The Sommelier Update is an educational blog on wine, beer, spirits and food. It started in conjunction with the Arrowhead Wine Enthusiast club, but has rapidly gained an international following from those interested in learning, enjoying and having fun with food and wine. Weekly articles on advice, service, pairing ideas, recipes, education and consultation, from a Certified Sommelier and wine educator.
This week, I had the opportunity to be on Grape Encounters Radio program again. The host, David Wilson, is a longtime friend, and follower
of this blog. He had read last weeks article about Barbera, and thought it
might be an interesting subject to discuss on his radio program. The show will
air on Saturday, August 3rd. Here is the podcast.
As we discussed Barbera, the topic turned to one of David’s
new favorite wines: Amarone. I haven’t done an article about this unique
Italian wine, so this week, I share some of the basics you might want to know.
To understand Amarone, we need to first take a look at
Valpolicella. This is probably the most recognized wine in the Veneto region of
Northeastern Italy. Valpolicella translates to “valley of many cellars”, and is
made from a blend of grapes: Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. I’ll talk briefly
about each grape in a bit.
The best wines come from a series of ridges and mountain
valleys (the 4 valleys—Garganago, Fumane, Marano, and Negrar constitute the “Classico”
zone which is about half of the total area of Valpolicella). While the “Classico”
zone would indicate that these are classic examples of the wine, there is no
guarantee of quality. It still comes down to the terrior and the winemaker.
As I said earlier, Valpolicella is a blended wine. Usually
consisting mainly of the Corvina grape, plus Rondinella and Molinara in
supporting roles. Corvina is the most important grape, due to the aromatics it
contributes: floral and dark cherry notes. It is, however, low in phenolics (color
and tannin), and also high in acidity. Rondinella has firmer tannins, is higher
in sugar and in color than Corvina, which helps balance the wine. Rondinella is
also important in the production of Amarone, as you will see. Molinara is the
lost partner in the blend. It really doesn’t add much to the blend, except as a
The classic style for Valpolicella is straight-forward: bright,
occasionally sour cherry fruit, pleasant, refreshing acidity and light-medium
body, and not really taken seriously. That’s where Amarone comes in….
…Amarone (classically known as Amarone Della Valpolicella) is
an appellation for a stylistic technique, and the zone is identical to that of
Valpolicella, including the classic zone. Because of the international success
of Amarone, the best grapes in the region are reserved for this style of wine (it
is difficult to make first-rate wine from second-best fruit, hence the reason
for regular Valpolicella being second rate).
So what is that “stylistic technique” that makes Amarone so
special? Amarone is a “passito” wine. It has gone through a process known as “appassimento”.
The process involves drying grapes to concentrate their sugars and flavoring
components. During the process, which may take anywhere from several weeks to
several months (though 3 months is common) depending on environmental factors
and the desired wine style, the grapes suffer the evaporation of water and lose
25-40% of their weight. It is a very rigorous technique, and wines produced by
this method are typically expensive. The grape bunches are carefully selected
(only perfect ones will do) and hand harvested, and transported in a single layer
to the winery. They are then laid out on bamboo mats in special sheds or barns
which are increasingly equipped with dehumidifiers. The first two weeks are
critical, as rot can set in, and ruin the entire vintage. Fermentation
traditionally starts up in the winter, and is always difficult to get going
given the sugar level of the must and the cool winter temperatures. I had
mentioned earlier about the importance of Rondinella in the production of
Amarone. It is particularly important for dried grape wines because it has
berries that are smaller than Corvina, and dry faster, reducing risk for the
So, here we have semi-dried grapes, and we are making wine.
Everything has been concentrated, and the cool weather has made it hard to even
get a fermentation going. The yeast is challenged during the entire process.
When you have high sugar levels, you can get a “stuck fermentation” (where the
sugar wins, and the yeast dies off). In this case, you are left with a lower
alcohol wine and residual sugar. These wines are known as “Recioto” (Italy’s
answer to Port). But, when the yeast wins, the sugar is converted to alcohol,
and we have “Amarone”. Because of the drying-process, Amarone is a high-alcohol,
high-extract wine. The lowest alcohol versions will start at about 14% (the
minimum, by Italian law) and 14.5-15% is common; some, however come in above
15% and even as high as 17% (similar to Zinfandel).
The best versions of Amarone have intense cherry/kirsch
aromas and an earthy complexity. Roasted flavors, raisins, caramel, coffee,
chocolate, tar, barrel-spice are common descriptors. Amarone ages well, but in
the highest alcohol wines, they occasionally run the risk of drying out, and
losing all fruit notes.
The Italians consider Amarone to be a “meditation wine”,
the perfect complement to old cheeses like as Parmesan and Aged Gouda, and to rich blue
cheeses like Gorgonzola. In America, we tend to drink wine with a meal, and it
can be a great companion, especially to dishes whose preparation is similar to the
production of the wine itself, such as long, slow braises of beef and game.
In my interview with Grape Encounters, David mentioned that he had found a wonderful bottle of Amarone at Trader Joe's (he didn't mention them by name, but it was pretty obvious) for around $20. Considering that most Amarone is $40 to $80, it might be worth checking out your local TJ's.
So, are you ready to explore and try something new? I hope you'll share your tasting experience.