I was just reorganizing my Italian wine collection in the cellar last night and was salivating over my small but growing Amarone collection when I read Joe’s reference to Amarone on the Slow Travel message board. This got me to thinking about the wine. For those of you who are not familiar with Amarone, here is a little bit about them.

Amarone is a style of wine made in the Valpolicella DOC in the Veneto. Amarone is a shorthand version of the actual DOC (the legal name of the wine) of the wine which is Reciotto di Valpolicella. Without the word Amarone attached, it is actually a sweet wine. If it is a Reciotto di Valpolicella Amarone, it is anywhere from just off dry to bone dry, high in alcohol with an intense flavor. If you have never had one, think of late harvest Zinfandel (especially from Ridge) or anything from Turley, Deloach or other 14%+ alcohol Zinfandels.

The name Amarone probably comes from Vaio Amaron, the name of the vineyard originally owned by Serego Alighieri, a member of Dante Alighieri’s family. The growing region is near Verona: to the north and to the east. Valpolicella has many famous towns, including Negrar, north of Verona, and Illasi to the southeast. Both areas have top wine producers.

Amarone are made from the “orecchiette” or “ears” of the cluster. If you look at a bunch of grapes, it typically has arrowhead shape (pointing down). There is a main stem running vertically and then two main branches running horizontally (angles downward somewhat) at the top of the bunch. In the best wines, these two side branches are cut off as the grapes attached are the most exposed to the sun and have the most caramelization going on in the ripening process, The grapes are laid out on straw mats in trays and dried, then crushed and the wine is made. The result of this drying process is raisining of the grapes and the resultant rich, intense, jammy flavor. Sometime there is such a concentration of sugars in the wine that you cannot get it to ferment out totally dry because there is just too much alcohol. Some wines are deliberately left quite sweet and these will not carry the Amarone designation. And amazingly enough, these are the same grapes that go into Valpolicella. But the grapes that are destined for an Amarone are the best sections of the vineyards typically from older vines. It is quite incredible how Amarone has become one of Italy’s best red wines due to advances in winemaking techniques that still honor tradition while making the wines more stable. The labor and time involved help to explain why any Amarone worth its straw mats cost over $50.00

If you like Amarone, but can’t take the price tag or want to drink them more often than the budget allows, look for Ripasso. This is a technique that only the frugal Italians could have thought up. When you are finished making an Amarone, you have skins that are just loaded with sugar and flavor. By adding the skins to normal Valpolicella, the alcohol in the already fermented wine will leach out the sugars and the wine will begin to re-ferment (this process is similar to the governo in Chianti). You get a wine with a lot of the character of Amarone at a much lower price. After the skins are used to make the Ripasso, they will be sold to a grappa distillery for yet another bit of income.

As it was for many areas of Italy, 1997 was an insanely great year for Amarone. It may be the best ever. 1995 was outstanding but will be overshadowed by 1997, 1993 is good but a little light (and more ready to drink). If you can find any 1990s left they are superb. I like my Amarone about 12 to 20 years old. I drank a bottle of Zenato Riserva Sergio Zenato 1988 recently and it was superb. I am trying to resist opening a bottle of the same from the 1990 vintage for at least 5 more years.

My favorite producers include Allegrini, Masi (especially the Vaio Amaron), Zenato Riserva Sergio Zenato, Tomassi. I have never had the guts to buy a bottle of their Amarone, but I bet that Dal Forno Romano is the best Amarone there is (and at $350 a bottle for the 1996 if you can find it in DC it should be). The reason I can say this is that I have had their Valpolicella and it is better then almost any Amarone I have ever had (it sells for about $80.00 here in DC). Roberto, from Fiaschetteria Toscana, our favorite waiter in the world, turned us on to the Dal Forno Romano and he was embarrassed to do so as the Valpolicella was about $65.00 in the restaurant. After we finished the bottle, he was very apologetic and said that if we ever wanted to taste the best red wine ever, we needed to come back and try their Amarone. He said “I am sorry to tell you, boss, that it is L440,000 (about $200.00 at the time).” The whole time he was telling me this he kept an eye on my wife who was twitching visibly seeing me lust for the bottle… Lucky for me we will be back to Venice one of these days. I just hope my wife lets me hold my credit card.

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