Cooler evenings beg for robust wines—rich merlot or hearty cabernet sauvignon with the Sunday roast, spicy shiraz with leg of lamb, or a big brambly zin with a chunky blue-cheese burger. Come fall, I develop a thirst for Amarone, a rich red from Italy.
Few wines partner as well with a rustic stew, braised game or, my favorite, wild mushroom and risotto finished off with a handful of Parmigiano and a splash of the wine. But what exactly is Amarone? Customers come in to the wine shop seeking out an Amarone, but most haven’t the foggiest about this wine.
Christened as “Amarone della Valpolicella,” this distinct wine hails from Italy’s lush Veneto region. Amarone is derived from Amaro the Italian word for bitter. Della means “from the.” Valpolicella is the viticultural zone.
Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes, indigenous to the region, are responsible for straight ahead Valpolicella, which, at it is best, is charming light-to-medium bodied with the flavor of lip-smacking berry and modest alcohol.
Amarone is also Valpolicella, but the grapes are from carefully selected bunches grown on the vines of sunny slopes and they are semi-dried before fermentation. The identical grape varieties (from carefully selected bunches grown on the vines of sunny slopes) also go into Amarone. After harvesting, the grapes are left to dry for three or four months until partially shriveled. Traditionally, the grapes were spread out on straw mats or hung in clusters from rafters in well-ventilated quarters. Today, however, the use of plastic trays has come into vogue in order to prevent the grapes from any rot. This ancient wine making method is known as “apassimento.” The shrunken grapes are crushed, pressed, and the concentrated juice is fermented to total dryness. The wine sees plenty of oak before bottling and is often aged five years prior to release.
Fine Amarone is sumptuous, but never sweet. Dried cherries and plum aromas and flavors nearly always predominate. Secondary scents and tastes can include dark chocolate, autumn leaves, and exotic spices. Think of the richness of port, but with the dryness of a table wine. The wine must reach at least 15% alcohol, but the alcohol should balance fruit and fine tannin without any burnt or hot taste.
A dozen family-owned and operated wineries in the Veneto form the Famiglie Dell’Amarone D’Arte. They are devoted to producing top-notch Amarone.
Recently, the Famiglie Dell’Amarone D’Arte consortium stopped off in Vancouver as part of a North American tour to showcase their selections. Select media and trade were invited to taste Amarone from the fine 2001 vintage.
“There is Amarone made from grapes bought here and there and it is dull and lifeless. claimed one producer. “That is a disservice to Amarone. We want to show you what is real Amarone.”
The Famiglie wines we tasted not only delivered as promised, they also proved how cellar-worthy they are. Fortunately for us, five of the twelve producers whose Amarones we tasted are well represented throughout North America.
Here are a few notes on each of their 2001 vintage.
Sergio Zenato Riserva won our tasting panel over with juicy plum and cedar aromas. The wine is structured, with port-like notes and the touch of the rustic. This is one for game dishes or that wild mushroom risotto.
Allegrini Classico is a more berry-driven with an overlay of chocolate and panforte, (an Italian holiday cake made of honey, nuts, dried fruits and spices). This wine would be best perhaps with a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano drizzled with honey and a handful of walnuts.
Tommasi Classico is smooth and silky, quite Burgundian in texture and balanced elegance with good acidity and rich dark cherry flavors. I might serve a rabbit stew with this one.
Masi Mazzano Riserva was big and luscious mixing bittersweet cherry and milk chocolate. Rich beef stew would be nice.
Tedeschi “Capitel Monte Olmi” Classico simply wows. Complex and complete, this beauty parades prune and raisin, toasty oak, and chocolate across the palate. Its texture is at once sturdy yet elegant. The finish long is clean. The wine demands little more than your attention and a wedge of aged cheese.
Finally consider Amarone (or Ripasso), for the festive bird. The wine is splendid with turkey, duck, and goose, especially if accompanied by fruit stuffing or sauces.
If your pocket isn’t quite deep enough for Amarone, Valpolicella Ripasso makes an excellent alternative. Most, if not all, fine Amarone vintners also produce Valpolicella Ripasso. In essence, the juice of just-picked fruit is fermented or “passed over” the Amarone must. The resulting wine weds the freshness of Valpolicella with something of Amarone substance and power. The price tag clocks in somewhat less than Amarone and Ripasso will go pretty much the same route, gastronomically as its more sophisticated sibling.
To access more information on these and other Famiglie wines www.amaronefamilies.it
– by Julie Pegg, RFT wine expert