As if wine isn’t confusing enough, along comes the mysterious amarones from Italy to tax the brain. While most wines are simply made – pick the grapes, let them ferment and then bottle – amarones add a twist.
We’ll try to demystify the process.
An ancient process unique to the Valpolicella region of Veneto, amarone’s late-harvested grapes are dried by autumn breezes on straw mats in large, open-sided lodges until they shrivel to a raisin-like composition. The process, which takes roughly 120 days, results in 40-50 percent less juice but the grapes have a higher concentration of flavors and more sugar. The sugar is vinified to make a dry wine, although with alcohol levels of 15 percent or more. Higher concentration also means deeper color, body, and balanced tannins and acidity. The flavors are ripe and raisin-like, but complemented by soft tannins and length.
Amarone was given DOC status in 1990 and then promoted to the highest category of DOCG in 2009. The designation came with elevated standards, which in turn resulted in a higher quality of wine. Although several grape varieties are allowed, the majority of the wine is made from corvina. Other grape varieties include corvinone, rondinella, and molinara.
With less water in the dried grapes, fermentation is retarded. The process of turning sugar to alcohol can take as long as 50 days, and that increases the risk of volatile acidity. Alas, some of these mouth-puckering wines make it to market, which makes quality inconsistent.
Following fermentation, amarones are aged in French or Slovenian barriques for as long as three years.
The process used for these wines is generally called “ripasso,” but the ripasso that includes amarone pomace is often made in the spring following harvest and is much more tannic than amarone.
Alas, amarone’s labor-intensive and lengthy process drives prices beyond $50 a bottle. However, ripasso – often called “baby amarone” – can be found for $20. Although medium in body, the leftover grape skins of the amarones give ripasso big fruit flavors. While amarone is a special-occasion wine to serve with beef or wild game, ripasso is delightful with tomato-sauced pasta, pizza, and grilled meats.
Here are several amarones and other wines from this region we recommend:
Masi Riserva di Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva 2011 ($50). A cru version of Masi’s Costasera, this huge blend is composed of corvina, rondinella, oseleta, and moliara grapes. It has generous aromas of plums and roasted coffee beans and soft, elegant, cherry flavors. This wine can age for several decades but is enjoyable now.
Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2013 ($40). A blend of corvina, corvinone, rondeilla and oseleta, this wine made in a challenging vintage shows good balance of acidity and tannin. Effusive aromas of spice, licorice, and black pepper and intense, defined cherry and plum flavors.
Tenuta Sant’Antonio Amarone della Valpolicella ”Selezione Antonio Castagnedi” 2015 ($45). Ripe cherry and strawberry notes with a spicy aroma and hints of chocolate. Elegant in style, it is aged two years in new French oak. The grapes consist of corvina (70 percent), rondinella, croatina and oseleta.
Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella 2008 ($99). The additional bottle age of this wine gives lucky consumers a hint of what time does to amarone. Mature, rich, red fruit flavors with hints of mocha and hazelnuts.
Zenato Amarone della Valpolicella 2013 ($63). Generous herbal and mineral aromas, medium body and ripe red fruit flavors with a dash of spice.
Tenuta Sant’Antonio Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore “Monti Garbi” DOC 2015 ($20). Red fruit flavors with a bit of residual sugar, medium body and soft on the palate. Delicious.
Tenuta Sant’Antonio Valpolicella Superiore “Nanfre” DOC 2016 ($14). Simple in design and medium in body, this is an easy drink to enjoy with light fare. Fragrant with cherry flavors and light tannins.
Are you planning a Halloween party for adult friends or just want to reward someone who has spent a lot of time planning one?
Chronic Cellars’ labels are aptly scary for Halloween. Each is distinctively garbed with a skeleton and cleverly titled. We liked Purple Paradise ($16), a jolly good zinfandel blend, and Sofa King Bueno, a more motley blend of syrah, grenache, petite sirah, mourvedre, and tannat. The masterminds behind this Paso Robles operation obviously know how to have fun and still make decent wine.
You might like the 2016 Velvet Devil Merlot ($13), a delicious and slightly sweet red wine, or you can howl at the moon with Luna Vineyards’ 2015 Canto ($75), a super-Tuscan blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot from Atlas Peak.
Cockburn says its special reserve port ($18) is a great match to Twizzlers too.
Dutton Estate Winery Pinot Noir Karmen Isabella 2015 ($46). A wonderfully complex pinot noir from the Russian River Valley that displays cherry and red currant notes with enticing spice. A balance of tart and ripe cherry fruit makes this wine interesting.
Reata Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2016 ($20). You get a lot of bang for your buck with this reasonable priced and rich chardonnay. Apple and oak flavors.
Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2013 ($35). This Italian producer makes a series of great chiantis from estate vineyards. We liked the density and structure of this delicious and multi-layered version. The sangiovese is blended with canaiolo, ciliegiolo, and colorino grapes. For a step up, the 2013 Badia a Coltibuono Montebello Toscana IGT ($60) is even more dense with a long finish and age-worthy tannins.