First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 2nd November, 2019.
Amarone has a reputation as the big bad boy of the wine world – rich, powerful and alcoholic, a wine without subtlety or elegance. It is hugely popular in Scandinavia, Germany and the US where those warming qualities are appreciated on freezing winter nights. But while Amarone is certainly big, it doesn’t have to be a clumsy brute.
On a recent trip to the Veneto with O’Briens , I saw the start of the Amarone process with two of their producers, Guerrieri-Rizzardi and Musella. Bunches of grapes were being laid out on trays to slowly dry and raisin for up to three months, before being fermented into wine.
It seems logical that grapes destined for Amarone would be picked late; in fact, the opposite is the case, as young healthy grapes with good acidity make for better Amarone, according to winemaker Giuseppe Rizzardi. “You want ripe grapes, but not over-ripe; we pick earlier than for Valpolicella and Ripasso – looser bunches are better for drying too”.
Traditionally the grapes were dried in cellars in the hills above the autumn fog line, thereby avoiding botrytis. These days it is a more technical affair with the use of temperature and humidity control, although at both Guerrieri-Rizzardi and Musella the drying or appassimento is done naturally with open doors and a machine to circulate air.
Amarone can only be produced in the Valpolicella region and must be made from grapes that have been dried until at least December 1st, and then fermented to a minimum of 14 per cent alcohol. In practice, most producers dry them for a longer period, and ferment to 15 per cent or more. The finished wine must be aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels, four for a Riserva.
Traditionally Amarone was seen as a vino da meditazione, a meditation wine to be enjoyed after a meal, with some aged Parmesan and a few crackers. Sandro Boscaini of Masi once told me that he liked his Amarone with aged Parmesan and a dribble of acacia honey.
Rizzardi argued his Amarone is more flexible than this. “The concept of drinkability is important. Ours is a wine to drink with ox cheeks, wild boar, or venison.”
It also pairs well with all sorts of substantial winter fare; ribs, beef stews, game and risotto – risotto all ’ Amarone of course, robust meaty pasta dishes and blue cheeses such as Gorgonzola. As it is high in alcohol, you simply drink less.
I tasted my way through 14 Amarone, including most of best-known brands and supermarket wines. The appassimento process means far less wine is produced, so the wines are rarely cheap. Inexpensive Amarone tends be oaky and sweet and generally is best avoided.
Amarone della Valpolicella Alpha-Zeta 2016 (main image)
An attractive, livelier more youthful style of Amarone with clean fresh damson and dark cherry fruits, along with hints of spice. Drink it with substantial red meat dishes.
Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, jusdevine.ie; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; The Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; 1601 Off-licence, Kinsale; Ely 64, Glasthule, Ely64.com; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3 clontarfwines.ie; Thomas’s of Foxrock, thomasoffoxrock.ie; Drinkstore, D7, drinkstore.ie; Dwan’s Off-licence, D16; McHughs, Dublin 5, mchughs.ie; Wineonline.ie
Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2011, Guerrieri-Rizzardi
Voluptuous expansive dark chocolate and ripe plum fruits; smooth, complex and long; a very stylish wine. A glass after dinner with cheese.
From: O’Briens, obrienswine.ie
Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva 2011 Musella (biodynamic)
Developed forward slightly herbal soft fruits on the nose, enticing pure dark fruits, balanced and very elegant with lovely grip and length.
From: O’Briens, obrienswine.ie
Amarone della Valpolicella Rosson 2011
A magnificent wine with layer after layer of developed brooding complex raisined dark fruits and figs, and a finish that goes on forever. A true vino da meditazione.