Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

State of the Amarone nation

Amarone – the grand wine made by the semi-dried (passito) grapes method within the Valpolicella region – is riding on the crest of a wave. It seems that we northern Europeans and Americans love its rich, dried fruit character and accessible structure. This can be seen from the enormous success of the related Ripasso style and, the surest sign of all, cheaper imitations of Ripasso from Sicily and other Italian regions. But what of the real thing? The winemaking method – fermenting meticulously semi-dried Corvina and minor grape varieties, – and the often late release on to the market make for expensive wines. With top examples costing between £50 and £200+ a bottle, how good are these wines? And what might you drink them with? These are my picks from a blind tasting of nearly 20 good to outstanding examples.

Middle of the (high quality) pack

Bertani, founded in 1857, is one of the historic and most widely distributed labels in the denomination. The empty trophy bottles of multiple vintages decorate the walls of Verona’s most famous wine bar and restaurant, the Bottega del Vino. In a blind tasting organised by Robin Navrozov ahead of an article for Decanter, the very first wine of the tasting was Bertani Amarone 2007, 15% which was the ideal primer. Bertani sets a benchmark by which to calibrate the Amarone palate. A russet amber rim leads to a complex nose with lifted cherry fruit, almond kernel, herbal and smoky themes and a touch of pleasant volatile acidity. This is proper traditional Amarone which spends six years in traditional large casks before release.  On the palate, there is powerful dried berry fruit and a well-struck balance between richness and density on the one hand and drinkability on the other.  This touches on one of the issues about Amarone: the richer and more alcoholic they get, the less they become normal wines, accompaniments to food.  But there is no problem here. Despite the semi-dried fruit method, the wine has just 15% alcohol and enough acidity to carry the moderate richness. At about £75 a bottle this is reasonable value and a very good representative of the traditional style.  

Artisan Amarone

As in all Italian regions, there are numerous small family growers in the Valpolicella region. In the past many would have taken their grapes to the cooperative, for example, the Cantina di Negrar. But with rising prices for Amarone and Ripasso, and the buzz around artisan food and wine, the younger generation may well be tempted to make, label and sell their own wine. There were a number of examples in this tasting: Marion, Monte dei Ragni, Monte dall’Ora, Corte Sant’Alda. The last-named is perhaps the best known, certainly in the UK market, and it shone in this tasting with its Amarone 2011, 15.5%. A traditional entry of sour cherry, orange peel and acetic notes with a nice lift, rich mid-palate and a long savoury finish with a touch of sweetness. The wine is properly weighty but is lifted by its citric acidity. The textural weight of the wine and the balancing acidity make this a wine to drink with rich, meaty casseroles and roasts, and with mature cheese.  

The best of the best

Amarone is a grand wine style and so it absolutely appropriate to search out the best of the best.  The bad news for my bank balance (at least notionally) is that in this blind tasting I unerringly picked out the two most famous and expensive names of the denomination, Quintarelli and Dal Forno Romano as my two top wines.  These are substantial and statuesque wines and ones which are only released after a significant number of years in the bottle.  Quintarelli Amarone 2007 (£200+) weighs in with 16.5% alcohol by volume and the Dal Forno Romano 2005 (£300+) tops the scale with 17%.  Quintarelli is pale and tawny in colour and has outstanding red and black cherry fruit with a long, rich, opulent palate supported by really fine tannins.  Some of the weight is from residual sugar and I did wonder whether this might tire after a glass or two. Dal Forno Romano is absolutely dry but does have 17% alcohol. Despite it being the oldest wine in the line up at 11 years old it is still deep ruby in colour with a fabulously rich palate with rich blackberry and black plum fruit.  Dal Forno Romano works very hard to minimise the exposure to oxygen through the years in wood.  The tannins are still firm, promising many years, even decades, of development.  This is a wine of truly remarkable intensity with a rich, dry finish.  Although it is a cliché, these two probably are the best drunk and admired on their own as vino da meditazione.  

At this top end of the quality tree, it is absolutely clear that Amarone as a wine category is in robust good health.  It showed a range of styles from blocky and rustic (Marion) to sleek and approachable (Allegrini) to rich and glorious.  Sadly most cheap supermarket examples, as with Champagne, are best avoided. In fact, a good producer’s Ripasso is probably a better bet than a cheap Amarone.  But the quality wines do have a richness and depth which adds something unique to the world of wine.  

With many thanks to Robin Navrozov who sourced these wines and will be writing them up for an article in Decanter magazine. Many thanks for sharing these riches and I look forward to your article, Robin!  

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