THERE’S nothing quite like Amarone, but it all began as an accident. For as long as anyone can remember, Italian farmers have made sweet wine from semi-dried grapes. It’s a relatively simple way of concentrating the sugar in the fruit.
The story goes that, just before the Second World War, a winemaker at the co-op in the Valley of Negrar, in the hills of Valpolicella, just north of Verona, forgot to stop the fermentation of a vat of semi-dried grapes and instead of making a batch of sweet red Recioto had to own up to his boss that they had a powerful, bone dry wine on their hands.
He thought it would be horribly bitter without the sugar to cover up the effect of the tannins from the thick, raisined skins, but his boss loved it.
It was not so much amaro (bitter) but amarone, in other words, bitter big style, in a grand and wonderful way.
It is now by far the most profitable version of Valpolicella and indisputably one of Italy’s best red wines. Other people have experimented with making dry wine from raisined grapes, but Amarone remains inimitably special.
Late last month I flew to Verona at the invitation of the local growers’ organisation to taste the 2009 Amarone, which will soon be released onto the market. The rules stipulate that the finished wine must be at least 14% alcohol and be aged for at least two years from January 1 following the harvest.
The main grape varieties are those that are also used to make lighter Valpolicella from fresh grapes, usually a blend of Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella.
Every year at a wonderful jamboree, Anteprima Amarone, the wines are shown for the first time.
Before we were let loose on them, Daniele Accordini, the oenologist of the growers’ organisation, who is also vice-president of the Negrar Co-operative, gave a long, detailed and scholarly analysis of the 2009 season and of the style of wines it produced.
It was not, he said, an easy year for the growers. After a cold wet spring, an unusually hot dry summer meant that the grapes ripened quickly with high sugar levels and rather low acidity. The wines, he predicted, would be rich and soft.
The grapes are dried on racks for at least a hundred days. In 2009 many started the fermentation as soon as they were given permission by the authorities, before they became too concentrated with sugar.
Even so, the average alcohol was a hefty 15.76, and some wines were quite a bit stronger. Some 58 producers brought their wines to the imposing Palazzo della Gran Guardia in the centre of Verona, half of them samples taken from all sizes of wooden vat.
There’s no agreement in Valpolicella whether the tradition of large wooden botti, which may hold several thousand litres of wine are better than small barrels for the aging process, but everyone defends their choice with typical Italian passion.
One slight disappointment is that some of the top growers no longer take part in Anteprima Amarone, including the 12 influential firms that came together to form “Amarone Families”. They have raised concerns that although from the 2010 harvest Amarone will be able to be sold within Italy’s highest quality designation of DOCG, the expansion of the right to make this very special wine to vineyards on less suitable land on the plain around Verona, rather than from the traditional hillside sites, will lower its quality and damage its reputation.