Thursday, 22 October 2009

What's it all about, Amarone?

Thank goodness for the onset of cold, dark evenings. At last we can get stuck into winter warmer red wines – and they don’t come in more comforting winter weight than Amarone della Valpolicella.

Valpolicella we all know, right? Light-bodied, soft and juicy wines that you might glug down with a bowl of pasta or a pizza. But Amarone? What’s that about?

The difference between Amarone and straight Valpolicella is all down to grape drying – a process that the winemakers in this part of the Veneto in north eastern Italy have known about and practised since at least the time of the Romans. In simple terms, winemakers pick their best grapes slightly earlier than the main harvest and then air dry them on racks for around three months before crushing and fermenting to make wine.

The grape varieties themselves can sound like a mouthful – including Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. An old wine teacher of mine suggested Cinderella and the two ugly sisters as a way of remembering the names – it's worked for me!

During the drying process the grapes will, of course, lose moisture – weighing around half what they did originally by the time comes to crush and ferment. With less water in the grapes, they are proportionally higher in sugar, which will be converted to alcohol during fermentation.

Amarone, then, is a high alcohol wine - legally the minimum level is 14%, but can exceed 16%. But some other things happen to the grapes during the drying process as well, which create massive concentration of aromas and flavours, as well as a great ability to age and to develop layers of complexity. With alcohol at these levels, this is not a “session wine”; it’s what the Italians call a “vino da meditazione”, a meditation wine to sip on its own.

These are wines that might start out smelling and tasting of sour cherries, dark chocolate and tobacco leaf, but develop in the glass, changing each time you take a sip, evolving and tempting you back again and again. As you might expect, these wines take to ageing like ducks to water and continue to grow in fascination and enjoyability over many years.

Not cheap to produce: that extra picking separate from the main harvest; the drying process itself; grapes that can be lost to rot and can't be used to make wine; the fact that dried grapes will naturally make less wine than freshly-picked grapes – they all mean that Amarone cannot be made as cheaply as normal wine.

But prices paid for grapes destined for Amarone have been dropping, while the amount of Amarone made has been steadily rising, leading to concerns that corners are being cut and quality levels are perhaps not always what they should be. A group of leading Amarone producers, the self-styled Amarone Families, is seeking to address these issues, imposing stricter quality measures in an effort to maintain the reputation – and high price – of Amarone della Valpolicella.

Last week they came to London to showcase their wines, focussing on the outstanding 2000 vintage. It's a mark of the wines' ageworthiness that many of these wines were still youthful and barely into their stride, even after nine years.

Amarone is not a cheap wine habit to take up, with prices starting at £20, but if you fancy an exploration of the style, there is no better place to head than The Vineyard in Dorking ( John is an Amarone fanatic and stocks around twenty different ones at any one time, whereas most merchants will have one or two.

Amarone on the High Street
Amarone “Le Vigne” Ca' del Pipa 2004 - £25 at Majestic (Fine Wine section)
Dense, dark and truffley – great for game.

Amarone Classico Brigaldara 2006 - £34.99, £27.99 as part of a mixed case at Oddbins
One of the Amarone Families group, Brigaldara make wines in a modern style, ie using new French oak in addition to older, larger oak casks. Polished and powerful.

Amarone Allegrini 2004 - £45.95 from Imbibros near Godalming (, £50 from Waitrose
One of the foremost modernists of the Amarone Families, Allegrini make wonderfully expressive wines – at a price.

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