By Lynn Ogryzlo
To the naked eye it’s a seductive mix of black chocolate and burnt cherry. Close your eyes and swirl it; vinous aromas dance together like caramelized, plum stew, autumn leaves rustling beneath your feet, newly tanned leather and black chocolate covered raisins.
With the first sip it luxuriates across the tongue with masses of black and red fruit, velvety layers of plush chewy tannins, vanilla bean, tobacco and toasted nuances that linger long. Like magic it excites the palate with mouthwatering anticipation and it drowns the soul with fulfilled exotic pleasures – this is Amarone at its best.
Amarone is Italy’s traditional, high-alcohol, big red wine made from grapes dried in the sun. The traditional trio of grapes is Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella. These blockbuster black grapes are the last grapes to be harvested in the sub-wine region called Valpolicella. Leaving them late allows them to access every last drop of the season’s sweetness.
Once harvested, the grapes are left to dry. The process is called appassimento and translated loosely means ‘withering’. Where they are left to dry are called “fruittai”. It’s a special well-ventilated area that prevents the deterioration of the over-ripe harvest. As the grapes lay in the fruittai for approximately three months or more, the drying process reduces the yield by 20 to 35% with some premium producers choosing to reduce by a whopping 50%.
Appassimento is similar to shriveling grapes into raisins. By the time they’re ready to be pressed, the shriveled grapes are concentrated in flavour, ultra sweet and because of the cool climate, they have a core of great acid for superior agelessness.
The resulting wines are often referred to as passito wines and this loosely translated means ‘raisin wine’. Wines produced by the appassimento process can be sweet wines but more and more the process is being used to produce full-bodied dry wines, the most famous being Amarone.
It’s the most celebrated wine of the Veneto region in northeastern Italy. Veneto is a beautiful place to grow grapes; it boasts breathtaking scenery, expansive lakes, rivers that unwind through vine-covered hillsides, dotted with terra cotta rooftops. Verona, the centre of Veneto is rich in culture and architecture from the ancient Roman and Renaissance eras; it offers a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.
Amarones can be aged for several years before they’re released and are available in a variety of styles and prices. Higher end Amarones are often aged in-house for at least five years or more before release.
Generally speaking, Italian Amarone is best served on its 10th birthday or later. Most of the vintages on the LCBO shelves are 4 to 6 years old and while they are certainly drinkable, there is a great case to be made for patience. While, it’s difficult to watch any bottle sleep in the cellar, on the upside, you probably wouldn’t be able to afford a fully mature Amarone at 10 to 12 years of age anyway. So buy them now and lay them down, be patient and resist the temptation to sample how it’s maturing. To fully appreciate the evolution of Amarone, buy 12 bottles, drink one now and lay the rest down. Open one each year and taste its progress. Italian Amarone is a long journey from vineyard to glass but well worth the wait.
Amarone is a collector wine among aficionados. That means beyond the LCBO General List and Vintages categories, you’ll also find one-time offerings and rare vintages through Ontario wine agents. Ontario wine agents can tell you what is available now, what is coming and can also source a special vintage for you.
In it’s simplest form, Amarone flavours are a cross between a rich Vintage Port and a complex Hermitage. In Veneto’s principal sub-regions, Bardolino, Breganze, Colli Euganei, Valpolicella and Soave, produce a broad range of traditional wines on relatively poor, minerally soils. Yet these soils are especially conducive to making big, complex, sophisticated wines; Amarone wines. Here are a few to try.
Villa Monteleone 2010 Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico ($83.95) is as sexy and supple as an Amarone gets. It’s a sophisticated yet very limber lady, deep ruby black in colour with a brick rim. Dense aromas and flavours of black chocolate raisins, walnuts and delicate spice with a tangy, dry-yet-fruity, full body. The Villa Monteleone cellar produces about 45,000 bottles of all types of Valpolicella, my favourite is this Amarone because it’s a departure from the traditional blockbuster Amarones. Just simply stunning and will improve even more with further cellaring. Available through The Small Winemakers Collection including a rare 2008 vintage (Geoff Townsend, 416-463-7178).
Casari 2009 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico (LCBO#426718, $37.95). This one is painstakingly crafted with a 30-day maceration period followed by a cool and long fermentation. It’s left to mature for three years in stainless steel vats, one year in both small French oak barriques and large Slavonian oak barrels and eight months in bottles before leaving the winery. This flashy red pushes all the buttons, deep colour, strong toast and vanilla aromas from the French barriques, sweet velvety fruit flavours and a luscious texture with enough acidity to keep it refreshing on the finish. It’s a beautiful wine that has a long life ahead of it. It’s available through the LCBO General List. Agent is Profile Wine Group.
Tomassi Il Sestante Amarone della Valpolicella (General List LCBO#267112, $39.95). Only the best and most mature clusters are selected to dry on small open racks by the cool breezes of the autumn and winter weather (five months). At Tomassi they call this, “active lethargy” because the grapes appear to the naked eye to be lying very still yet inside changes are taking place that will completely transform the grapes flavours, aromas and structure. Flavours of black licorice and prune unfold gently into its complex, supple character bringing out black berry flavours that are just deliciously balanced with acidity and tannins. Agent is Tandem Selections.
Luigi Righetti 2010 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico ($31.40). Like other Amarones Righetti blends Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella grapes that have been hand selected, dried for four months, crafted in large oak barrels and left to rest for the mandatory five years maturation period before it leaves the cellars. You can look forward to rich flavours of cooked figs and raisins, hints of anise and sweet spices, it’s an elegant Amarone with a lingering finish. A beautiful wine to pair with the last of the years barbecued three-finger thick steaks. The 2010 Righetti shows great promise and at this price it’s a great bottle to lay in the cellar for the next seven to ten years. Amarone della Valpolicella Classico is only available by the case through The Small Winemakers Collection (Geoff Townsend, 416-463-7178).
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.