Raisin wine? Exactly. For generations, Amarone della Valpolicella has mesmerized the throngs of thirtsy winos in search of the next best thing. While most people love Amarone for its rich profile of fruit and power, very few understand how it’s made and how it comes to be.
All Valpolicella wines originate in the region of the Veneto, in northeastern Italy. The word, “Amarone”, is derived from the Italian word, “amaro”, meaning “bitter”. All wines bearing the term, “Amarone della Valpolicella” are produced from grapes that are dried on straw mats or hung from overhead rafters after the harvest. Although up to fifteen grape varieties are permitted in the production of Amarone wines, most wines are based on native grapes, Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. For roughly five months after they’re picked, the grapes shrivel as the water inside the skins evaporates, thereby concentrating the sugars. The grapes are then pressed and fermented in normal fashion. The end wine is powerful and slightly more alcoholic than most table wines. Typically, Amarone wines exhibit aromas of dried fruits and raisins with a distinct bitter quality and gentle spice flavors.
Amarone della Valpolicella owes much of its credit to the dessert wine, Recioto della Valpolicella. “Recioto” translates roughly to “little ears” referring to the outer bunches of grapes from each cluster that were picked for their supreme balance of sugar and acidity. Similarly, recioto grapes are dried after the harvest and then undergo a partial fermentation producing sweet and raisinated dessert wines. Legend has it that one barrel of recioto was misplaced and allowed to ferment to full dryness meaning all the sugar in the wine was fermented into alcohol, thus; Amarone was born.
Founded in 1857, the Bertani winery is one of the founding estates of Amarone della Valpolicella, and has helped lay the foundation for Amarone as one of the leading Italian wines. At a recent tasting in NY, Bertani winemaker Christian Ridolfi led a tasting of six different Bertani Amarone wines spanning nearly 50 years. Confirming that traditional winemaking is a timeless art immune to the shortcomings of trends and fads, the fermentation period for all wines varied between 47 and 50 days despite decades of advancements in science, technology, and winemaking over the last half century. All the wines we tasted are based on the common recipe for Amarone – Corvina with Molinara and Rondinella. Below are tasting notes for each vintage from youngest to oldest.
2006 – moderate aromas of fresh oak and red fruits and aromatic herbs. On the palate, the wine was firm yet giving. Tannin was strong and prominent. Overall the wine had good grip and structure. While it’s meant for aging, it showed fruit and spice, and revealed the unique identity that has become Amarone della Valpolicella.
1999 – strong secondary aromas and flavors of baking spices, notably red pepper and herbs. Subtle notes of cinnamon, or another baking spice akin to biting into a fresh stick of Big Red gum. There were also aromas of green tomatoes or tomato vine. Still a young wine by many standards, wasn’t too revealing.
1990 – lush, juicy, baking spices, fruit gives way to dried blackberries, figs, and prunes, but still lush and ripe on the palate. Still firm and powerful, also very little browning or discoloration.
1981 – dried red licorice and sweet ‘n’ sour on the nose with a subtle yet persistant tannic structure felt in the mouth. Many similar qualities with older-vintage Pinot Noir – mushroom, gritty, horsehide, funk, yet fragile and uncompromising.
1973 – baked and dried tomatoes notes with hints of almond and slightly pungent vegetables. On the palate – firm tannins, still pretty strong acidity and balance between the two – a pretty exceptional balance for 40 years of slumbering. Fruit was nearly gone, and the fruity notes that were noticeable were overshadowed by tannin and mouthfeel.
1964 – very sweet and silky, soft and supple tannins, underlying salty note. Color was still sound. On the palate – notes of brick and tar, but pretty maroon and garnet color throughout the glass; very little signs of oxidation. Also notes of dried spices and nutmeg. As for structure, there was still good grip and power and muscle and life.
Some guests in attendance enjoyed certain wines both due to their flavors and sensations, but also because of the significance of the year (birth year, wedding year, etc.). This is one of the great truisms of wine – enjoying it evokes emotions of a previous time, a previous occasion, a previous celebration of life.