A Wine Without Fear: Amarone

By Craig Camp
Friday, September 26, 2003

IT'S MACHO. It's big, tough, and strong. It's not afraid of really moldy, stinky cheese. It's Amarone.

Amarone: it's the massive, powerful, high-octane Italian wine that is the darling of wine drinkers in Italian-American steak houses and restaurants across the United States. For some strange reason the same customers that are addicted to the "delicate" flavors of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio love to order Amarone as their red wine. Not that they care which Amarone it is as long as it says Amarone on the label. This has created a huge demand in the USA for Amarone -- any kind of Amarone. As you might have guessed this uncritical demand doesn't inspire a lot of producers to make great wine.

Amarone is the king of the ocean of wines produced in Veneto, a region cursed by its own fertile soils and benign weather. It's easy to grow grapes in Veneto. Unfortunately it's also easy to grow a lot of them on the same vine. The result has been the destruction of famous names like Soave, Valpolicella, and soon Amarone by producers willing to settle for the minimum qualities required by the liberal DOC rules. Some of the best producers, like Anselmi in Soave, have left the DOC, while others are ignoring the new DOCG Soave with studied boredom. Veneto is a mess. This is a shame because the region has not only the capability, but actually does produce some of Italy's best wines.

To understand Amarone you have to understand Valpolicella. Yes, that light, cheap, easy-drinking wine sold by the big Veneto wine companies is a direct relative of the powerful Amarone. Valpolicella, like so many Italian wine regions today, is a work in progress even though its wines can be directly traced back to Roman times. The Valpolicella region stretches across the hills north of Verona. To the northwest of the city is the Valpolicella Classico zone where most of the best vineyards are located. In Valpolicella they use grapes not likely to be on the Wine Spectator Who's Who of Grapes: rondinella, molinara, and the leader of the pack, corvina. For you old Steppenwolf fans that is corvina not corina corina. Corvina joins a long list of Italian varieties that makes great wine in only one spot in the world: barbera and nebbiolo in Piemonte, aglianco in Campania, sangiovese in Toscana, montepulciano in Abruzzo and Le Marche, nero d'avola in Sicilia, negroamaro in Puglia, garganega in Soave, ribolla gialla and refosco in Friuli, teroldego in Trentino, and lagrein in Alto Adige to name a few.

So how does that light red wine on sale at the grocery store become the powerful Amarone? It's a complex process. It's hard, time-consuming, and expensive. What does this say? Avoid cheap Amarone.

Like most regions, Valpolicella mostly makes bulk commercial wine. But for a small additional investment there are many wonderful red wines from this region, ranging from excellent light everyday wines to some of the most complex and expensive wines produced.

To make great wines here, first you do the basic things. You use mainly the best vine (corvina), you cut yields, you use old vines for your best selections, you don't pick until the grapes are very ripe (a big gamble), and if you're really dedicated you do something beyond all of these risky choices: after you pick your grapes late you take them and put them on racks for several months to dry. When they dry, water goes and sugar stays. More sugar means more food for the yeasts to eat during fermentation, and more yeast food means more alcohol. It doesn't only mean more alcohol, however. When done with care and proper selection it means more of everything: more fruit, more body, more complexity . . . and that means Amarone. The drying of the grapes is called appassimento and is a process used to improve most of the best red wines of the region.

So the producers take their best grapes and dry them not only to make Amarone, but to create a full range of their best wines. The ultimate expression of the vintners art here are Recioto della Valpolicella and Amarone. In a simplified way they are the same thing, but Recioto is a sweet red and Amarone is dry. Amarone is Recioto della Valpolicella fermented out to dryness. Hence its name from amaro or bitter -- meaning dry. Both Recioto and Amarone are strong cheese wines without rival.

The best producers take portions of the wines and grapes they are drying to make Recioto and Amarone and blend small portions of them into their normal Valpolicella wines to make wines of more character. In one technique the lees (leftovers in the barrels) of Amarone and Recioto are added to the wine to restart fermentation and in another a small percentage of Amarone is added to the Valpolicella blend. The end result is the same: a stronger, more dramatic and complex wine called ripasso. As is so typical these days, the best producers often no longer use this designation and you'll just have to let you palate tell you the truth. When you taste a regular Valpolicella with a dramatic depth and roundness you can be sure that the wine has been super-charged by ripasso to some degree.

So there's a broad range from massively overproduced Valpolicella to ultra-complex concentrated and everything in between. And the only way to tell the difference before you drink is to learn the producers.

There always seem to be cherry trees surrounding the best vineyards in Valpolicella. The growers say the cherry trees add the cherry flavors to their wines. High on the highest hill in the area sits Corte Sant'Alda with the steeply sloping Mithas vineyard below. Although not in the classico zone, owner and winemaker Marinella Camerani has transformed these vineyards into some of the area's best. She has single-mindedly taken this formerly ignored property and, through sheer determination and passion, created some of Veneto's bests wines and an Amarone that has received the highest awards possible. Although all of her wines are excellent her ripasso, Valpolicella Superiore, "Mithas," Corte Sant'Alda, and her Amarone are some of the best examples of the modern style produced in the region. While her wines are not inexpensive they are tremendous values considering the quality. One sip of Corte Sant'Alda and you will realize how hollow commercial Amarone can be. In certain great vintages she also produces a Mithas Amarone. It is not to be missed.

In the heart of the classico zone, Speri has been quietly producing some of the best wines of the region. The Speri Valpolicella Classico Sant'Urbano is as close as you can get to an Amarone without actually being one. This wine is one of the greatest values in the entire region. Speri's exceptional Amarone is produced in a classic style with layered complexity and an unending finish. Speri is incapable of making bad wine, or even mediocre wine.

The peak experience of the region lies in two extraordinary producers -- one old and one middle aged, one exceedingly modern and one exceedingly traditional.

Dal Forno Romano makes wines of exceptional power and concentration. They approach Port in power and exceed it in price.

The other is a quiet gentle old man. You approach the winery that looks not much more than a house. The cherry trees surrounding the house are covered in the early spring smoke of cuttings being burned in the vineyards. You enter the winery through what could be a garage door. Inside these unexceptional surroundings are the extraordinary wines of Giuseppe Quintarelli. The immense fame of the name seems neither to fit the simple surroundings or the gentle old man who greets you with a quiet smile. However there is something about his demeanor that demands your respect and you feel almost humbled in front of him. The wines of Quintarelli have been recognized as the finest of the region for decades. These are the opposite of the Dal Forno wines, not because they're not powerful, but in the sense that they don't hit you over the head with drama. These are wines that demand something from you. As you taste wines with him, Signor Quintarelli watches you to see if you understand. If he feels you understand the wines, he draws from the huge barrels behind him wines that have been resting there for six or more years. You get a small smile when you say arrivederLa. You quietly leave with the feeling that you have somehow grown, just as you do when leaving the presence of a great work of art.

Today, the region has exploded with fine producers and much-improved older ones: Tedeschi, Allegrini, Tenuta Sant'Antonio, Bussola, Bertani, Tommasi, Le Ragose, Le Salette, and Accordini are all making excellent wines. The entire ranges of wines from these producers are worth seeking out. Today, Valpolicella is interesting from top to bottom -- if you stay with the best producers.

I have some really mature gorgonzola waiting for a challenge. Have no fear -- I know just the wine.