Thursday, October 2, 2008


One of our servers asked me last evening about Amarone (technically Amarone della Valpolicella Classico). It's a wine that we have on our list, yet one that nobody buys, probably because they aren't familiar with it. But I cannot imagine a wine list of any stature that does not contain an Amarone, merely because of its uniqueness.

Amarone is, like the Prosecco that I discussed back in May, from the Veneto in Italy, from the area around Verona. The typical Amarone is made primarily from three grapes indigenous to the Veneto, three little known grapes of which Corvina Veronese is the principal, with lesser amounts of Rondinella and Molinara. Other grapes may appear in minuscule amounts.

What sets Amarone apart in the wine world is that it is a dry red wine made from partially dried grapes. Granted that there are vins de paille in France and even vin santo in Italy that use the same method, but these are mostly sweet white wines.

Actually, Amarone is one member of a family of wines from the Veneto. If the grapes are pressed straight away and fermented, they become Valpolicella, a mostly unremarkable, but popular wine. If the grapes are dried, on average of four months, then pressed and fermented, the wine can go two directions. If the fermentation is stopped early (or gets stuck), it yields a sweet red wine called Recioto della Valpolicella. If the fermentation continues until the fermentable sugars are consumed, the wine becomes Amarone.

There's also a hybrid wine called Valpolicella Ripasso, which is made by mixing Valpolicella with the lees (what is left in the barrel after the wine is racked off) of a Recioto or Amarone. This causes a second fermentation (the ripasso) and yields a more complex wine than Valpolicella.

But back to Amarone. In typical fashion, the grapes are harvested about mid-October in the Veneto and the best bunches are selected for Amarone (the remaining grapes go into Valpolicella). Traditionally Amarone was made vin de paille-style by drying the grapes on straw mats. Technology now lets the winemakers dry the grapes under more controlled conditions. Still, it takes about four months for the grapes to dry to the point where they lose 35-45% of their water.

Drying does a few things. First, it increases the volume of fermentable sugars in the grape as the water evaporates, yielding a wine with a very high alcohol potential. Also, the acid level drops, the tannins mellow, and the color deepens because of the long skin contact with the juice in the grapes.

At about mid-February, the grapes are pressed and fermented. Given the cool temperatures, the fermentation is low and slow. The result is a very big wine with deep ruby color, high alcohol (I'd say 15.5% is about average), and not much acid. Each Amarone differs in flavor components, but black cherry forms the background. Drying provides some raisiny flavors. In really good Amarone, I detect chocolate notes, as in chocolate-covered raisins.

Now, what to pair with Amarone? I belong to the school that says if the wine has too much alcohol or not enough acid, it wants to stand on its own. Personally, I like Amarone after dinner with a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano (nothing new here; this is the classic textbook pairing) or even with chocolate-dipped figs.

If I were going to pair it, I would want a dark meat to stand up to the Amarone's weight, say roasted venison chops with a wild cherry compote to echo the background cherry notes in the wine. And I would bring missing acid to the dish by means of a vinegar (probably balsamic) in the cherry compote.

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