Amarone della Valpolicella is one of Italy’s greatest wines. It is a complex wine, rich and bold, with each sip embracing years of tradition. There is no other wine made quite like it. It can also be a divisive wine. While most people adore the rich notes of dried fruit and raisin-like sweetness some find it displeasing. Furthermore, the special process of making Amarone takes time and patience, which is reflected in its price. I am a huge fan of Amarone. It is not a wine I drink everyday but it is a wine I embrace each time it passes across my tongue. Whether you love it or not, please journey with me into the world of Amarone, ending with a delicious food pairing suggestion.
In September 2014, I had the honor of spending a week in Valpolicella learn about and tasting Amarone della Valpolicella. It was a highly educational and truly delightful experience that has allowed me first hand understanding of the complexities of a well-crafted Amarone.
Grapes of Amarone
The main grape variety of Amarone is Corvina, a thin skinned grape of moderate color with medium tannins and high acidity. In order to increase the color and tannins of the wine, local varities of Corvinone, Rondinella and less frequently Monlinara are added to the blend. All the grapes used to produce Amarone are hand selected in the first pass by skilled pickers who have been taught how to select the best grapes from each vine.
The Passito Method
The passito method is used widely in Valpolicella to increase structure, flavor, and color concentration. The grapes are picked early when they are still high in acidity and then dried in a single layer in wooden or plastic crates to provide optimal air circulation and avoid crushing the grapes. The crates are stacked in racks and moved to the top of the wineries cellar in a room called the fruttaio. During the 3-4 month period while the grapes are dried to half their weight the use of an air conditioning system is allowed, in keeping with the traditional drying method, to assist in minimizing humidity that can damage the grapes. However, grape drying systems using heat are strictly forbidden.
Winemaking Process of Amarone
Upon completion of the drying process the grapes are crushed using one of two approved methods. The first method is more traditional; since the grapes are crushed in January or February the temperatures are naturally cool and the grapes remain in contact with their skins for a long time, “this method permits to obtain a wine that then requires longer ageing both in bottles and in barrels but gives strong emotions, unique characteristics and a flavor which is direct expression of the territory, even after a very long ageing.” The end result is a beautifully complex and layered Amarone. The second method is a more modern technique, offering an opportunity to obtain, youthful, softer wines with strong notes of fruits, which can soon be appreciated by the consumer and are stocked for less time in the cellar.
After one of these two processes, the wine is aged in French, American or Slovenian oak. Traditionally Amarone is aged in beautiful large barrels or casks to allow the fruit to create the flavors with limited influence from the oak.
Upon completion of the barrel aging the Amarone is bottled and then fined in the bottles for additional years before it hits the shelves at retailers around the world.
Why is Amarone Expensive
As explained in the winemaking process, it takes years to produce one bottle of high quality Amarone. Furthermore, as a result of the passito method the grapes lose half their weight; therefore, it takes a lot more grapes to produce a bottle of Amarone then it does another red wine like Cabernet Sauvigon or Barolo. Finally, in years like 2014 where the growing season is too wet the grapes become too full of water and cannot be dried properly according to tradition; thus no Amarone cannot be produced. Instead the grapes will be used to craft Vallpolicella Classico, Superiore and Ripasso, all three lovely wines but less expensive than Amarone.
Monte Zovo Aziendae Agricola
Monte Zovo Azienda Agricola produces a modern style Amarone. The winery is owned by the Cottini Family, who have been in the wine business since 1925. The winery takes its name from the surrounding hill top in Valpolicella. The winery’s 140 hectares of vineyards are currently undergoing organic conversion. They are in year two of three of this conversion process and are already recognized as “biodiversity friendly.” Their modern winemaking facility is built into the hillside in order to obtain harmony with the environment. By using cuttings from grape vines obtained through pruning to power a biomass feeder onsite the facility is 100% self-sufficient.
2012 Monte Zovo Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Veneto Italy ($50): a blend of Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella; deep ruby; pronounced aromas of dried red cherries, plums blackberry, raisin, medicinal notes, baking spice, dark chocolate, licorice, dried herbs, roasted walnuts; dry, pronounced tannins that feel silky on the palate, medium+ acidity, rich and elegant, concentrated fruit with a deep earthiness, modern, mouth-coating with a long dried fruit and spice finish, high alochol at 16% ABV
The grapes remained in the drying process 120 days during which time they loss 30% in volume. After undergoing passito they were de-stemmed, crushed, and fermented in stainless steel tanks with cultured yeast. Aging took place in both 60/l and 150/l oak barrels for 18 months, followed by blending and aged an additional 6 months in large oak casks. Finally, 12 months of bottle aging was complete before the wine was released.
Amarone pairs well with braised veal cheek, wild boar ragu, mushroom risotto, hard cheeses, and much more. I was looking for a less weighty pairing for the Monte Zovo Amarone. I dear friend made us a wonderful winter solstice dinner of Ina Garten’s Meatloaf. It blew my husband and me away. How could it be so good? It’s just meatloaf. Make it yourself and you will see. I changed the topping from ketchup to a balsamic glaze to meet the raisiny flavors of the wine. I added roasted Brussels sprouts and Pumpkin Sage Farro.
What can I say? Winner winner meatloaf dinner! This was an incredible meal for a cold rainy winter night or a cool night outside by the fire. I hope somewhere an Italian Nonna is smiling.
My Song Selection:
Get your own bottle of Monte Zovo Amarone and let me know you food pairing and song selection. Cheers!