Understanding Amarone

Exploring Italy’s misunderstood masterpiece.


It’s the heart of winter here in the northern hemisphere, a time when our attentions turn to robust red wines. One wine in particular seems to be relegated to these cold months, and that is a bit of a shame. I’m talking about the often misunderstood Amarone. A powerful wine, one with relatively high alcohol and rich flavors, but one that often is no more powerful than a Cabernet or Zinfandel from a warm climate. How and why did Amarone earn this reputation as a wine to be enjoyed exclusively when we are shivering outside is an interesting story, and worth exploring today.
Amarone, coming from the Veneto region of northern Italy is a bit of an unusual wine. Produced from a blend of grapes, though relying mostly on the Corvina and Corvinone twins for most of its character, it is a wine that undergoes a bit of a unique process. The grapes are cultivated in a zone that also allows for the production of the much lighter Valpolicella as well as recioto, the sweet dessert style of wine indigenous to the region. Amarone, literally translated as the little bitter one, was originally produced as a mistake, when an ignored barrel of wine destined to be turned into recioto finished fermentation and ended up as a dry wine. 
What began as that little misadventure has now turned into the most important wine of the region. What was once a powerful red wine, with alcohol and flavors concentrated through a three month air drying of the grapes has, however assumed two identities, both misunderstood. The classic dry versions of Amarone are indeed big wines, and when they originally hit the scene several decades ago they were imposing wines. However, the wine world has  caught up to the power of Amarone, with ever increasing richness of fruit and alcohol levels that leaves Amarone smack in the midst of some of the finest wines in production. Though an offshoot of Amarone has inched closer to its roots as a sweet wine. Not that these versions of Amarone are sweet per se, though they can retain enough residual sugar to be sweet to those with more sensitive palates. This too is not unusual today, to find residual sugar adding fruitiness, richness, and texture to wines considered dry and destined for the dining table.
Yet Amarone is still thought of as an outlier. Something to drink in winter and difficult to pair with food. While both may be reasonable assumptions, they are only reasonable if one thinks the same of wines such as the aforementioned Zins and Cabernets. Like these two varieties, Amarone is a more complex proposition that is not easily categorized. Yes there are versions that are a bit sweet, and can be a challenged to pair with food, though BBQ, with or without sauce, as well as game meats with fruit based sauces both spring to mind as perfect accompaniments. The more traditional Amarone, those without significant residual sugar,  are no more challenging to pair with food than any other powerful, intense, and flavorful wine. they all deserve our attention today, but our consideration year round as well.
There are several factors that have played influential roles in the evolution of Amarone, and each is worth mention today. The style of Amarone has certainly evolved over the years. From its origins as a rich dry wine, to today’s variety of styles, Amarone has remained a dynamic and fairly innovative wine. As such there are several hot topics one finds winemakers eager to discuss. Perhaps the most divisive is the role noble rot, Botrytis Cinerea plays in the production of Amarone. As I mentioned earlier Amarone is produced with grapes that have been air dried on trellises for about 100 days. During this drying process the sugars and acids in the grapes concentrate, and the flavors of the grapes take on the complex notes of dried fruits. In some cantinas though something else is taking place. Noble rot is allowed to grow.

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Top 10 Amarone tasted 11/13

Tommaso Bussola Amarone Vigneto Alto (2007)
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Tommaso Bussola Amarone Tb (2007)
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Speri Amarone (2009)
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Tedeschi 'Amarone' Classico (2008)
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Bertani Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico (2001)
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Tommaso Bussola Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico Vigneto Alto Tb (2007)
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Masi Vaio Amaron (2007)
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Tommasi Amarone Ca Florian (2007)
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Le Ragose Corvina Blend Amarone Della Valpolicella (2006)
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Tedeschi Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico (2009)
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