~ The Gateway to the Piazza Bra, Verona ~

The “Big Bitter One”.  
That’s Amarone; at least in the literal translation.  The name was originally given to the wine in order to distinguish it from its sweet dessert sibling, Recioto.  However,  the wine is nothing more than a full bodied, dry table wine produced with a process unique to the Veneto region from which it hails.  

There is a lot of confusion around Amarone and while that is understandable, it needn’t be the case.  This feature will dispel some of those clouds and provide a glimpse into Veneto’s liquid treasure.  

Amarone Fast Facts

Designation:  Originally denoted as a DOC wine, extensive lobbying finally prevailed and beginning from the 2009 vintage, Amarone became DOCG.  

Basic Style:   As a wine, Amarone is often full bodied with a very ripe tasting fruit profile as a result of the way the wine is produced.  Typically tannic, and usually lower in acid than other table wines,  Amarone often possesses higher alcohol levels – 15% is toward the bottom range as 14% is the legal minimum. 
Production Area:  The zone of production for Amarone mirrors that of its sibling wine Valpolicella which encompasses the province of Verona in the region of Veneto.  After Chianti, Valpolicella accounts for the largest volume of DOC wine produced in Italy. 
~ Allegrini’s Palazzo della Torre Estate near Verona ~
Grapes Permitted:   By law,  Amarone must be produced with at least 45-95% Corvina or Corvinone,  5-35% Rondinella, and up to 25% other approved varieties such as:  Croatina, Oseleta, and Molinara for indigenous grapes and even Cabernet and Merlot in very small proportions. Most serious Amarone are comprised almost exclusively of Corvina/Corvinone and Rondinella.

Production Method:  This aspect is what sets Amarone apart as being unique.  Grapes are harvested by hand when they have become very ripe; typically within the first two weeks of October.  The grapes are then transported to a specialized facility where they are spread out on straw mats and allowed to air dry.  The Italian name for this procedure is “Appassimento”  which means “to dry”.  In this stage, the grapes lose some of their volume, shriveling like raisins but in the process concentrating their sugars and the flavors in the remaining juice.  This process typically last 4 months given the quality of the harvest and the desires of the winemaker.  After the grapes are dried, they are pressed into wine.   This method is fraught with danger which contributes to the overall cost of a bottle of Amarone.  The drying process must be monitored carefully to prevent the onset of rot which will ruin the grapes. 
~ The Colosseum in Verona was built by the Romans and is an active venue to this day ~
Selected Wine Tastings
By law, Amarone must be aged at least 2 years in oak prior to release.  Most producers choose between Slavonian Cask and French Barrique depending upon their stylistic goal.  That said, most Amarone is typically aged 4 years or longer depending upon the preference of the producer. Therefore, the wines and vintages on the market at any given time can vary widely.  For this report,  I attempted to achieve a broader cross section of examples.

2008 Masi Amarone Costasera:   This wine is a deep plum color with ruby highlights throughout.  The nose is replete with flowers, plums and spices.  This is fresh and lively, well balanced and not over extracted. On the palate, juicy full bodied flavors of black plum are met with cake spices and powdered cocoa on the finish.  Tannic, but not brutishly so, this is approachable and delicious.  Special really and a good value around $40.  93 points.
~ This Amarone comes from the “Classico” area of the Valpolicella production zone ~
A few years back I attended a winemaker dinner with Christian Scrinzi, the winemaker for Bolla that really opened my eyes to the new direction he is taking the Bolla products.  Yes, Bolla still crafts lower end wine for mass consumption,  but they are producing a broad stable of excellent wines that compete with their contemporaries at various price points.  Several Bolla wines were part of this report and they showed very well.   

The 2010 Bolla “Le Poiane” Ripasso is a deep ruby color – very dark, with violet reflections.  Fresh and lively on the nose with smoke, plums and Christmas spices, this is a joy to smell.  Concentrated flavors on the palate of cherry compote, baking spices and plums are well delineated and not at all raisened.  This is very well done and an exciting Ripasso.  91 points and a steal at  SRP ~ $17  Much of Le Poiane is destined to on premise establishments, but it can be found or special ordered. 

~ This paired nicely with spaghetti with gorgonzola and walnuts ~

So the above review naturally begs the question:  What is a Ripasso?  Actually, it’s very simple.  As mentioned above,  Amarone wines are produced from grapes grown in the Valpolicella zone.  Naturally, Valpolicella is also produced from within the zone.  Wines that are simply labeled Valpolicella are just that.  Wines that bear the “Ripasso” designation are generally more serious wines and the notation is the winemakers way to inform you of a process the wine has undergone. 

Ripasso means “re-passed” and what happens is this.  When Amarone is made, the resulting wine is run off the grape must and bottled.  The remaining must in the fermentation vessels is then left and the Valpolicella destined to become “Ripasso” is then passed over the Amarone must in an attempt to strengthen the wine and impart some of the Amarone characteristics to the Valpolicella. Success depends on the winemaker, but typically, “Ripasso” shows more complexity, fuller body and richer characteristics than a generic Valpolicella. Scrinzi shared his philosophy with me:  “My goal in making Ripasso is not to produce a strengthened Valpolicella, but instead, a weakened Amarone.”

~ Vineyards at Brigaldara ~

The “La Brigaldara” winery is located outside the village of San Floriano in the Valpolicella area just to the north of Verona. It  is perched on a slope near the mouth of the Marano Valley, one of the four valleys which make up the “Classico” area of the Valpolicella producing region.


The estate covers 50 hectares of land including property, vineyards and olive groves. Adjacent to the villa which is used as a home by the Cesari family, is the farmhouse which houses the recently modernized winery. 

The 2008 Brigaldara Amarone is a medium ruby to dark brick in color and clocks in at 17% alcohol.  Yes, you read that right.  This is 50% Corvinone, 20% Corvina, 20% Rondinella and 10% various other grapes and is barrel aged for one year in barrique and 2 years in tonneaux.  On the nose the wine has aromas of Christmas spices, clove, vanilla and white pepper.  This wine is all about spices.  On the palate there is a huge core of cherry fruit that does not appear to be completely dry. Residual sugar?  Slightly raisiny with lots of blackberry liquer.  This is too much.  Not really crafted for a meal, but maybe dried fruit, cheese and nuts.  Overdone for my tastes. You’ll need to like the style to see the value here.   86 points.  $60 retail.  

~ A different beast with aged gouda and nuts.  This is too much for a meal ~

 

In the hills north of Verona lies the Sartori estate.  Founded in 1898 by Pietro Sartori who purchased the then Villa Maria estate to ensure a source of fine wine for the family hotel, it was Pietro’s son Regolo who turned the winery into the family’s core business.  Today, the estate is helmed by Andrea Sartori,  Pietro’s great grandson.   Quality is sharply on the rise at Sartori.  In 2003, they hired renowned Tuscan winemaker Franco Bernabei which marked a return to Bernabei’s native Veneto.   
 
The 2007 Sartori Corte Bra Amarone is a Cru single vineyard wine from the estate’s strictest selection.  The blend is 50% Corvina, 30% Corvinone, 15% Rondinella and 5% Cabernet. Sartori air dries the grapes for 100 days before the winemaking process begins. Aging is 3 years in Slavonian cask.
The wine is a striking dark violet color clear to the rim.  On the nose there are intense aromas of fresh flowers, dark black cherry, figs and jam.  On the palate this is just lovely.  Fresh and lively with lots of ripe blackberry fruit and softly woven spice notes; the wine is deftly balanced and carries the 15% alcohol effortlessly.  SRP ~ $70.  92 points.
~ Cru Amarone from Sartori – Crafted by Franco Bernabei ~
Since its founding by Giovanni and Virginia Tezza in 1960, the Tezza family has owned Agicola Corte Majoli.  Farmed by a closely knit family group, all aspects of the production are carried out on site with only estate owned grapes going into the wines. Today, the winemaking is handled by Giovanni’s three sons although ownership of the estate rests with the winemaker’s cousins.  It seems an odd arrangement and could be effecting the wine in the bottle.
The 2008 Corte Majoli Amarone is a medium ruby with violet reflections.  A blend of 60% Corvina, 20% Corvinone, and 20% Rondinella the wine is 15% alcohol but appears to be slightly off dry.  Ripe plum, fig, cherry and tobacco notes dot the nose and palate of this medium bodied wine.  Drinks more like a heavy weight Valpolicella or Ripasso than an Amarone.  88 points.  About $38 retail. 
~ The unexciting Amarone from Corte Majoli ~
The next wine up is another from the Bolla stable and another Ripasso.  While not as complex or hearty as the Le Poiane describe above,  the following wine is a nice value and a good introduction to the wine type.  The 2009 Bolla Valpolicella Ripasso is a medium ruby color and displays pretty notes of ripe cherry, cocoa powder, and baking spices on the nose and palate.  The finish is dotted with clove and nutmeg.  A solid value at less than $15 and more of an everyday wine.  87 points.  
~ Casa di Julietta & her balcony – Verona ~
In 2006, Sartori introduced a premium collection of Veneto wines crafted by Bernabei at its new winery, I Saltari which lies just east of Verona.  The winery is named after the mercenary vineyard guardians known in native dialect as “Saltari”.  During the 18th century, these sentinels were hired by vineyard owners to keep thieves from making off with their grapes.  With the legal authority to shoot the bandits on sight, the Saltari were feared defenders of the vineyards.  

The 2009 I Saltari Amarone “Vigne Turano” is a medium ruby with pretty violet reflections.  Warm, juicy cherries mix with plums and spices on the nose and palate where Christmas pudding, nuts and baking spice flavors are added. This has wonderful length and balance and is quite delicious.  91 points.  SRP ~ $70  However, shop around dutifully.  I’ve seen retail on this closer to $50.
~ Pretty color to this premium Amarone crafted by Franco Bernabei ~
Creso, Italian for Croesus, is named after the ancient King Croesus of Lydia.   It is said that the first gold coins in the history of the world were minted in Lydia (modern day Turkey) and in that vein, only the “most precious materials available are used for Creso.”   Translation?  Grape selection is severe, is carried out by hand, and dutifully watched by Bolla’s winemaker Christian Scrinzi. 

Creso is unique.  It’s a Veronese IGT blend that is 70% Corvina and 30% Cabernet.  However, the Cabernet is harvested and left to dry like an Amarone for up to 30 days.  This concentrates the flavors in the Cabernet, which is then vinified and blended with the Corvina.  Creso is aged in 2nd passage barrique to minimize the influence of oak on the wine.  

The 2010 Bolla Creso is the inaugural vintage of this wine.  The color is dark reddish purple, with violet reflections at the rim. Rich aromas of blackberry, baking spices, leather and mint are evident on the nose and palate. The balance between acid and tannin is nearly perfect and the wine finishes long and elegantly.  This medium to full bodied wine is drinking beautifully right now and it’s hard to resist. Despite it’s charm and approachability, and the fact that it lacks major tannic structure, the balance is there and I’m intrigued to see what this becomes with  age.  92 points, about $17-$20.  

~ A new wine from Bolla:  70% Corvina and 30% Cabernet ~


As good as the 2010 is,  the 2011 Creso is even better.  Alongside grilled hangar steak with rosemary roasted potatoes this wine was absolutely stupendous.  It’s a lovely deep purple color – almost opaque.  On the nose, the wine is a harmony of scents.  Christmas pudding, soft leather, baking spices, blackberry and plum.  On the palate, the tannins are silky and masterfully integrated.  The flavors follow the nose with excellent like and balanced acids keep the wine fresh and juicy.  I can think of wines 5 times the price of this that are not nearly as good.  To up the ante,  I’m buying a case of this.  95 points.  About $17-$20.

~ Hail to the King.  A case purchase here! ~

As I mentioned above, Regolo Sartori was the son of the founder who turned the Sartori wine business into the company’s core direction.  In his honor, the following wine is produced.  

The 2011 Sartori Regolo is 100% Corvina from estate grown vineyards.  The wine undergoes fermentation in stainless steel and then is barrel aged in a combination of medium and large casks for 18-24 months.   

In the glass, the wine is a vibrant violet color with slight lightening at the rim.  Aromas are plentiful and feature powdered cinnamon, red plums, spice and menthol.  Leaning more toward the red fruit spectrum than black on the palate, the flavors follow the nose and are well balanced.  Medium bodied, with refreshing acidity this is ready to drink now.  Delicious with roasted chicken.  89 points.  SRP ~ $28.  Likely available for less.

~ Very pretty wine and the perfect foil for comforting roasted chicken ~


The next wine hails from the walled Palazzo of Allegrini pictured above; and it’s a super bottle of Veronese red and an excellent value.

The 2009 Allegrini Palazzo della Torre, named after the Allegrini family home, is a deep vibrant ruby in the glass with purplish violet hues.  The nose of the wine is redolent with Alpine herbs, flowers, dark cherries and a hint of saline.  On the palate, the flavors are fresh, juicy and lively.  There’s a moderate amount of complexity, with black cherry, slight licorice, and toast flavors woven together seamlessly. The slight raisined character to the wine comes through as well, a subtle nod to the ripasso method that is used to create this wine.  The bonus here is that this wine is consistently reliable and typically widely available.  Well done!  90 points, about $17-$20. 

~ As you can see on the label,  this is predominantly Corvina and Rondinella ~

As you can see by many of these notes, most Amarone are hearty, hefty, full bodied wines that often do not lend themselves to an easy match with food.  Although the aforementioned Sartori Corte Bra could fit into that category, their next wine is much more restrained. 

The 2010 Sartori Amarone is a deep violet color in the glass.  At first blush, it looks more refined and elegant; less of a bruiser and it’s 15% alcohol portends the same.  On the nose, the wine displays ripe berry fruit with cinnamon and other spices.  In the mouth, the wine distinguishes itself from others. It’s brighter, livelier with slightly more “acidic lift” than others.  Cherry, tobacco, mineral and earth notes are pleasant and assert with good length. Definitely easier to pair with food but maybe a shade less complex.  90 points, and a decent value at $40.

~ The 2010 is the newest release.  I think a year or two in the cellar will also aid this wine’s complexity ~

If it’s not already clear,  there’s a renaissance at Bolla that bears watching.  The next wine is another example of Christian Scrinzi’s influence over the direction. 

The 2008 Bolla Amarone is a medium ruby with slight lightening toward brick at the rim.  The color belies the vibrancy of the wine in a way because at first sip, this wine is alive.  On the nose, there’s lots of crushed plums, fruit cake spices, dried fig and tobacco notes. On the palate, the wine is lively and juicy with a large core of ripe cherry, clove, cinnamon and sweet herbs.  This is really delicious and an excellent value relative to other Amarone.  91 points, SRP $40-$45.   Paired wonderfully with my Pork Amaretto

~ Bolla’s Amarone is primarily is Corvinone, Corvina and Rondinella ~


Finally, can Amarone only be red?  Will, technically the answer is yes.  But with creative, intriguing winemaking,  a white wine can be fashioned in the Amarone model.  And the results are impressive.

The 2011 Sartori Ferdi is a Veronese IGT made from 100% Garganega grapes that are grown on rocky, sloped vineyards east of Verona.  Like its red counterparts, the grapes for Ferdi are hand picked and then left to dry for 40 days while the berries shrivel and concentrate flavors.  The wine is then pressed and sits on the lees for 6-7 months which imparts more body to the mouthfeel of the wine. 

On the nose, the wine displays exotic aromas of guava, pineapple, flowers and minerals.  Intriguing.  On the palate, this medium to full bodied white has a lovely core of white peach fruit backed by wet river stones, mineral, and pineapple.  Crisp acidity keeps the wine fresh despite the viscous nature of the body.  An excellent pairing with my Pasta Primavera but would be equally delicious with Carbonara.  89 points, about $20 retail.

~ Unique – both in its production method and its body ~

Closing Remarks

The knock on Amarone is two fold.  First, the wines are expensive because of the intensive production techniques and the aging requirements.  Second, the flavor profile of the wines, often coupled with higher alcohol levels makes pairing with food difficult.  Often times I’ve referred to Amarone as a “Dry Port” and I think that’s an apt analogy in many cases.  

The best food pairings I’ve found for richer Amarone are classic matches: 

  • Fruit, cheese, and nuts
  • Lamb Shank Osso Bucco w/ Risotto Milanese
  • Spaghetti with Gorgonzola & Toasted Walnuts

Beyond that,  the brighter versions of the wine,  such as the Sartori Estate bottling or the Bolla Amarone paired well with my Pork Amaretto. 

Perceptions of Bolla aside,  the “white label” wines from this producer are simple, straightforward wines meant for early consumption by a broad range of consumers.  However,  the tan/parchment label wines from Bolla are seriously made wines for discriminating drinkers and deserve consideration because they’re also excellent values.  

Sartori is on a major roll right now.  With Andrea Sartori’s commitment to excellence,  demonstrated by the hiring of Franco Bernabei,  this will be a winery to keep on your radar.  

Finally,  Christian Scrinzi told me once:  “You can’t drink Amarone everyday”.   Like other regions, the workhorse red is the Valpolicella and the Ripasso versions are hearty, complex wines that are more easily paired with food than their full bodied cousins.  

Salute!

 




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