In January 2012 I visited the Valpolicella-producing areas of the Veneto, with a particular focus on Amarone. It’s a lovely part of the world, with a lot of history.
Sixteenth century Venice, devastated by the Black Death and challenged by other sea-faring nations, nonetheless remained Europe’s preeminent vinous emporium, exporting and importing wines to and from all over the Mediterranean. Frequent wars with the Ottoman Empire caused supplies from the east (Greece and Cyprus) to be blockaded, which led the Venetians to develop vineyards in the hills around Verona. Inspired by the Greek example, strong red wine from half-dried grapes was made in Bardolino, Soave and Valpolicella.
By the nineteenth century this “Rosso Austero Costa Calda” (“austere red hot coast”), as it was referred to in Paris in an 1845 auction catalogue, was considered to be the “Supreme Wine of Italy … better than other Bordeaux and Hermitage.”
The wine’s name, meaning “big bitter”, was apparently invented in 1936 by Adelino Lucchese, winemaker at the Cantina Sociale Valpolicella, when he declared said of a serendipitously dry Recioto wine, “Questo non è un Amaro, è un Amarone” (“This is not a bitter wine, it is a big bitter wine”).
The Soave-based Bolla family claims to have been the first to market Amarone under that name. To commemorate the 80th birthday of Alberto Bolla on 13th April 1953, an Amarone Riserva del Nonno 1950 was bottled. This led to subsequent vintages being bottled and marketed as Amarone.
Alike in dignity
The Valpolicella DOC stretches 20 miles or so from the Adige river northwest of Verona to Soave in the east. The westernmost quarter is Valpolicella Classico, the longest-established and supposedly best area for this wine.
Valpolicella Valpantena is sandwiched in the middle before the basic Valpolicella area in the east, which was created as DOC in 1968 to exploit the moneymaking potential of the Valpolicella name. The soils are mostly the same as Classico – tufaceous and calcareous – but the mesoclimate is less affected by Lake Garda, the breezes of which temper the climate.
Classico is unofficially – though certainly topographically – divided into five valleys. Fumane to the northwest of Verona is a cool part of Classico, influenced by its close proximity to Garda. The Lessini Mountains sway the communes of Negrar and San Pietro in Cariano more than Garda. The Valpantena Valley is sandwiched between Lake Garda, the Alps and Verona and therefore has plenty of air circulation. The Valli Orientali (Eastern Valleys) have altitudes varying from 300 to 500 metres. As is often the case elsewhere, the better wines of Valpolicella come from hillside vineyards rather than from the plains, where the soils are more alluvial.
Three Gentlemen of Verona
In his Carmina No. 27, the Latin poet Catullus mentioned “calices amariores” (“bitter glasses”) in a lengthy passage on “the wine called Acinaticum, which takes its name from the acino berry…”
Catullus described how Acinaticum was made: “The grapes are selected from vines on locally managed pergolas, they are hung upside down, and they are stored in their amphorae, the regular vessels used. With time the grapes become hard but do not turn into liquid. They sweat out their insipid fluid and become delicately sweet. This continues until December when the winter begins to make their juice run, and, wondrously, the wine becomes new even as you find wine already mature in all the other cellars. The winter must – the cold blood of the grapes, the bloody fluid – (becomes) potable crimson, violet nectar. It stops boiling in its youth and when it is able to become an adult, it once again becomes new wine.” More than 2,000 years later, this is more or less how Amarone is made today.
Valpolicella is unique among wine regions of the world for having several styles possible from the same grapes and vineyards. First, Valpolicella “normale” is made as a standard red table wine from Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes.
Two wines are possible from a process that involves drying grapes on mats or shelves in special lodges called “fruttaia”. The drying process causes the grapes to lose water and thereby increase their (relative) sugar content. If there is some sugar left after fermentation, the wine is a Recioto. If fermented to dryness and retaining at least 14% alcohol the wine is Amarone. Grapes for these wines tend to be a selection of the best, which does not necessarily say much for the quality of the “normale” wine.
Over the last decade production of Ripasso and Amarone has increased while the production of Valpolicella has decreased. Between 2000 and 2003 production of Amarone doubled. By 2006 one-third of all Valpolicella grapes were being used to make this most expensive of Veronese wines.
A third (or fourth?) Valpolicella wine is “Ripasso”, which involves pumping the “normale” wine over the lees of the Recioto to cause a minor refermentation. Masi first marketed this Ripasso style in the 1980s.
Big and bitter
Amarone is an expensive and painstaking wine to make. Grapes are selected and transported to the winery in single layers; they are dried and must be carefully monitored to prevent rot (which affects colour and acidity); the dried grapes yield only about half of what they would otherwise give; and the wine is aged for a significant period before release.
Historically Amarone was an oxidative and often volatile wine whose main attraction was its richness of flavour. Modern wines are much fresher and better counterpoise the forceful acidity, alcohol and bitterness that so characterise Amarone.
Styles and quality vary tremendously – this is Italy, after all. In March 2012, 12 family-owned estates (Allegrini, Begali, Brigaldara, Masi, Musella, Nicolis, Speri, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Tommasi, Venturini and Zenato) grouped together to found the “Familia dell’Amarone” (Amarone Family) organisation.
The “Amarone d’Arte Manifesto” of the Familia states that Amarone is “now threatened by overproduction, without regard for those areas which are most suitable for the production of Amarone, and using only the minimum production standards set out in the official regulations, with a consequent decrease in quality. It has recently been subjected to sales strategies from large scale distribution channels (that) squeeze prices and force producers to sacrifice quality.”
The families’ response is “artisanal dedication… the exclusive use of the best positioned vineyards, superior viticultural techniques, precise bunch selection during harvesting, prolonged drying periods (“appassimento”) for the grapes, and ageing in high quality barrels. Amarone d’Arte is a wine of great value. Its quality is recognized in both the price it commands and its prestigious image on international markets.”
The older wines tasted were often profound but, on the whole, as the Colonel says in Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees, “I believe that the Valpolicella is better when it is newer.”