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The ABCs of Amarone

The ABCs of Amarone

Since antiquity, semi-dried grapes have worked their magic in Valpolicella. Today, Amarone prevails as the most luscious modern expression of this ancient style.

Pop quiz: Name the red grape most characteristic of…
1) Tuscany
2) Piedmont
3) The Veneto

You probably aced 1 and 2, knowing sangiovese to be the foundation of Brunello, Chianti, and Vino Nobile and nebbiolo to make Barolo and Barbaresco. But the Veneto? Where the heck’s that? you’re likely thinking. Even if you did know it’s a region in northeast Italy whose capital is Venice, and that its most important wine zone is Valpolicella, nestled between Verona, Lake Garda, the Dolomite mountains, it’s understandable if you find yourself stumped. Why? Because Veneto wines aren’t characterized by a particular grape, but by a winemaking technique. It’s one based on semi-dried grapes and goes back to Roman times.

The appassimento process, dating back to the Romans in Verona

The appassimento process, dating back to the Romans in Verona

“Regal color…dense and meaty…drinkable purple of incredible elegance.” So rhapsodized Cassiodoro, chief minister of Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, in the 4th C. AD when describing the wine in Vallis-polis-cellae (Latin for “valley of the many cellars,” from which ‘Valpolicella’ derives). Cassiodoro was right. These reds are among Italy’s most plush, succulent, and seductive. Never mind the Valpolicellas of recent memory—those thin, reedy wines served in spaghetti-and-meatball eateries during a pre–Slow Food era. Today, Valpolicella’s premium reds—namely Valpolicella Superiore or Ripasso, Amarone della Valpolicella, and Recioto della Valpolicella—truly are “drinkable purple of incredible elegance.”

Recioto, Amarone, and Ripasso are a trio of styles with one common denominator: some element of dried grapes. The oldest variation is Recioto, a sweet wine that bears the closest resemblance to its Roman prototype. The Romans would often let grapes hang on the vine until partially dried, a technique that concentrates the grape’s sugars and intensifies its flavors. While that worked well in southern Italy, the grapes in this sub-alpine environment grew moldy on the vine, unable to withstand the humidity and rains that came after harvest. So the Romans moved the grapes inside, laying the foundation for Valpolicella’s characteristic drying process, called appassimento, which today occurs in 390 well-ventilated fruit lofts. 

Fortunately for the Romans and their modern counterparts, Valpolicella is blessed with native grapes that are uniquely suited to this drying process. To withstand the cold winds blowing down from the Alps, the local grapes—corvina, rondinella, molinara, and oseleta, among others—evolved thick, waxy skins. “You cannot dry other grapes in the same way because of their skins,” says Enrico Raber, enologist at Musella. “If you dry a cabernet or syrah for four months, you’d have only the skins. The Veneto’s red grapes are thick and produce a natural wax, so evaporation is not so fast.” What’s more, corvina, the most important grape in the blend behind Valpolicella reds, does not have a densely packed cluster. This enables air to circulate between the individual grapes, discouraging the scourge of mold.

For centuries, Recioto had the stage to itself. Named for the ‘ears’ (recie in Latin) or broad upper shoulders of the clusters which ripen first, Recioto was a special occasion wine. “My father used to say that Recioto was drunk to celebrate something, or people would bring a bottle to friends recovering from an illness,” says Pierangelo Tommasi, a fourth-generation member of Tommasi, one of the area’s leading wineries. “It was also used in church, as God’s blood, so it was a special wine.”

But after World War II, tastes changed. Sweet wines fell out of favor, and Recioto was upstaged by Amarone, the second wine in the dried-grape triad. It’s said that Amarone was born by mistake, when someone forgot about a vat of fermenting Recioto. Untended, all the sugars converted to alcohol and a dry wine from dried grapes was born. Because the result seemed bitter (amaro in Italian) compared to the sweet Recioto they were expecting, it was dubbed Amarone, or “big bitter.” The moniker stuck, but never has a wine been so inappropriately named. Amarone has a rich, velvety mouthfeel, luscious dark cherry flavors with hints of plum and raisin, and a smooth, approachable character, even when young. It’s perfect for winter roasts and holiday fowl with dried-fruit sauce.

Hand-selected bunches being laid on bamboo drying racks at Trabucchi.

Hand-selected bunches being laid on bamboo drying racks at Trabucchi.

Far more than Barolo or Brunello, Italy’s other pedigree reds, Amarone is a labor-intensive wine. At harvest, a rigorous selection is made in the vineyard, with workers painstakingly cleaning every cluster like a diligent barber, snipping off moldy and damaged grapes. Then each bunch is carefully laid on a bamboo matt or slatted wood or plastic case and moved to a drying room. During the four-month appassimento process, the clusters are periodically flipped to prevent mold. Meanwhile, humidity levels in the fruit lofts are scrupulously monitored and adjusted by opening and closing windows, using giant fans, and, more recently, employing computerized climate-controlled drying chambers. After appassimento, the hands-on labor continues during fermentation. Because the grapes are in a semi-raisined state, having lost 40-50% of their weight, “modern systems do not work well with Amarone,” says Emilio Pasqua, owner and agronomist at Musella. “Normal wines have a ratio of skins-to-juice of 25:75. In Amarone, it’s typically 50:50.” Inside the fermentation tank, the cap of floating skins can be six feet deep. “So it’s hard to mix them and obtain the desired extraction. In the end, we have to work by hand.”

Such artisan, hands-on aspects of Amarone are astonishing and go a long way to explain its hefty price. Compared with Barolo or Brunello, which involve far less labor, Amarone seems like a value.

Thrifty-minded consumers who love the taste of Amarone but not its price tag often turn to the third member of the triad: Ripasso. This variation starts with a corvina/rondinella–based Valpolicella blend made the normal way, using fresh grapes. After fermentation, the juice is set aside and waits for Amarone and Recioto to undergo their appassimento for four to five months and fermentation for 50-55 days. The Amarone and Recioto are then racked off their skins and moved into oak barrels to age, whereupon the fresh Valpolicella is transferred back into those tanks. Passing over (ripasso) the moist, fermented skins of Amarone or Recioto, it referments for a week and extracts some of their dried-fruit character.

Grapes on their 100-day drying process in the frutaio

Grapes on their 100-day drying process in the frutaio

 “Ripasso has to retain the idea of Amarone without being so big,” explains the Musella enologist. “Originally, the old ripasso technique was developed to increase the quality of a low-quality wine. So, the method is old. But commercially, Ripasso wines are new, emerging in the past 15 to 20 years.”

In fact, they’re all the rage. Consequently, Tommasi cautions that not all Ripassos are created equal. “Our Ripasso starts from a selected Valpolicella wine,” he emphasizes—not like the bandwagon makers of Ripasso, “who, in order to sell mediocre Valpolicella, do ripasso over the skins. That doesn’t come halfway to this.” Indeed, in an effort to raise standards, the consortium governing the Valpolicella DOC instituted new rules concerning three critical factors in Ripasso: the ratio of vinaccia to juice, the length of refermentation, and the quality of the grapes used. “They now require much lower yield for Ripasso-destined vineyards, fermentation together of at least five days, and a minimum ratio for the juice to pressed skins,” says Tommasi, whose uncle sits on governing committee. The new rules came into effect with the 2007 vintage, but, as Tommasi notes, “We’ve been abiding by those standards since 1995.”

Since the word “Ripasso” isn’t currently required on the label, look for “Valpolicella Superiore.” This is likely to be either a ripasso or a baby Amarone—a wine made with grapes dried less than 100 days. Bottom line: Head to the Valpolicella section of your wine shop and start exploring. With countless variations on the dried-grape theme, there’s plenty of “drinkable purple” to enjoy.

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