No Italian wine is more distinctive than Amarone della Valpolicella, and few are as precious. That is due to the time, the labor and the materials required to craft every bottle. Consider: To produce one bottle of wine, a winemaker in any other part of the world will vinify approxi- mately 21⁄4 pounds of grapes. For each bottle of Amarone, 23 pounds are required. And those grapes must dehydrate into raisins before vinification truly begins. So clearly, Amarone is singular in every way, most notably in its overall excellence. Amarone is high in alcohol, with intense aromatics that range from resin and dried prunes to cherry cola. On the palate it is rich and powerful but balanced, with flavors that can range from dark fruits like berry, cherry and plum to licorice, coffee and chocolate.
Valpolicella is located directly north of Verona, extending roughly 20 miles northwest and northeast of the city. The region is characterized by rolling hills and fertile valleys at the feet of the imposing Dolomite Mountains immediately north. The Valpolicella Classico zone is the lobe northwest of the city. Valpolicella Est is the northeast lobe. The two territories are roughly similar in terms of geography and climate, but for years their overall winemaking philosophies were very different.
It’s easy to picture the Amarone continuum—from traditional winemaking to innovation—as radiating from the heart of the Classico zone in the west. The winery of the late Giuseppe Quintarelli, the patriarch of Amarone and its quintes- sential traditionalist, is located at the heart of the Classico zone in the west. Romano Dal Forno, the ultimate innovator, is located furthest east, in Lodoletta.
“Because we are outside the Classico zone where the most traditional Amarone wines are made, we like to think of ourselves as innovators who make modern Amarone,” says Paolo Castagnedi, one of four brothers who run Tenuta Sant’Antonio in the eastern area’s San Briccio.
Today, the distinctions between the heart of the Classico zone and the wine styles of Valpolicella Est are blurring. Between them is a spectrum of styles, methodologies and familiar names, including Allegrini, Cesari, Speri, Bertani, Zenato, Domìni Veneti, Musella, Masi, Nicolis, Le Salette and Le Ragose.
Take Tommasi, located near Pedemonte in the Classico zone. It is one of Valpolicella’s most storied names, and the family has worked hard to bring Amarone to a global market. “Our philosophy is to be traditional, but dynamic at the same time,” says Pierangelo Tommasi. “We don’t want to change our winemaking, but we strive to improve viticulture and make new invest- ments in vineyard land.” The estate owns 135 hectares, of which 95 are currently under vine.
The dedication on the part of these winemakers is considerable because of the difficulties in crafting Amarone and the manual labor that is involved. Clusters of the three grapes that go into the Amarone blend, traditionally Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, aren’t harvested all at once, in the traditional sense—they’re selected cluster by cluster, and clipped from the vine over a span of time. Multiple passes are made in the vineyard, during which sub- standard berries are plucked away one at a time. Healthy clusters are sometimes cut into two or three pieces to favor the flow of air in and around each berry and are laid to rest on wicker shelves in special drying chambers for the next four or five months. During the drying time, or appassimento, the physiology of each berry changes. Much of its water mass has evaporated and the ratio between skins, seed and pulp is dramatically altered. Only after the drying process is completed are the grapes destemmed, pressed and fermented into wine. The finished product’s alcohol content is typically 15 percent or higher.
It is the duration of the appassimento process—not geography—that is the primary factor distinguishing a “traditional” Amarone from a “modern” one. But crush date, methods employed in the winery after appassimento and DOC regulations also come into play.
According to the Amarone della Val- policella DOC disciplinary, dried clusters should be destemmed and crushed no sooner than the end of January. This longer drying time favors the development of botrytis that yields oxidized flavors such as walnut, resin and bruised apple. Starting with the scorching hot 2003 vintage that prompted an early harvest, producers were permitted to crush as early as December 15 in order to preserve the freshness and fruitiness of the wine.
Now many producers have pushed to keep the appassimento process even shorter, and have successfully lobbied to have the crush date moved to December 1. “We want the velvety and expressive wines that come with drying, but we should not compromise the fragrance of the fruit by drying too long,” says Romano Dal Forno, who relies on extreme vineyard management, low yields, temperature- controlled fermentation and barrique aging to produce highly extracted, lusciously rich wines.
Amarone’s magic is definitely a result of the drying process, but appassimen- to can also be risky business as volatile acidity, which might be the result of bacterial infection of the berries during the drying process, has been a challenge in the past.
Another growing distinction: Longer fermentations and low natural cellar tem- peratures are the hallmark of tradition- al production, leading to longer aging time in barrel and bottle. Those pursuing a modern approach exert more control over temperature, apply more interven- tions in the winery and age their wine for less time, leading to a softer and more ap- proachable style in most cases.
Some producers already use computerized drying rooms that mimic wind with fans and set humidity levels ideal for appassimento. As these methods are tested, technology improves and area winemakers get more latitude in appassimento time, we foresee an outstanding future for modern-style Amarone from both the Classico and Valpolicella Est zones.
Getting to Know Amarone
Marion: Keeping it Simple
Marion is a relatively new winery located in Marcellise in Valpolicella Est and is a perfect example of a younger generation of producers making exciting wines outside the Classico zone—in the best vintages, Marion’s Amarone della Valpoli- cella is big and chewy, ripe and intense.
Stefano Campedelli (pictured with his wife, Nicoletta) is an accidental winemaker; he started out by producing gift bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon to give to guests at his 1993 wedding.
Named after the noble Marioni family, Marion has a landmark 15th-century villa, arcaded courtyard and garden. Their new winery is completed, and will make it easier for Campedelli and his family to make and store the wine. “We want to keep things simple,” says Stefano. “When we needed a logo, I took a black marker and wrote the name ‘Marion’ on a piece of paper and that’s what you see on our label today.”
Lorenzo Begali: The Pergolist
Usually when producers talk about “innovation” in Valpolicella, they are referring to vineyard plant- ing techniques such as vertical shoot position- ing (VSP). But at Begali, a winery in the Classico zone run by father Lorenzo, his son, Giorda- no (above), and daughter, Tiliana, “innovation” means siding with the traditional pergola system, in which vines are trained with an overhead canopy. “We are diehard pergolisti,” says Gior- dano. “It’s something we will never change.” The result? Wines, made with blends of Corvina (and Corvinone), Rondinella and other autochthonous varieties, with grace, elegance, and power.
Santa Sofia: Marrying Past and Present
Along with Bolla and Bertani, Santa Sofia is one of Valpolicella’s oldest wineries. Located in the Clas- sico zone city of Pedemonte, Santa Sofia has his- toric cellars carved into stone, romantic gardens, a swan-dotted lake, and a 1560 villa designed by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. The Beg- noni family has owned the stunning estate since 1967 and has carefully nourished a reputation for excellent Amarone that adheres to time-honored traditions. The wines are lush, velvety, with fresh cherry notes and a plush finish. “We see it as our duty to carry forth the history of this beautiful wine,” says proprietor Luciano Begnoni.
Tenuta Sant’Antonio: Four Brothers and a Saint
When the four Castagnedi brothers were planting vineyards on a 350-meter perch in Valpolicella Est, they discovered the ruins of a shrine to Saint Anthony. According to rumor, townspeople in ages past had attempted to destroy the shrine, but no matter how hard they hit, it would not break. “We found it on the ground, restored it and had a name for our new winery,” says Armando Castagnedi, the winery’s general manager. Today, the brothers (from left to right: Paolo, Tiziano, father Antonio and Armando; the fourth brother, Massimo, is not pictured) produce 300,000 bottles per year of three Valpolicellas, two Amarones and one Recioto. Thanks to hard work and modern technology, they developed a rock-solid reputation as one of the innovators in Valpolicella Est.
“Amarone is wine made from raisins and all the problems that come with that,” says Paolo. “What opened Amarone to foreign markets is wine that maintains freshness and finesse despite the alcohol.”
Guiseppe Quintarelli: The Traditionalist, The Patriarch
Guiseppe Quintarelli, affectionately known as Bepi, passed away on January 15, 2012. A third-gener- ation winemaker with 12 hectares of vertical vine- yards, he waved his magic wand over one of Italy’s most traditional wines and turned it into a luxury icon. Today, his bottles fetch as much as $400 each. When asked to name the factors that contrib- uted to his success, he’d answer, “I am a tradition- alist.” It was true–from his basement winery’s large oak casks to the attic drying room: tradition.
Today, the winery, 240 meters above the town of Negrar, at the heart of the Classico zone, is man- aged by Quintarelli’s wife, Franca, daughter Fio- renza Grigoli and her husband Giampaolo Grigoli, along with their two sons, Francesco Grigoli and Lorenzo Grigoli.
Romano Dal Forno: The Innovator
The name Dal Forno represents innovation. Romano Dal Forno’s signature style is wine so dense, inky, extracted, concentrated and bursting with aroma and flavors, it is instantly recogniz- able and totally unforgettable. “We are all the children of a 1,000-year appassimento tradition,” he says. “But an evolution also occurred.”In order to achieve this extraordinary nectar, Dal Forno, now working with his son, Michele, plants his vines at a density of 13,000 plants per hectare, probably the tightest in Valpolicella. He drops both clusters and individual berries to achieve a dismally small crop of 400 grams per vine. For his barrel regimen, he has evolved from using new French barrique to American oak. When his wines are released, they easily fetch $400 per bottle.
Ripasso: Amarone Elegance with a Value Price Tag
Ripasso is an ingenious hybrid of historic reds from the Veneto that gives devotees of Italian wine the richness and opulence of Amarone at the low price of a Valpolicella.
On paper, ripasso is relatively new. Leg- islation authorizing the use of the word “ripasso” as a part of a DOC (denomin- azione di origine controllata) was passed in 2007. But ask any farmer in the Valpo- licella region and chances are that his or her parents and grandparents have been making ripasso for generations. In fact, the wine is strongly linked back to a time when nothing was wasted or taken for granted— not even the leftover pomace (seeds, stems, skins) of Amarone.
Each year at Valpolicella’s grape harvest, the best fruit goes into crafting Amarone and recioto (a dessert wine) through the appassimento process. The remaining crop goes to easy-drinking Valpolicella. Ripasso, which literally means “re-passed” in Italian, is Valpolicella that undergoes a secondary fermentation on Amarone pomace.
A typical ripasso wine exhibits penetrat- ing aromas of mesquite, cherry cola and smoked bacon. With its power and spice, it is the perfect wine for barbecued foods, standing up to baby back pork ribs, grilled chicken marinated in liquid smoke, sausage and charbroiled sirloin. Vegetarians might try it with oven-roasted lasagna.
Labels can be confusing, but you will see these versions of ripasso:
• Valpolicella Ripasso
• Valpolicella Classico Ripasso (made within the “Classico” zone)
• Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso (aged at least one year)
• Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso (combines the two above)
• Valpolicella Valpantena Ripasso (made in the Valpantena Valley)
• Valpolicella Valpantena Superiore Ripasso (aged at least one year)