Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone: Veneto's Big Red Wine

In the winter, there is a wine from Italy that really seems to fit the mood of the day. A wine that is contemplative and warming. It comes from the Northeastern corner of Italy, in the Veneto. I am talking about Amarone. The region of the Veneto was discussed in earlier articles on Soave and Prosecco. Amarone is one of the most famous big red wines that are produced in Italy, but surprisingly enough, does not have a long and storied history.

To understand Amarone, one must first start with the wine of Valpolicella. Valpolicella is the name of a valley in the Veneto. The name literally means “valley of many cellars.” Wine has been made here since at least the time of the Romans. The red wine is based mostly on the Corvina and Rondinella grapes and like the valley is also called Valpolicella. It is a nice easy to drink red wine that was popular with the locals. Simultaneously, or perhaps even earlier, a sweet version of this wine was being produced called Recioto della Valpolicella. It comes from the same area, is the same blend of grapes and dates back to Roman times.

The Romans developed a process known as appassimento, for making a sweet wine. This means the grapes were cut from the vines and left to dry out in the sun on straw mats concentrating the sugars in the grapes as the water evaporated. The shriveled grapes were then fermented. The yeasts would die off before the sugar had been completely fermented, leaving a sweet wine. The name Recioto is thought to come from a local dialect for the Italian word for ear which is orrechie. In the local dialect the word is recie. This was because the grapes used for the wine were supposedly only the top corners of the bunches or the “ears” of the clusters. These are the part of the bunch that gets the most sun and are the ripest and most mature. 

At some point in history, a long forgotten producer somehow overlooked, perhaps intentionally, a barrel of their Recioto and it continued fermenting. For some unknown reason the yeasts did not die and the wine had fermented completely dry. Like many happy accidents, the wine was worthy of drinking. The style became known as Recioto Amaro. Amaro meaning bitter because of the tart, raisiny flavors the wine had when dried. Eventually the full name of Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone or Amarone della Valpolicella became more proper. Usually today, it is simply referred to as Amarone. It is a very fascinating wine.

Amarones have been commercially sold for only about 50 years. The first producers were Bolla, Masi and Bertani. As you might imagine, the labor involved ensures that it is made in small quantities. The wines age quite well and properly stored bottles produced in the 1960’s are still holding up quite well. 

Today, the wines continue to be made very much in the long-established way. The grapes are harvested in early October. They are spread out on the graticci or straw mats. In truth, many producers now use plastic racking that is stackable but allows air flow between and over each grape. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of their weight evaporates during the three to five months that the grapes are left to dry. The grapes are not raisins at this point as they do still contain enough moisture to turn them into wine. Like most areas of the world there are some Amarone producers who rely on technology to help nature along. Allegrini and others use drying rooms that are temperature and humidity controlled. Other producers still just place the mats in their attics or on the top floors of their barns where the natural climate dries the grapes slowly and consistently. The producers have Lake Garde’s temperate environment to thank for this, although most producers will at least utilize fans or dehumidifiers. Once the grapes have reached their desired level of sugar, they will then be crushed to release the grape’s juices and allowed to ferment. Most, but not all producers, use specific strains of hearty yeasts that allow the wines to ferment completely dry. The resultant wine is usually high in alcohol levels, typically 14 to 17%.

The key to the wine is that when the grapes lose moisture, the sugar to liquid ratio rises but the acidity in the wine seems to remain constant. The resulting wine is intense and concentrated with lots of fruit. The wines can run the spectrum of styles. At one end are the thicker syrupy wines that seem to have an air of sweetness about them even though they are technically bone dry. Their sweetness comes from the texture and the ripe fruit. At the other end are wines that taste more of dried fruit and elegance. They are less hedonistic and more contemplative. The differences arise from a variety of production factors. The choice of grapes used for the blend is important. Some producers allow their grapes to ripen more fully on the vine. The length of time that the grapes are left to dry, between three and five months, has an effect.