AMARONE DELLA VALPOLICELLA DOCG, Italy’s most famous dry, dried grape wine is a full-bodied red with soft tannins (Sturniolo) made within in the Valpolicella region, located around the city of Verona in the Veneto region of north-east Italy. Amarone was awarded its DOCG in 2005. 

THE NAME | Amarone means ‘the big dry-tasting one’, from the Italian ‘amaro’ which translates as ‘bitter’ but in this context signifies ‘dry’ (Sturniolo), whilst the suffix ‘one’ means ‘big’ in Italian.

THE TASTE | Though dry, Amarone’s great concentration gives an impression of bitter sweet fruit, and the high alcohol level is masked by a range of flavours: musty, chestnut, mossy (David Gleave, 1989, p62). Amarone’s depth means the Veronese consider it a ‘vino da meditazione’. Amarone’s renown is recent, having been produced in commercial quantities only since the 1950s (Walter Speller 2015, p20). It became a Denominazione d’origine controllata or DOC in 1968.

THE AMARONE BLEND

‘Historically Amarone was produced from some of the same grape varieties and in the same production zone as Valpolicella, with the same distinction between the classical zone, where Amarone Classico is produced, and an enlarged zone where simple Amarone is produced. Amarone applied for DOCG status in February 2005 to ensure that it is made solely from Corvina and Corvinone, which together can comprise between 40 and 80 per cent of the blend, together with 5–30 per cent of the lesser Rondinella,’ (Daniel Thomases and David Gleave MW, 2006, p19).

Amarone is now made from the same blend as Valpolicella, namely 45–95% Corvina, 5–50% Rondinella, 0-50% Corvinone (rather than Corvina) and 0-15% of any red grape variety authorized in Verona province. 

AMARONE’S ACCIDENTAL CREATION

Andrea Sturniolo says the sweet recioto red wines of the zone pre-date the amarone style which arrived ‘first by mistake, then intentionally. The first bottle of Amarone deliberately produced dates from 1953, deliberately meaning the winemaker intended to let the yeast complete the alcoholic fermentation. Reciotos which were ‘all fermented out’ to dryness had been considered accidents caused by forgetful winemaking, and were likely ‘to bring shame on your family and ruin your reputation’, and were called Recioto Amaro until 1936, when Adelino Lucchese, cellar master at the Cantina Sociale della Valpolicella, tasting the wine from a forgotten cask and finding it particularly good, exclaimed “Questo non è un Amaro, questo è un Amarone!” (This is not a dry Recioto, this is a great dry Recioto!”). Gaetano Dall’Ora, the director of the consorzio at the time, immediately employed the term on labels. The rest is history, albeit a pretty recent one.’

‘Strictly speaking,’ says Walter Speller (2015, p20) ‘Amarone is a recioto scapata, literally a recioto that has escaped and fermented to full dryness when the intention was to produce a sweet wine. The yeast, already struggling with the high sugar content in the must, would normally stop working because of rising alcohol levels, and before all the sugar had been converted. Stylistically, Recioto della Valpolicella and Amarone are similar, but the latter must be dry with no more than 12 g/l residual sugar and at least 14% alcohol (but often more). The pleasant, bitter (amaro) aftertaste explains its name. Amarone is a style and its name must be followed by ‘della Valpolicella’ on the label.’ 

VINEYARD AREA & PRODUCTION ZONE

The three main production areas in Valpolicella cover 240 square miles and comprise the Classico zone in the west, the ‘enlarged’ eastern sector, and the Valpentana area. ‘Proposals to restrict Amarone’s production to hillside sites, and/or reducing production on the plains, have not come to fruition. Producers are allowed to transform up to 70% of their total grape production into Amarone, regardless of the quality or provenance of the grapes within the dramatically extended Valpolicella zone,’ (Walter Speller 2015, p20). However, Amarone accounts for only a small percentage of Valpolicella Classico and Valpolicella Classico Superiore production, despite international success from the 1990s onwards which has seen production of Amarone rise significantly.

1950s ‘Amarone has been produced in commercial quantities only since the 1950s,’ (Walter Speller 2015, p20). 

1980s ‘From the 1980s it has been a roaring success, especially in Scandinavia, Germany, and the United States,’ (Walter Speller 2015, p20). 

1990 ‘In 1990, Amarone comprised 46,500 hl/1.23 million gal or 8% of total Valpolicella production,’ (Daniel Thomases & David Gleave, 2006, p19).

1994 40,000 quintals of grapes were dried for Amarone in 1994 (Franco Ziliani, 2005). 

1997 Around 1.5 million bottles of Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella were produced in 1997 (Franco Ziliani, 2010). 

*1998 88,000 quintals of grapes were dried for Amarone in 1998 (Franco Ziliani, 2005).

2000 The total Valpolicella vineyard area in 2000 was 5,719 ha/14,125 acres (Walter Speller 2015, p20). In 2000 11.7 million kilos of grapes were dried for Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella (Franco Ziliani, 2010). In 2000, 3.3 million bottles of Amarone were produced in 2000 (Franco Ziliani, 2005). 

2001 Franco Ziliani (2005), speaking of the 2001 vintage, says ‘the Amarone that one runs into all too often today is designed for tasting rather than for drinking and is so over the top that it approaches the paradoxical. Here is a wine that has been given so much new oak – for which, read French barriques – often outrageously toasted, and is so concentrated, often with the assistance of grapes entirely foreign to Valpolicella – namely Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah – that it has been turned into something else altogether. It is completely different from to wine that only a decade ago was held to be truly iconic, the expression of a small-farm way of life, exquisitely local.’ Ziliani also cites excess alcohol, ‘high residual sugars (the consequence of overlengthy drying regimes) that make Amarone dangerously close to Recioto).

2002 The average grape price for Amarone hit a record high of €2.30 per kilo  (Franco Ziliani, 2005). 4.5 million bottles of Amarone were produced in 2002 (Franco Ziliani, 2005).

2003 In 2003 16.2 million kilos [162,000 quintals] of grapes were dried for Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella (Franco Ziliani, 2010). 6 million bottles of Amarone were produced in 2000 (Franco Ziliani, 2005).

2004 The average grape price for Amarone had slumped from the record high of 2002 to €1.40 per kilo – a 40 per cent drop (Franco Ziliani, 2005). 148,000 quintals of grapes were dried for Amarone in 1994 (Franco Ziliani, 2005).

2003 In 2003, Amarone comprised 148,000 hl or 25% of total Valpolicella production,’ (Daniel Thomases & David Gleave, 2006, p19). 16.2 million kilos [162,000 quintals] of grapes were dried for Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella in 2003 (Franco Ziliani, 2010/27, p24). 6 million bottles of Amarone were produced in 2003 (Franco Ziliani, 2005).

2004 The average grape price for Amarone grapes had slumped 40% from a record high in 2002 to €1.40 per kilo in 2004 (Franco Ziliani, 2005). 148,000 quintals of grapes were dried for Amarone in 1994 (Franco Ziliani 2005).

2005 In 2005 15.9 million kilos of grapes were dried for Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella (Franco Ziliani 2010/27, p24). 8.5 million bottles or Amarone (Walter Speller 2015, p20).

2006 Franco Ziliani (2010/27, p24says the 2006 harvest was ‘an outstanding year, slightly earlier than in 2005, lasted through late October, characterized by good weather, with warm, dry, breezy conditions ideal for both harvesting and the appassimento process. Such optimal weather sent sugar levels soaring, close to values seen in 2003, and reduced acidity levels. Complete ripeness in the skins resulted in pigments with very good anthocyanin concentration and extractive potential, while grape-pip tannins were very ripe, sweet, and smooth. Most fruit was very healthy.’ 

2007 Cooler compared to 2008. 

2008 A hot year. A record 29.8 million kilos of grapes were dried for Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella,’ (Franco Ziliani 2010/27, p24). 

2009 In 2009 after fears of a crisis of over-production, 21.8 million kilos of grapes were dried for Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella (a reduction on the figure for 2008 which was 29.8 million kilos). Valpolicella consorzio President Luca Sartori pushed through reforms which reduced from 70% to 50% the proportion of grapes to lay down for drying for Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella, to improve quality (better selection) and reduce volumes. Around 8.7 million bottles of Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella were produced in 2009 (Franco Ziliani, 2010).

2013 The total Valpolicella vineyard area in 2013 was 7,288 ha/18,000 acres (Walter Speller 2015, p20). 14 million bottles of Amarone (Walter Speller 2015, p20). 

HAND HARVESTING

WINEMAKING ‘The length of the drying period varies from producer to producer but there has been a tendency to shorten the raisining period in recent years, as the new drying rooms have proved more efficient not only in drying the grapes but also in preventing the development of any botrytis, something that is now eschewed by all quality-conscious producers. The aim in the production of Amarone is to realise in the finished wine the intensity of colour, flavour, and tannin in the dried grapes. As all of these components reside in the skins, anything like botrytis that degrades the skins diminishes the intensity and purity of the wine. The drying process achieves more than dessication; it also results in a metabolization of the acids in the grape and a polymerization of tannins in the skins, something that explains the richness yet balance of good Amarone. The use of drying rooms has also enabled producers to reduce the levels of alcohol to around 15 per cent while sacrificing none of the power and intensity that characterize good Amarone After the drying process is finished, the grapes are crushed and fermented dry. Since the grapes lose about 50 per cent of their liquid during the drying process, the must is quite rich, so fermentation is slow to start. A stuck fermentation can all too easily result if insufficient care is taken in the cellar, which explains why so many Amarone display regrettably high levels of volatile acidity. Traditionally, the wines would have been aged in large botti, usually made from Slovenian oak. Today, most of the best producers age at least part of their Amarone in barriques to encourage the development of supple tannins,” (Daniel Thomases & David Gleave, 2006, p19).

WINE STYLE & TYPICITY

Sturniolo suggests that despite Amarone being a sought-after style, ‘to conclude that any Amarone is fully representative of this terroir would be mistaken.’ Speller suggest ‘amarone is certainly not the most transparent of wines when it comes to the expression of terroir,’ (Speller, W: 12 May 2011). Mouthfeel: Rich, viscous texture. Aromas & flavours: blackberry, dark cherry, dried plum, gamey, graphite, liquorice, mint, mossy, pepper, preserved fruit, prune, sapid, sour cherry, thyme, tobacco. Sweetness ‘Bitter-rich,’ says Oz Clarke (2015, p27). High levels of residual sugar are the consequence of overlengthy grape drying regimes that make Amarone dangerously close in style to ‘recioto’ (Franco Ziliani, 2005/7).

AMARONE & FOOD

The Veronese call ‘amaroni’ wines vini da meditazione, for sipping at the end of a meal. Paul Howard (2016) suggests ‘cold nights, roaring log fires and food which matches power with power eg game, porcini mushrooms, beef, hard cheese like Grana Padano plus barbecued ribs or sweet and sour dishes. Doug Wregg (2011) suggests braised beef in Amarone, Lepri in Salmi, or mature Monte Veronese cheese.

WINERIES

CERTIFIED ORGANIC | Fasoli Gino. | Pieropan. | Trabucchi

NO CERTIFICATION | Agricola Pietro Zardini. | Albino Armani. | Aldegheri. | Aldrighetti. | Allegrini. | Alpha Zeta. | Antolini. | Bolla. | Bottega SpA. | Buglioni. | Bussola. | Cà dei Frati. | Cà dei Maghi. | Cà La Bionda. | Cà Rugate. | Cantina di Negrar. | Cantina di Soave. | Cantina Sociale della Valpantena. | Cantine Delibori. | Cavalchina. | Cesari. | Corte Campagnola. | Corte Figaretto. | Corte San Benedetto. | Corte Rugolin. | Crosarola. | Dal Bosco Giulietta. | Dal Forno Romano. | Domenico Fraccaroli. | Fabiano. | Fieramonte. | Fratelli Vogadori. | Galtarossa. | Gamba. | Gamba Gnirega. | Garbole. | Giuseppe Campagnola. | Giuseppe Quintarelli. | La Giuva. | La Ragose. | Latium Morini. | Le Marognole di Corsi Fabio. / Le Salette. | Masi. | Mazzi. | Michele Castellani. | Mizzon. | Monopolio Montresor. | Monte del Frà. | Monte Faustino. | Monte Santoccio. | Monteci. | Nicolis. | Novaia. | Pasqua. | Poderi Campopian. | Poggi. | Provolo. | Remo Farina. | Salvaterra. | San Cassiano. | San Rustico Valgatara. | Santa Sofia. | Santi. | Sartori. | Scriani. | Stefano Accordini. | Tedeschi. | Tenute Cà Botta. | Tenute Falezza. | Terre di Leone. | Tesco. / Tezza. | Tinazzi. | Valentina Cubi. | Villa Annaberta. | Villa Mattielli. | Villa Monteleone. | Villa Spinosa. | Villabella. | Zao. | Zanoni. | Zenato

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Andrea Sturniolo, ‘Quintarelli Amarone 1971-1998’, World of Fine Wine 27 2010 p44-5. 

Burton Anderson, The Wine Atlas of Italy (Mitchell Beazley, London, 1990).

David Gleave, The Wines of Italy (Salamander Books, London, 1989).

Daniel Thomases and David Gleave MWOxford Companion to Wine 3rd edition ed. Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Doug Wregg, Les Caves de Pyrène list (July 2011). 

Franco Ziliani (2005), ‘Amarone della Valpolicella 2001, Wine Tasting in Verona’, World of Fine Wine 7 2005 p20-21.

Franco Ziliani (2010), ‘2006 Amarone Anteprima-The Battle for Common Sense’, World of Fine Wine 27 2010 p24.

Dr Ian D’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy (University of California Press, 2014).

Nicolas Belfrage MW, Life Beyond Lambrusco (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985)

Nicolas Belfrage MW, From Barolo to Valpolicella—The Wines of Northern Italy (Faber & Faber, 1999).

Nicolas Belfrage MW, From Brunello to Zibibbo—The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy (2nd edition, London, 2003), p460.

Oz Clarke 2015, Oz Clarke Wine A-Z (Pavilion, 2015).

Paul Howard, ‘Fasoli Gino: Organic Amarone’, Organic Wine Journal, Feb 29, 2016.

Walter Speller (2015), Oxford Companion to Wine 4th edition ed. Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW (Oxford University Press, 2015).