Savor Serendipity


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While Amarone grapes are harvested at peak ripeness, special attention and care in aging gives this unusual wine transforming, tastefully rich quality (photo courtesy Nicolas Emery).

How many good things actually come about through happenstance? was it a chance meeting where you met your partner? Did you win the lottery by picking the correct numbers? No one knows exactly who invented winemaking. By all accounts, it came about naturally, and perhaps by accident. The same can be said about a particularly special wine from the Veneto, Italy. It is a wine that is quite recent in popularity but whose devotees are innumerable. This especially rich and decadent red wine is Amarone.

Its proper name is Amarone della Valpolicella, and hails from the same area as its lighter, more prolific and less-expensive sibling Valpolicella. This hilly region surrounds the beautiful, historic city of Verona. The grapes are much the same, but Amarone concentrates on corvina and corvinone with rondinella, making up the lesser balance. But it is not a simply made wine; no in fact, there is special labor involved in its creation.

As the legend goes, part of a harvest was left untended in a corner of a winery, with the grapes drying for an unknown period of time. Upon discovering the batch, the winemaker, ever the resourceful and positive fellow, decided to press it and make wine from these shriveled, desiccated grapes. What resulted was something no one had foreseen or tasted before. Originally called Recioto Amaro, meaning “dried bitter,”which denoted the style of the wine, it morphed into Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone. Today, it is simply Amarone della Valpolicella.

Modern Amarone producers take exceptional care with no chance involved. The grapes are harvested at peak ripeness; then, the wine is left to dry on straw mats in the attic or a specific room of a winery over the course of 30 to 90 days, during which they lose water and concentrate all components in the grape. In ambient conditions, traditional-ists rely on the prevailing weather of the Veneto, but more exacting producers have constructed climate- and humidity-controlled rooms to regulate each aspect of the grapes-transformation.

Studies have found that the drying process, also known as appassimento, increases the sugar concentration, but not the acidity. It also softens the tannin in grape skins, so that the otherwise harsh tannin associated with dried red grapes is alleviated. Amarone producers do everything possible to avoid mold, especially botrytis, which degrades the color of the skins and possibly can destroy and entire harvest. The resulting wine is dry but exceedingly rich and tactile—voluptuous even—and can be some of the most long-lived red wines in the world. However, the best producers are quick to add that the most important process in making Amarone is growing the grapes. For the final wine can only be as great as its base.

Stylistically, Amarone can range from the very modern, deeply colored and clean version to a spicier, leather-laden, less pigmented and savory one. But all Amarone are robust and full-bodied. Top-tier Amarone is easier to find these days, with excellent examples from Bertani, Le Salette, Speri, Allegrini and Bussola. But no conversation of Amarone would pass without mention of the “Maestro” Guiseppe Quintarelli whose wines have been considered the reference standard by which all others are judged. Sadly, he died in 2012, but winemaking fell into the hands of his very capable grandson, Francesco Grigoli.

Quintarelli is an intimate wine. These come about through the combination of meticulous vine growing with traditional, yet precise methods in the cellar. The Amarone is produced only in great vintages, and they are aged longer in the cellar than almost any other estate (until the family deems them ready for the world to consume). Their current release is the 2004, which is absolutely stunning. It has a wildly exotic nose of stewed and fresh plums, dried roses, leather, cardamom tea, cassis and wild cherries. It is expansive on the palate, replete with crushed berries, candied spices and a warm, inviting aftertaste that sends an extra note of flowers back through your palate. The wine exhibits power of the style, but also complexity and refinement that only the best can claim.

In the same league of quality, but on a different spectrum of flavor, are the Amarone from Romano Dal Forno. Dal Forno’s wines are about power and extract. They are also opaque in color and are arguably not completely bone dry. The 2008 is explosive with cured and preserved black and red fruits along with an almost clove-like smokiness.

In the palate it has a strong, prune-like wave of fruit with gargantuan extract levels. The tannin is extremely polished, and it carries its high alcohol level well. This is no wimpy wine. In fact, it might be over the top for some who appreciate more elegant styles of wine, but it is no wilting flower and not shy to show its masculinity.

Amarone may be the product of an accident, serendipitous as it was for those of us who enjoy this glorious, red liquid elixir. Once you try a great example, there is no chance you will ever forget it.

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