A detailed guide to discover how Amarone, the famous Valpolicella red wine, is made.
Amarone is definitely one of the most famous Italian red wines in the world. It is produced in Valpolicella, a wine region located few kilometers from Verona, in Veneto region (Italy). Today it is considered one of the great Italian reds, an iconic wine as well as Barolo, Brunello (and Chianti) and Supertuscans.
Even though many people already know its name and maybe even drank it, only a few are aware about what makes Amarone so unique. In this article you will discover, step by step, how the king of Valpolicella, Amarone is made.
First of all Amarone is not a single-varietal wine (which means made from a single grape) but it is the result of a blend of grapes. The grapes are indigenous red varieties, that historically grow only in Valpolicella. Amarone is a DOCG wine and because of this, its production must follow some parameters and requirements set by a regulation. The choice of grapes is one of them. Some varietals are mandatory whereas some others are optional, depending on the choice and taste of winemaker.
The mandatory grapes are:
Corvina + Corvinone (45-95%)
Corvina is the signature grape of Amarone, the main ingredient which most characterizes Amarone and Valpolicella wines. The name comes from italian word “Corvo” ( crow) because the ripe berries have a very dark color, almost bluish, which recalls the plumage of this bird. Corvina grape has oval berries, good acidity and a medium tannins. It gives Amarone ruby red color, longevity and the typical hints of red fruit (cherry in particular).
For years Corvinone has been erroneously considered as a biotype of Corvina. In other words a grape of the same family of Corvina but with bigger berries. Only recently, some DNA tests have demonstrated that Corvinone is, to all intents and purposes, an indipendent varietal. It gives to Amarone structure and the spicy note so much appreciated in this wine. The size of berries also represents a great advantage in terms of yield and speeds up the harvesting.
The exact origin of the name, which literally means “little swallow“, is a matter of debate. According to some, the name is due to its V shaped leaf which resemble the tail of a swallow. For others it is because birds (included swallows) particulary appreciate its small berries. According to others, it is called this way because its color recalls the swallow’s coat colour. What is certain is that all these three characteristics are true. Its berries are actually smaller than other grapes, round and dark colored. Rondinella has a thick skin, and in the blend of Amarone brings aromatic notes, hints of red fruit and floral scents. When fully ripe it reaches an high sugar content. In fact, it is the favorite grape to produce Recioto wine, the sweet version of Amarone.
It is also possible to include in Amarone blend, up to a maximum of 25% of grapes coming from the following varietals (Optional grapes):
- Molinara. The name Molinara derives from the italian word “miller”. This is due to consistent quantity of pruine, a natural yeast, on the berries skin that makes bunches look like they have been sprinkled with flour. The grape name Pinot Meunier (one of the Champagne blend) has the same origin, as it literally means “miller” in French. Molinara is easily recognizable even by an inexperienced eye thanks to its lighter color. In fact its skin is pink, almost transparent,if looked against the light. It is also nicknamed “salty grape” because its low acidity and low tannins, enhance the sapidity and salty taste. Molinara gives Amarone a fresh and mineral note. Historically it was one of the “mandatory” grapes but since 2003 it became optional. However the most traditional producers still consider Molinara a fundamental grape variety in the Amarone blend.
Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Molinara are also the “ingredients” for all the Valpolicella appellation wines: Valpolicella DOC, Valpolicella Superiore DOC, Ripasso DOC, Amarone DOCG, Recioto DOCG.
- Indigenous red grape varieties (not aromatic). Valpolicella, with more than 2000 years of viticulture history, is a sort of melting pot of minor local varieties. It is not uncommon to find in the middle of a row of Corvina vines, some old plants of lesser known varieties. These grapes are: Negrara, Forsellina, Pelara (or Dindarella) Oseleta, Rossignola.
- International red grape varieties (not aromatic): Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah. These grape varieties grow worldwide thanks to their ability to adapt to the most diverse soils and climates. They arrived in Valpolicella the nineteenth century. They add to Amarone an “international touch”, some organoleptic nuances which are particularly appreciated by foreign consumers.
Manual harvest is another fundamental step to understand how Amarone is made.
There are essentially two reasons for this. The first is the selection of the bunches which only a human (and skilled) eye can do. In fact, not all bunches are suitable for the next step, the drying process. Amarone grapes must be perfectly healthy, with not damaged skin. The bunch must not be compact but scattered, in order to ensure air circulation among berries and therefore avoiding the risk of mold and fungus. Secondly, grapes must be handled with delicacy and care in order not to break skins, not to release must and not start fermentation.
Amarone bunches are laid in wooden or plastic crates, in which they will spend the drying period. It is important to load only a single layer of grapes per case. In this way in fact no grape will be crushed under the weight of the others and the air will be in contact with all grapes.
Valpolicella is one of the few regions in the world where harvesting is still done with traditional methods, which have remained almost unchanged over the centuries. Visiting the cellars in September during the harvest is an unique experience that gives the feeling of taking a step back in time.
It is impossible to understand how Amarone is made without knowing the “appassimento” method. This is the signature characteristic of Amarone della Valpolicella, its real trademark.
Amarone is not made with fresh grapes but with partially dehydrated grapes. This is tecnique in Italy (and in the world) to naturally concentrate grape sugars to make sweet wines. Amarone instead is a dry wine, ( Amaro in Italian means “bitter” in fact). For this reason Amarone is almost an unique wine. Only one other Italian wine uses this technique, Sforzato wine from Valtellina, obtained by dried Nebbiolo grapes.
In Valpolicella Appassimento is an ancient method, which has its roots 2000 years ago. The Romans more than 2000 years ago, discovered that, with the right cares, it was much easier to preserve grapes instead of wine. Grapes simply dried while wine, after some months, was practically undrinkable.
How does Appassimento process work in practice?
The grape crates are stacked and stored in proper rooms called “fruttai”. These rooms are large lofts with high ceilings and big windows which allow maximum ventilation. Grapes stay here for a variable period (about 100-120 days) during which air circulates and dries the berries. Today, as in the past, the process occurs in as natural way as possible. It is in fact possible to use large fans and dehumidifiers (powered in the most humid days) but not heat pumps. It’s very important, especially in the first days of drying, to check the grape frequently and quickly remove the bunches which show the first signs of mold.
Few producers still dry grapes on “arele“, the traditional bamboo canes racks. In the past the arele were the tool to breed silkworms to produce silk to become the tool to dry grapes in autumn. Over the years, this system was abandoned since it implies two steps: to collect the grapes into crates (in the vineyard) and move the bunches to the arele (in the winery). A labor intensive method but still practiced by few producers who are particularly faithful to tradition.
During the Appassimento, natural sugars of grapes (fructose and glucose) increase because of the evaporation of water. Chemical transformations occur in the berries, which lead to a concentration of glycerine (responsible for the smoothness of wine) and polyphenolic substances in the skin (aromatic). Depending on the vintage a beneficial form of a grey fungus, can affect some grapes. The so called noble rot gives the wine a rounder body and distinct spicy notes.
After 3 months and a half of drying, the grapes lost about 40% of their weight. The production of a bottle of Amarone requires about twice the quantity of grapes needed for other wines.