Here's my problem: I love Amarone -- but every time I drink one I feel as if I'm committing enological infanticide. I relish Amarone's velvety smoothness, its fruit-plus complexity of flavors, its depth, the elegance that conceals its power, but Amarone seems to have an almost endless capacity for aging. 'Holy Moly, ' I can't help thinking, 'what is this wine going to be like in ten years? Or in twenty?'
This was all brought home to me quite recently by a tasting of Amarone led by Sandro Boscaini, who is perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for Amarone and, as the head of the venerable (two-hundred-plus-year-old) Veneto firm of Masi, one of its very best producers. Sandro is a paradox: he's cosmopolitan but firmly rooted in a tiny and still quite rustic region; he's one of the most important winemakers in the Valpolicella zone, but he scarcely makes a Valpolicella; he's a passionate producer of Amarone, but flatly says, 'no one needs an Amarone - not the way they need a glass of milk. It should only be made in great vintages and drunk on special occasions.'
His points are appropriate: Amarone is a paradoxical wine, one the world's truly great red wines, and certainly the most distinctive of that whole top echelon. A full-bodied dinner wine, it is produced from the same grapes that, in the very same zone, yield the light-bodied, quaffing red we know as Valpolicella. And Amarone is the only top-flight, dry red wine in the world vinified from raisined grapes. They are harvested slightly under-ripe to preserve acidity, then carefully dried to concentrate sugar, and if at all possible just kissed by botrytis cinerea, the so-called 'noble rot' that elsewhere yields the world's finest sweet dessert wines. The whole process is called appassimento, and as Boscaini says, it is Amarone. 'This technique was invented in Roman times,' he says, 'to make a bigger, more structured wine in an area [what is now the Veneto, not far from Lake Garda] that is not too warm and slightly too humid.'
Appassimento effects a magical transformation in the Valpolicella grapes. Corvina, Molinara, and Rondinella (all for centuries native to the hills east of Lake Garda) are harvested in October and then not pressed but spread on mats and racks in carefully ventilated barns and lofts to dry slowly for several months. Amarone needs not just good growing weather and good harvest weather, like other wines, but also good drying weather. If nature cooperates, the grapes lose 35 to 45 percent of their weight, and about 15 to 20 percent of the Corvina (and only the Corvina) grapes develop botrytis. 'The botrytis is crucial,' says Boscaini, 'because it concentrates the glycerol in the grapes, and that creates the illusion of sweetness in the wine.' Finished Amarone contains 10.5 to 11.5 grams per liter glycerol content, whereas 7.5 is normal for most other red wines.
When the grapes have dried and concentrated their sugars sufficiently (usually early January), they are pressed, and a long, slow fermentation begins at ambient temperatures, with 45 to 60 days of contact between skins and juice before the skins are removed and fermentation finishes without them. By the end of the process, Amarones easily attain 14.5 degrees alcohol, and often more. The wine is then moved to stainless steel or large wood, where it will age for minimally two to three years - for Masi, about 30 months in large French oak and then another six months in bottle before release.
The result, at the end of this risky, painstaking process, is a necessarily costly rarity. Balanced and harmonious, with depths of flavors that become more intriguing with each year of age, Amarone makes the partner par excellence for deeply flavored dishes, be they as homely as stews and braised short ribs or as exotic as game. Amarone loves boar and wild hare, caresses grouse or partridge, and dotes on strong cheeses.
The only significant point on which I disagree with Sandro Boscaini is when he says Amarone is a wine for special occasions. In my experience, Amarone creates special occasions: a bottle of Amarone, a well-flavored beef stew, and a piece of nasty cheese - époisses or livarot are ideal - constitute a feast. It's great too with simple, gamey meats, like squab and hanger steak. In fact, Amarone is a lot more versatile than most people allow, with a character like a blending of mature Burgundy and old, dry Port, well braced with sustaining acidity. That makes it taste just as good with many kinds of food as it does alone - as Sandro put it, 'Just sip it by itself at the end of a meal, sitting and talking about nothing with good friends.'
To get a sense of what Amarone is about, at a fraction of its price, consider Masi's 'Campofiorin.' Made from the same grapes as Amarone, Campofiorin undergoes ripasso, an ancient technique modernized by Masi. Young wines ferment a second time with a small percentage of reserved, lightly dried grapes of the same harvest. The result is what some people call a 'baby Amarone,' a wine about half-way in heft and elegance between that wine and Valpolicella. It has many of Amarone's virtues at a very affordable price (about $15), and it can usually take up to ten years of bottle age. A cut above the basic Campofiorin, and still far less costly than Amarone, is Masi's 'Brolo di Campofiorin,' which is an impressive, single-vineyard edition of that wine.
Masi Campofiorin 2003: Red fruit aroma; round and balanced; very drinkable and compatible with many foods. About $15.
Masi Brolo di Campofiorin 2001: A longer-aged, single-vineyard version ('brolo' is what the French would call a 'clos,' a vineyard enclosed by a stone wall) of Campofiorin. Deep, almost coffee-grounds aroma; round and soft on the palate; young and fruity but already complex. A very good wine for the money. About $25.
Masi Costasera Amarone 2001: Gorgeous spicy, fruity nose; round, soft, and accessible, with a whole spectrum of dry fruit flavors; years of life ahead of it. A lovely wine. About $55.
Serego Alighieri Vaio Armaron Amarone 2000: Dante's son bought the property (the little valley of Armaron, in the heart of the traditional Valpolicella zone) in 1353; for nearly four decades now, Masi has vinified the grapes from his descendants' lands. The aroma is sandalwood and cookie spices; in the mouth the wine shows still very, very young, but already poised and round, with great structure. It finishes long - plums and leather. Very fine. About $75.
Masi Campolongo di Torbe Amarone 2000: An exceptionally fine single-vineyard Amarone, with a long, long life ahead of it. The aroma was still slightly closed, but the palate was soft and round and full, already elegant and complex. It can be enjoyed now, but it would be a pity to do so with so promising a future. About $126.
Masi Mazzano Amarone 2000: Another wine from a single-vineyard, one of the highest in the zone (about 450 meters). This is probably Boscaini's favorite wine and vineyard. It is a touch bigger than Campolongo: 'More austere, with less illusion of sweetness,' Boscaini says, 'and with an enormous capacity for aging.' About $140.
Masi Amarone 1990: Still young and evolving. Black plums, woodruff, and star anise in the aroma. In the mouth, round and soft, but with excellent acidity and (still) enormous fruit. A poised, elegant, velvety wine that will go on improving for years - maybe decades - yet.
Serego Alighieri Vaio Armaron Amarone 1990: Asian spices on the nose, followed by subtle, refined cherry notes on the palate, with a long, almost sweet, cherry-and-tar finish. An amazingly complex wine, with years of development still to go.
Masi Campolongo di Torbe Amarone 1990: Intense plum/cherry jam aroma. Surprisingly young on the palate, with a long plum-and-dry-chocolate finish. This wine needs years yet. Very, very fine.
Masi Mazzano Amarone 1990: As must be apparent by now, 1990 was one of the finest vintages ever in Amarone, and these Masi wines are among the very best examples of it. This Mazzano is subtler and more powerful than its sibling Campolongo. It feels enormous in the mouth, but at the same time soft and velvety. It's a wine for game and big, strong cheeses, now and for the next thirty years.
Tom Maresca is the author of Mastering Wine and The Right Wine. He has been an appassionato of Italian wine for several decades.