints of tobacco, ripe figs, raisins, nuts and earthy spices. The mouthfeel is full yet velvety, with an impressive balance of fruit to acidity. The wines invariably finish with an impressive amount of fragrance and flavor.

Pairing a good bottle of Amarone with food is risky business, since the wine can easily overpower virtually anything in the way of comestibles. Think hearty, comfort foods such as roast beef or prime rib, duck, goose or game meats like venison or wild boar. Pork and beef are staples of the Veneto region and ubiquitous on local tables. In the late fall and winter months, the Veronese often serve Amarone with a medley of boiled chicken, lamb, pork, beef and innard meats known as the Gran Bollito Misto.

Amarone was also the favored wine of one notable, if fictional, gourmand who liked to drink his with a plate of fava beans. Then again, Hannibal Lechter is not someone anyone would ever want to share a meal with, even if he did uncork a great vintage Amarone.

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