A look at traditional and modern styles of Amarone
A quest through the rolling, pastoral zone that is The Valley of Many Cellars (the val-poli-cella) offers sweeping views of small fiefdoms dotting the landscape. Nestled in the hills, the almost two hundred feudal properties border each other on all sides, their battlefields now vineyards, their conquests recognition for and sales of their wares. Each kingdom has its lore, a romantic yarn spinning human history, technique, and wisdom passed down from yesteryear. Today’s citizens carry out farming and production tasks that occupy the space between Mother Nature’s will and the end consumers’ wants.
If Cabernet Sauvignon to the west is the king of wine, and Riesling to the north the Prima Ballerina, then the local Amarone has to be the club-wielding Giant. Not born, but made from mortal grapes through the alchemy of concentration and conversion, the magic process imbues tremendous power and size, but can also amplify imperfections and asymmetry. Giants can be ugly, overweight and simple, but so too can they be dashing, powerful and complex. Thus the raw material must be perfect and the spell must be correct.
Amarone, ‘the great bitter’, rode into North America after WWII on the coattails of its minstrel Valpolicella. Once Valpolicella charmed its audience with a sprightly, easy melody from the corvina, rondinella and molinara grape varieties, Amarone emerged with its sonorous baseline and seductive seriousness. The grapes and vineyard sources are the same. But where Valpolicella is fermented dry from freshly harvested grapes, Amarone uses those same grapes left to dry. The desiccation concentrates sugars to give more body, increases the aromatic spectrum, and then amplifies that spectrum. If the fruit isn’t pretty, we see it more clearly, and the road to completion is fraught with the danger of rot.
Originally christened Recioto della Valpolicella, the grapes came from the orecchie, or ‘ears’ of the bunches as they saw more sun, were more raisined and therefore sweeter. The resultant wine retained some sweetness, for when the alcohol levels reached around 14%, unfermented sugars remained in the finished wine. And when a vat was forgotten and the wine continued to ferment, the massive alcohol levels left a bitter flavour, which lead to the name Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone. Today it is properly Amarone della Valpolicella, colloquially ‘Amarone’.
Like the wine or not, Amarone manages to enchant, or at least interest, everyone. Having found a ready audience in North America, one could argue that Amarone, despite its Old World genesis, was among the original New World wine styles. When we stylistically define New World, we talk of richer wines with softer tannins, lower acidity and bigger fruit.
Amarone? Check. Check. Check, and check. Yet its magic lies in its ability to occupy both realms simultaneously, for despite its New World appeal, acidity should remain ample enough to prevent booziness, and the big fruit should maintain some of the Old World attributes of leather, raisin and prune, herb, flowers, game and earth.
Which brings us to the purpose of our quest: what’s good, and why?
What you like will depend on your bent toward traditional or modern styles. The traditional wines offer earthier, more leathery aromas and acid structure that make for a feast-friendly food wine. Venison, wild boar, and pheasant with risotto are perfect partners. Modern styles shows darker, more polished fruit and a heavier body that works as a sipping wine, or with post-banquet hard cheeses.
Farina 2009 Amarone
Another outstanding value charmer, the Farina shows complex plum and raisin, dusty earth and crushed flower petals. Fine tannins offer some intrigue. $45
Brigaldera 2008 Amarone
Pound for pound, the finest expression on the market. After an hour in the glass, the counterpoint of dark fruit and dried cherry allows the aniseed, dried herb, leather and game meat to seduce us. The texture is firm with fresh acidity keeping the 17% alcohol in easy check, giving the whole the sense that this giant makes a perfect dance partner to the Prima Ballerina. $65
Masi 2008 Costasera
Easily the biggest name in Amarone, the Masi is our first step from the earthier versions toward modern polish. Retaining some rusticity, it does not attempt the enormous weight of some of its more modern counterparts, but rather balances some expressive fruit and earthiness with rich yet firm texture. $45
Among the icons, Zenato makes a distinctly polished, approachable style. Ripe plum and sultana let a little game meat and licorice emerge. Entirely soft textured, its richness is impressive and endlessly pleasing. $50