December 27th, 2018/ BY Tim Pawsey

The overpowering nature of Amarone

In Verona, there’s one unmistakable, overpowering feature that stands out. At the city’s heart — in every sense — is the remarkably well preserved Roman amphitheatre, constructed two millennia ago, circa 30 AD. Badly damaged by a 12th-century earthquake and partially restored in more recent times, it’s still in use today, a breathtakingly impressive venue for opera and concerts. It is indeed omnipresent, spectacular by day but even more so at night when it’s floodlit — a potent reminder that history rules.

It seems only fitting then that the major annual tasting of Amarone should take place right across from the Arena in the imposing Palazzo della Gran Guardia. This year, the Consorzio per la Tutela dei Vini Valpolicella staged a preview of the 2013 vintage, with some 83 wineries in attendance.

Although 2013 got off to a rocky start, due to moisture early in the season, ripening conditions were ideal, ultimately yielding a good vintage that has produced wines of sound quality that define their terroir well. There was no shortage of impressive wines on offer, although they won’t be released for some time yet.

It’s really only in recent years that Amarone has risen to prominence and come to enjoy such recognition. Today this wine accounts for about one third of the region’s wine revenues and its production has increased fivefold in the last 20 years.
In retrospect, my exploration of this style might have started in a shower. Specifically, in an Italian shower, which boasted several components — from the telephone head with pulsating options to full body sprays and even a foot bath — all of which provided a potent reminder of precisely how Italians are masters of concept and the art of design. My point is that, as with many things Italian, when it comes to grapes and their ultimate fate, there is arguably no wine anywhere so carefully conceived, designed and executed as Amarone, the Veneto’s standard bearer.

As the saying goes, great wine is made in the vineyard. No argument there. But great wine, as we know, is also made by people, in wine cellars, using techniques firmly grounded in tradition and, even in today’s less-interventionist era, often still with a degree of manipulation and sophistication.

It wasn’t always thus. Ironically, Amarone della Valpolicella was first made by mistake. A mere accident of birth, this driest of red wines was first uncovered in a long-forgotten tank of Recioto. It came to light only in 1938, in an undistinguished, dark corner of a Valpolicella cooperative, on which the region’s wine industry at the time was firmly based. Through arrested fermentation, Recioto has always been made as a sweet wine. But the forgotten contents of the elusive tank in question had continued to ferment the sugars into alcohol. The fully fermented (and now high-alcohol) wine turned out to be far drier, more intense and much stronger — all of which proved promising for the long run.

While Recioto, made also from dried grapes, is sweet by design, the contrasting drier style may have seemed bitter — amaro — by comparison. Hence Amarone, or the Great Bitter One, seemed to be the perfect handle. Today, the co-op in question, Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, has been transformed into one of the region’s leaders, with state-of-the-art, immense computer-controlled drying rooms — and, yes, a display of original bottles commemorating the occasion.

Farina Claudio
Claudio Farina
Ca La Bionda
Ca La Bionda's Pietro Castellani and sons, winemaker Alessandro and viticulturist Nicola


The practice of drying grapes in the Veneto can be traced to Roman times, with accounts dating from the 2nd century AD, when bunches were laid out on straw mats, giving rise to the commonly used term straw wine. Earlier drying examples from Grecian cultures have been traced as far back as 899 BC. While wine regions around the world may employ similar techniques, nowhere is the practice so widely established and fine-tuned as in the Veneto. Drying varieties like Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and others is engrained in the region’s psyche. And has been for generations.

Winemakers also like to make the point that by picking directly into baskets that go directly to the drying rooms, the grapes are handled more gently. And when they do ultimately arrive at the crusher (months later), they are in better shape. Not only that, but winegrowers have developed techniques and ideas that often converge — where almost every aspect of the fruit, from skins to dried fruit, is ingeniously used to enhance differing styles. Case in point, the pressings from Amarone are put to good use for the production of Valpolicella Ripasso.

Not only is it just the passito method that sets Valpolicella apart, but also the varieties grown here are all indigenous and have rarely been exported, which offers yet one more potent argument as to why almost all of the wines in this region, truly, are unique. A tour of Valpolicella and specifically of Amarone producers unearths a passion that — even in the already driven sphere of winemaking — is rarely found elsewhere.

While grapes for Recioto come primarily from lower valley sites, those destined for Amarone —namely Corvina and Corvinone, as well as Rondinella and Spigamonte — come from higher plantings, often ranging from between 200 and 500 metres.

“You need to be able to say ‘no’ to Amarone in a bad vintage.”

These grape varieties are ideally suited to drying since their sensory qualities (including aromatics and flavours) are considerably enhanced by a drying process that can extend up to four months or more. In terms of weight retention during drying, Corvina vastly outperforms a variety such as Syrah, and even Cabernet and Merlot.

Even so, the Corvina grapes will still lose around 25 percent of their weight in the first two months — and more as time goes on. At the end of the day, Corvina and Corvinone have long proven to be drying stars. Of particular importance, the incidence of rot (the mortal enemy of successful drying) is low to non-existent in higher altitude, usually DOCG, sites. After drying, the grapes are tank-fermented before being aged in (usually) large oak barriques.

Organic farming and sustainable farming are increasingly taking hold. There exists a growing awareness of the need to be wary of monocultures and to embrace balanced practices.

A recently introduced “RRR” (Reduce, Respect, Retrench) certification is granted based to wineries that adopt innovative techniques in the vineyard and in protecting the landscape. The consortium hopes that two out of three wineries will be certified in the next couple of years.

At Ca’la Bionda (established in 1902), the Castellani family grows olives as well as grapes and also raises a strain of sheep indigenous to the region. Fifth-generation brothers Alessandro and Nicola run the cellar and vineyard, respectively.

One of the bigger challenges with which they’ve recently had to contend stems from markedly higher mean summer temperatures, which have moved from 28˚C to hotter spells hitting 32 to 33˚C, as well as increased drought periods. The only solution, explains Alessandro, was to install irrigation, which required a well of 350 metres, as well as a pumping system that could take the water to 300 metres elevation.

An organic program, started in 2000, saw the vineyard certified last year — all part of a plan to focus even more on quality.

“Even though you can always ripen Corvina,” says Alessandro, “You need to be able to say ‘no’ to Amarone in a bad vintage. If the vintage isn’t great, you put the grapes into Ripasso.” This was the case in 2014. He believes the future of the region lies in proper terroir mapping that clearly identifies the better sites; and points to Burgundy (with similarities between Pinot Noir and Corvina) as a proven example.

“A good region needs to have an identity,” he insists. “We have a tradition of food — and we make these wines that are fantastic with food. Of course, it’s easy to sell soft wines … but the market in the future is for more elegant wines.”
A vertical of Ca’la Bionda Amarone Ravazzol (’13, ’11, ’08 and ’05 vintages, made from grapes from 50- to 70-year-old vines in the highest vineyard) graphically underscores Amarone’s potential for aging: the 2005 still shows surprising freshness up front, followed by complex mineral layers and superb balance.

Wild boar is the perfect match for Amarone, says Alessandro. (So too is Norwegian reindeer, he confides). But, at the end of the day, he echoes the opinion of many others.

“Amarone is best enjoyed perhaps with some Parmesan, in the company of a good friend, over a couple of hours.”

Others might beg to differ. One sure-fire match is Amarone risotto (although, at least in Canada, I’m not necessarily inclined to sacrifice a good portion of a $50 bottle to be that authentic). Another great pairing is just about anything made with radicchio (the ubiquitous Veneto staple), including an utterly delicious variation on Austrian strudel. It has just that edge of bitterness that manages to play the amaro in Amarone.

Or is that amore? Perhaps it is.


Albino Armani Amarone Cuslanus 2011 ($70)

Made from the grapes of some of the highest vineyards in Marano, which are dried for at least 90 days and then fermented for another 90 days. Well-defined forward, savoury cherry and spice notes, dark cherry and quince over a streak of mineral and schist. Good acidity, with layers of sweet fruit and well-integrated, approachable tannins.

Cantine Casa Bennati Amarone Classico 2013, Soave ($65)

Forward notes of black fruit, spice and raisin followed by a generous, layered palate underpinned by firm but elegant tannins with an abundance of blackberry notes, cassis and lingering spice in the close.

Ca’ La Bionda Amarone Ravazzol 2008 ($60)

From a clay and limestone vineyard in Marano at 300 metres, this 8-year-old wine from a cooler vintage benefitted from aging in large oak barrels, with a more integrated and rounded profile and intense mineral core, cherry and black fruit, followed by more defined silky tannins before and an elegant, lingering spicy close.

Ca’ La Bionda Amarone Ravazzol 2005 ($65)

Still very fresh on top, especially for a 10-year-old wine. Appealing red and dark cherry and tobacco notes, rounded tannins, excellent balance of fruit and acidity, with intense fruit focus before clove and spicy oak in the finish.

Carlo Boscaini Amarone 2012 ($70)

Made from old vines and aged for 30 months in older oak. Lovely elegant, supple entry shows firm oak tones underneath plush cherry and red currant notes. Elegant, textured mouthfeel plus a core savoury streak that echoes the house style. A powerful but restrained wine with plenty of aging potential.

Ca’ Rugate Amarone 2013 ($60)

From a fourth-generation Soave producer, harvested into traditional wooden boxes. Aromas of blue and red fruit precede a palate of cherry and blueberry notes with elegant structure and layered fruit wrapped in good acidity and firm but approachable tannins before a powerful, lingering spicy finish.

Egle Capilupi Albino Armani winery
Egle Capilupi from Albino Armani winery
Corte Figaretto Amarone Brolo 2013, Valpantena ($50)

Deep ruby red garnet in the glass, hints of ripe red fruit and dried notes up front with generous red berry notes and hints of spice on the palate. Well-structured tannins lie below a clean fruit expression and lingering black pepper notes.

Corte Lonardi Amarone Classico 2013 ($65)

Brooding dark fruit up front, above some earthy notes, before a focused and intense palate of blackberry and anise wrapped in grippy, but still elegant, intense spice and black pepper through to a opulent fruit finish.

Corte Sant’Alda Amarone Valmezzane 2011 ($70)

Made by Marinella Camerani, one of very few women winemakers [in the region?] and an early organic and biodynamic pioneer. Dried in traditional wooden baskets then aged in large French oak for about 4 years. Pure, lifted red and black fruit aromas, an elegant-fruit driven entry with focused minerality, precise texture and generous mouthfeel, and savoury and spice notes through the persistent close.

Domini Veneti Amarone Mater 2010 ($70)

A special, separate project of Cantina Negrar, which owns vineyards in all of Valpolicella’s historic regions. Aromas of spice, dark cherry and earthy notes precede a well-textured, full-bodied palate with a spicy, mineral streak down the middle to a peppery close, wrapped in elegant, supple tannins.

Farina Amarone Riserva 2012 ($60)

Made from 50% Corvina, plus Corvinone, Rondinella, Molinara, Oseleta and Turchetta. Aged mainly in Slovenian oak barrels and barriques. Red and black fruit up front precede vanilla notes and layers of firm, toasted oak on a mouth-filling palate solidly supported by firm tannins with spice and dry tannins in the close.

Fidora Amarone Monte Tabor 2010 ($60)

From one of the region’s very first (since 1974) organic growers. Dark cherry, plum, spice and earthy notes up front, followed by a palate that’s still quite youthful but truly well integrated, with the freshness and acidity playing off vibrant plum and red fruit through the finish. Certified organic.

La Giuva 2013 ($40)

From high-altitude plantings in Val Squaranto between Valpantena and Mezzane valleys. On the nose, clove, spice and black cherry before a palate of mulberry and cherry with a generously textured palate layered with cassis notes and pepper spice before a lengthy end.

Tedeschi Amarone 2013 ($48)

From the winery’s “consumer-friendly” range, from younger vines. Fresh, bright red fruit, such as mulberry, with some darker notes in the background. Even, well-textured mouthfeel with vibrant black fruit and over a herbal, savoury streak through the dry finish.

Tedeschi La Fabriseria Amarone Classico 2011 ($45)

Opens to spice and earthy notes, lifted raisin and red berry notes, with a wild fruit edge, still firm, well integrated tannins tempered with juicy acidity balanced by freshness and underpinned by a mineral undertone, with a definite raisin personality on the close. A classic union of balance, freshness and power.

Tedeschi Amarone Classico Riserva Monte Olmi 2011 ($85)

Bursting with cassis, spice and black fruit on the nose before a palate defined by powerful but focused elegance, juicy acidity, anise and raisin notes, chalky tannins with layers of black fruit and pepper in the finish.

Marco Mosconi Amarone 2012 ($60)

From one of the region’s dynamic up-and-comers. Still very youthful, made from 40-year-old vines. Forward dried berry fruits followed by a generous streak of juicy acidity and spicy notes with a little herbal edge. Well balanced: almost over-the-top 16.8% alcohol shows a little on the close but holds well in check.

Monte del Fra Amarone Classico Tenuta Lena di Mezzo 2011 ($45)

From 55-year-old vines. Aromas of black cherry, pepper and anise precede a full-bodied, complex palate with layers of black fruit and spice wrapped in structured tannins with some earthy undertones before a lengthy finish.

Recchia Amarone di Jago Classico 2013 ($45)

Lifted red berries on the nose before a plush cherry and raspberry–toned palate defined by pure fruit and elegant layers wrapped in juicy acidity with a touch of savoury herbal notes. Medium bodied and balanced, with spice and assertive minerality that builds through the peppery finish.

Rocca Sveva Amarone Riserva 2011 ($80)

The flagship label of Cantina di Soave, aged in large barriques for at least 24 months. Sweet fruit with black cherry and vanilla on the nose, followed by a plush and plummy palate in a more modern style. Easy tannins, with hints of balsamic and glycerol on the finish.

San Cassiano Amarone Riserva 2012 ($75)

From a high-altitude plating in Monte Guala. Expressive, lifted cherry and floral violet notes precede a palate underpinned by good structure and bright acidity, with a juiciness that persists throughout the blue fruit and blackberry/mocha-toned palate. Underpinned by firm tannins and assertive oak; needs time but is full of promise.



Comments are closed.