Amarone has a well-earned reputation for power. After all, it’s not uncommon to find bottles that clear 15.5% ABV and approach 16% or more. But the best examples are about much more than sheer strength: They are layered, deeply complex reds that are inextricably tied to the land in which their constituent grapes are grown. Because of the unusual technique employed in their production, these wines have the ability to showcase an entirely different aspect of both the varieties in the blend and the terroir in which their roots are sunk.

What is Amarone wine?

amarone
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Amarone is a rich, expressive red wine from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy. Its full name is Amarone della Valpolicella, and it’s produced from a blend of grapes including Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, and (less commonly these days) Molinara. These are the same grapes that go into Valpolicella, the more traditionally produced red wine (harvest grapes, crush them, macerate the juice and skins, ferment the juice, etc.). However, for Amarone, those grapes are dried following harvest, and it’s the resinated fruit that gets pressed and fermented. This drying of the grapes concentrates the sugars and completely changes the balance of juice and skin. The combination of both means that there is more sugar for the yeast to ferment into alcohol, leading to more powerful wines. There is also more tannin since the skins play a more significant role. Amarone, in fact, loosely translates to “big bitter.”

Where does this wine come from?

Amarone comes from Valpolicella, which is in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy. There are four main types of wine that are produced there: Valpolicella, which is made like most other red wines; Valpolicella Ripasso, for which red wine is then refermented with the dried skins of grapes that were crushed for Amarone, which lends Ripasso greater power and complexity than ordinary Valpolicella yet less assertive power than Amarone itself; Amarone; and Recioto della Valpolicella, a sweet wine from the region. Within the category of Amarone della Valpolicella, there are several distinctions, including Amarone della Valpolicella Classico (sometimes called Amarone Classico della Valpolicella) and Amarone della Valpolicella Superiore.

All Amarone wines are produced using the grape-drying technique, which is called appassimento in Italian. For an excellent expression of Valpolicella that’s not Amarone, check out Le Ragose Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso, whose bright red cherry and black raspberry notes are anchored by leather, tobacco, cocoa powder, and dark woodsy spices.

Why should you drink Amarone wine?

red wine
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Amarone is a thoroughly unique wine not just in Italy, but in the entire world. Of course, there are other wines that are produced using the grape-drying or appassimento method, but Amarone brings together the unique characteristics of its various Valpolicella terroirs and the character of its main constituent grape varieties to result in a wine that is unlike any other. At its best, Amarone is just as nuanced as it is powerful.

Amarone is also a remarkably age-worthy wine. Not all examples are meant to be laid down in a cellar for decades, and shifting consumer preferences mean that there are plenty of bottles that can absolutely be enjoyed in the short term, but Amarone is still a category with a preponderance of producers whose best wines can continue improving for decades. Still, the world of Amarone has changed: A generation ago, many of them were difficult to enjoy in their youth, with overwhelming tannic structures that more or less required several years of age before they became pleasurable. But that has changed today, and consumers can enjoy many Amarones at various stages throughout their evolution in the bottle, and even in their youth.

For fans of richer foods, Amarone is a fantastic option. With braised meats like oxtails and short ribs, Amarone is a great pairing partner. Smoked meats and barbecue across the range of regional styles often find a phenomenal partner in Amarone: It can frame spice rubs brilliantly, and won’t likely be overwhelmed by sweeter or more tangy sauces. It also is a great choice for creamy and hard cheeses, as well as dessert, especially chocolate-based ones and even cheesecake. Amarone also tends to work well with fruit-based desserts, assuming they aren’t too sweet.

Because of its higher alcohol content, Amarone is best enjoyed at slightly less than room temperature, but too much of a chill will make the tannins come to the fore in too assertive a manner and seem bitter. To that end, a large glass, like a Cabernet Sauvignon or big-bowled universal glass, is a good choice, the better to facilitate vigorous swirling, which will help soften up those tannins and allow the underlying characteristics to shine through.

What does it taste like?

wine tasting
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Amarone is a rich wine with a prominent tannic structure. It often smells as if it will be sweet, with ripe black and red cherries, blackberries, dried figs, raisins, coffee notes, and chocolate, but the first sip tends to prove the opposite: For all of the ripe, generous fruit, Amarone is a dry wine, and the sweet assumptions from the nose often result in a riveting sense of tension when the first sip proves the opposite to be true. Amarone can also be aged for an extended period of time in barrels, and depending on the nature of the wood that they’re composed of, and how old they are, sweet spices like vanilla and cinnamon may also be present, as well as chocolate, cocoa powder, and coffee.

Five great Amarone wines

There are countless great Amarone wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Amarone has to offer.

Bertani

One of the more well-known names in the world of Amarone, Bertani produces Amarone, Valpolicella Ripasso, Recioto della Valpolicella, and more. Their 2011 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico is remarkable: Powerful yet elegant, savoury yet still with a maturing core of fruit, and boasting a long, harmonious finish. The palate here runs the gamut from dried figs and brambly berries to leather, olive pit, maduro cigar tobacco, and star anise, all of it haunted in the background by dried flowers.

Dal Forno Romano

Dal Forno is one of the legends of Amarone, an icon, and a producer of wines that have earned their place on top wine lists around the world. In vintages that aren’t up to their exacting levels of excellence they just don’t make an Amarone, and in the past 20 years they’ve chosen to skip 2005, 2007, and 2014. Their 2015 Amarone della Valpolicella Monte Lodoletta dramatically proves why this strategy is worth missing the occasional release: It’s an unforgettable wine, complex and impossibly long, concentrated and impeccably balanced, and scented with tar, crushed flowers, and blackberry liqueur that pave the way for a palate that drips with blackberry liqueur, black cherries, candied violets, very high-cacao dark chocolate, espresso beans, Chinese five-spice powder, and dried figs. The finish shimmers with black liquorice and leather and lingers for a full minute. Now or in two decades (or more, easily), this is a wine of astounding accomplishment.

Famiglia Pasqua

With roots stretching back nearly a century (it was founded in 1925), Pasqua is a thoroughly forward-thinking company, with a focus on not just the liquid inside the bottle but the aesthetics of the packaging itself. Their 2017 Amarone della Valpolicella is a silky, polished expression of Amarone, with kirsch-filled dark-chocolate ganache, cinnamon-dusted espresso, and dried black figs.

Masi

Masi produces one of the most familiar Amarone bottlings on the American market, the Costasera, but they also make the brooding-yet-expressive Vaio Armaron Amarone della Valpolicella Classico. It’s grown on the Serego Alighieri estate, which was purchased in 1353 by Piero Alighieri, the son of Dante. The 2013 is outstanding, a dark-fruited wine that unfolds in layers of dried black figs, dark chocolate ganache, blackberries, liquorice, and cafe mocha, all of it gently spiced with cinnamon and star anise.

Podere Poiana

The 2016 Amarone della Valpolicella is dense, deep, and rich, dramatic with raisins, sweet spices, melted chocolate ganache, rooibos, and Earl Grey tea flavours rolling through the long, dried-flower-flecked finish.

This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com

(Credit for the hero and featured image: MATTHIAS RIEDINGER / GETTY IMAGES)

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