Amarone from Valpolicella has had a rapid growth. A few decades ago, there were hardly any bottlings of the red. Today, it is amongst the biggest wines in Italy. Although it is not following in a trend in some regards, it is becoming increasingly popular.
2011 was a vintage to Diego Tomasi's taste. In spring it got warm early, the summer was mild and dry. This extended the ripening process and ensured flawless extract values. "And the vintage does not finish with the harvest," says the head of the research centre for wine growing in Conegliano.
The grapes for the Amarone must dry for several months. Spread out next to each other in crates, the contents continue to concentrate further. Yet the "appassimiento" is tricky. The winegrower must continually turn the material, otherwise mould will spread. There, the drop in temperature from 20° to 12° in the night of 7 October was a blessing. "Historic, unforgettable," enthuses Tomasi. In the cold, dry air, the fungus has no chance.
Between Lake Garda and the Dolomites, the Valpolicella valleys run in a North-South direction. A small river runs through each of them and – hopefully – in autumn, a strong down wind from the Alpine foothills will blow. This dry air turns the grapes into raisins. Millions of years ago, the former seabed rose up with the emergence of the Alps. The layers of limestone and sediment not only hide detailed fossils from the sea turtle to the dinosaur, they also have good prerequisites for winegrowing. Over thousands of years, a whole range of autochthonous varieties have developed on the slopes, from a few common ancestors. Only a couple of them are vinologically relevant.
Corvina has the lion’s share of the cuvées, and contributes many typical cherries, bitter almonds and black pepper. It has thick skins with lots of tannin, which is why it has a main role in the slightly bitter departure from the classic Amarone. "However, the quality always depends on the clone," explains Pietro Zanoni. For some time now, the winegrower has selected older varieties, which were exchanged for more productive ones in the eighties. "They produced a higher yield, but were perhaps not the best." The first supporting actress is mostly the robust Rondinella, which ensures colour and fruit with its black and purple berries, but provides little structure. Its floral notes penetrate more in the simple Valpolicella.
Miracolo - solved
Corvinone gives some spice and a high yield, the red berries of the Molinara often give a touch of acidity. "That is on trend," says Daniele Accordini, head of the Cantina Negrar. In spite of this, the percentage is mostly in the one-digit range. There are also a large range of autochthonous varieties such as Pelara or Negrara, Terodola or Rossignola, which idealists like to grow alone. It mostly stays in lovable attempts.
With the composition of grape varieties and four very different wine types, the winegrowers have a great deal of room for manoeuvre stylistically – and are ahead of many competitors. "The Valpolicella classico is therefore responsible for the fresh drinking wine," explains Marco Speri, who implemented the concept almost ideally in his Secondo Marco, with a great deal of bite, animating acidity and dense fruit. A wine which always goes with a piece of meat. He finds it a shame that there are not so many varieties of grape as before.
First of all, the Amarone grapes are faced with the slowest possible drying process, which intensifies the flavours even further. Acidity is reduced, phenols are saturated, glycerine enriches itself. Even the resveratrol content is said to increase, which connoisseurs immediately acknowledge as reducing the risk of heart attack.
Unfortunately, you see the old reed frames and lovingly decorated skylights in a north facing direction, which the Alpine wind is supposed to blow through to dry the grapes, increasingly rarely. Many ambitious wine growers use hygienic plastic boxes and air conditioned rooms, where the drying process runs precisely, and often faster.
However, with the high-tech approach, some of the typical bitter tones – "amaro" means bitter – such as cherry stone and tar in Amarone are lost. It is a shame, they were unique, although the clientele does not miss them. What remained was alcohol contents between 15 and 17%, which wine growers pronounced as "miracolo del amarone". Just a few years ago, it emerged that a particularly alcohol-resistant yeast strain was behind the miracle.
For the Ripasso, literally repetition, the fresh Valpolicella is exposed to the grape pulp of the Amarone again. The concentrated grapes still contain enough sugar for a second fermentation. So, the Ripasso has more fruit, body, sweetness and alcohol. Winegrowers give it the promotionally effective name "Baby Amarone".
"Winegrowers favourite" would perhaps be even more appropriate. The wines are received well in export markets such as the USA, and are significantly cheaper than Amarone. However, there is a flair to finding the right balance here. Although the technology is ancient, Ripasso has only officially been allowed to bear its name since 2007. Up until then, a legal dispute about the name was an obstacle.
From provision for the troops to export hit
The Ancient Romans were already making wines from grapes which were dried on straw mats. The high-alcohol "reticum", which is still around today as Recioto, was long-lasting, and particularly proved itself as marching provisions on foreign assignments. On missions in Northern Europe, the growing region was conveniently situated. Apparently, the soldiers gave the valley with the many vineyards the name "vallis poly cellae", "valley of many cellars". Perhaps they also drank so much "reticum" there that they mixed up Greek and Latin vocabulary.
When Gaetano Pellegrini first described the local varieties in 1867, the vines were still surging up in the trees as parasite plants. The pharmacist recognised straight away that there were some defects in the growing. Slowly, mixed sets with grain disappeared. The plants were grown on lower stocks. On small to medium sized plots of land, an intact economy was maintained. Wine served as hard currency, you could pay the rent with it. Doctors prescribed older vintages as medicine.
However, the contemporaries did not check the fermentation process, so some barrels with sweet grape juice fermented through involuntarily. It seems that it was only in the first half of the 20th century that someone took a liking to dry wines. They had additional acerbic tannins, which gave the wine the name Amarone, the bitter one. In 1939, the expression appeared for the first time, and the first estate bottlings took place 13 years later. They were not oenological master pieces, but the wine came into fashion. In 1968 it was given the important indication of origin Amarone di Valpolicella DOC, and then the promotion to DOCG in 2009, the highest quality level, which also means a great deal in export.
Today, Amarone is one of the most sought after and highest-priced wines. That is remarkable because almost all the wines in the immediate vicinity are amongst the cheaper market participants. Bardolino, Soave, Prosecco and Pinot grigio are produced in large quantities, and often have to face price wars in discount. The millions and millions of bottles of wine that are filled here have earned the Veneto region the nickname of the "Wine barrel of Italy".
Light or shadow
Apart from sensible production criteria, the authorities also promoted the reduced use of pesticides. 2000 hectares of the total area of 7500 hectares are already farmed in this way. Most wine growers have done their home work when it comes to hygiene.
Many vineyards were planted with better vines in the last few years, a vital investment. Operations converted from the actually outdated Pergola growing, to the modern Guyot system. "Better leaf management, fewer pests, above all the higher plant density yields better results," Pietro Zanoni found out for his family business, "the vines get more sun". However, with global warming, many are considering going back to Pergola, "because it shades better," says Giannantonio Marconi, oenologist at Bolla, where Amarone has been made since 1950. "Vertical light stays outside, soft light from the side comes in.” However, in damp years the Pergola is not convincing, "and causes a lot of work," confirms Marconi. Either way, studies show that today, on average, the grapes dry significantly longer on the vine and contain more sugar.
You can make a further adjustment to the development. In the traditional, large barrels made of Slovenian oak, the wines mature slowly. "Barrique barrels bring more elegance," argues Pietro Zanoni, and thinks that fine-pored French wood is better. This unsettles traditional drinkers. However, very good wines can be made with both styles. Wine growers choose what is best for them. With the good ones, the results are overwhelming. Valentina Cubi, retired primary school teacher, found herself the owner of a barrel wine business and gave it a try. With shorter maceration and large barrels, she produces Amarones of previously almost unknown lightness, which still age wonderfully.
Es gibt allerdings auch Risiken. Mit dem Ripasso macht gerade ein ähnlicher, aber wesentlich preiswerterer Wein große Sprünge auf den Exportmärkten. Produziert wird er mit dem Trester des Amarone. Bei verstärkter Nachfrage muss also zuerst mehr Amarone vinifiziert werden, um aus dem Trester Ripasso zu machen. Zieht der Ripasso absatzmäßig am Amarone vorbei, könnte es für den Amarone ungemütlich werden. Übermengen auf dem Markt sind Gift für das Image eines Icon-Weins. „Paradoxerweise wäre dann der Aufstieg des Ripasso der Fall des Amarone“, fürchtet Accordini.
Amarone – tastes good young as well as old
As Amarones from the first few years are as good as unavailable, the aging ability remains an unclarified question. A surprising situation for a top wine, especially as the perceived sweetness, in spite of low residual sugar, tannins and alcohol clearly point to suitability for storage. There are rare examples from the early eighties, which were aged with all due respect. However, ten years is seen as a very suitable drinking maturity. Amarone is also good to drink young, which gives it an edge over many competitors, and pleases the customers.
Overall, the region of Valpolicella is a shining example. Hectare prices have multiplied in the last few years, and the winegrowing land with a total value of €4 billion has become one of the most expensive pieces of arable land in Italy, even ahead of old competitors such as Brunello and Barolo. 60 million bottles of wine are sold per year for €550 million (including €325 million for Amarone). 80% of the production goes abroad, where Amarone is very popular, particularly in colder regions such as Scandinavia and Canada.
However, the main customer remains Germany. 15% value increase in 2013 speaks for itself. For Daniele Accordini from Consorzio Valpolicella, the best is yet to come: "The biggest potential is in the new markets such as Russia, China, South America."
However, there are also risks. With Ripasso, a similar but significantly cheaper wine is coming in leaps and bounds on the export markets. It is produced with the grape pulp of the Amarone. With increased demand, first, more Amarone has to be vinified to make Ripasso from the grape pulp. If Ripasso passes Amarone in terms of turnover, it could be uncomfortable for the Amarone. Surpluses on the market are toxic for the image of an iconic wine. "Paradoxically, the rise of Ripasso would be the fall of Amarone," Accordini worries.
There has already been the first rogue result in Germany, with Amarone for under €10. A whole range of top winegrowers pulled out of the consortium, because they feared their wines being sold at clearance prices. Under the name of Amarone Families, they raise the bar. Slopes, stricter grape selection, longer drying and storage should upgrade the brand again.
Vineyard designations, identifying features for other top wines, must be provided. Sediment, clay and gravel alternate in dozens of layers, "Only small businesses can survive on this terroir,“ says Sabrina Tedeschi, whose great grandfather cultivated one of the first vineyard estates with the Monte Olmi in 1918.
Some of this is still just speculation. In real life, the Amarone wine is going from one success to another. It is also very popular inland, as a survey of the Association of Italian wine shops showed in 2011. However, its biggest fans are not older men who sit by the fire with a cigar. 94% of people under thirty, who are often seen as the lost generation for wine, know Amarone, 69% of them find it good, and 16% even think it is "fashionable". And it gets better. Nine out of ten women love Amarone.
"Of course, we want to strengthen this emotional link," explains Olga Businello, Director of Consorzio. What could be more natural than to combine wine with music, in the city of the big opera festival. Works such as Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto are full of famous drinking scenes. Every PR department dreams of quotes such as "Fill up the cup with choicest wine. Give life to pleasure. And death to sorrow.". "We want to become the next best wine travel destination," says Businello confidently. That could definitely work.
Information wine-growing region Valpolicella
The wine-growing region Valpolicella DOC lies in the Province of Verona of the wine-growing region of Venice. It consists of the valleys Squaranto, Mezzane, Illasi, Tramigna and Alpone. Valpolicella Classico is produced in the valleys of Fumane, Marano and Negrar.
Altitude: 70 to 400 metres Producers with bottling: 272 Cooperatives: 7 Grape producers: 2469 (thereof 1495 for Amarone) Production: 60 million bottles Value of the production per year: € 550 million (thereof Amarone € 325 million) Value of the production per hectare and year: € 18,000 – 20,000 Total value of the wine-growing area: € 4 billion ** Wine-growing area: 7564 hectares Thereof pesticide reduced: 2000 hectares
Valpolicella DOC Grape varieties: Corvina Veronese from 40% to 80% Corvinone can replace Corvina up to maximum 50% Rondinella from 5 % to 30 % More varieties up to 15% (amongst others: Molinara, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Negrara, Croatina, Oseleta, Cruina, Forselina, Negrara Corbina, Croatina, Oseleta; 97% of the vine stocks are autochthonous)
Valpolicella Superiore DOC Maturity: 1 year
Ripasso DOC Produced through second fermentation of Valpolicella on Amarone grape pulp. DOC: Since 2009
Amarone DOCG Alcohol: Normally, the wines have between 14.5 to 16 % vol. Residual sugar, normally: 4 – 12 g/l. Maturity: 3 years Every bottle of Amarone has a numbered banderole.
Recioto DOCG Minimum alcoholic strength: 12% Residual sugar, normally: 50–100g/l Production: 600,000 bottles per year