Wine: Amarone not just for the Romans anymore

Not so long ago Amarone used to be a curiosity and a local speciality – respected as a unique unusual wine made from super-ripe bunches left to dry to concentrate flavours, based on a long tradition going back to Roman times. It was a wine sipped by those in the know and those who could afford it.

“In the 1960s no-one thought it possible to make Amarone in areas outside the cool hills of Valpolicella Classico, but today it is easy thanks to new techniques for drying grapes safely,” says Sandro Boscaini, head of the Masi winery outside Verona.

So now Amarone is becoming a commonplace wine across Veneto. The figures are staggering. In 1997 just 1.5 million bottles of Amarone were produced; today it has risen to 14 million – much of it sub-standard.

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The key to the change is the grape drying process. Grapes for Amarone were traditionally laid out on bamboo mats in farmhouse lofts up in the hills, away from the mould-inducing humidity of the valleys – dried for three months prior to fermentation in January. Now, nothing is left to chance with drying warehouses complete with temperature and humidity controls.

“One of the problems is that in 2009 the authorities gave Amarone DOCG status, but did not specify it had to come from a finite area of the Classico hills,” says Silvia Allegrini, who runs a leading family winery which has been based at Palazzo delle Torre in Fumane up in the hills since the 16th century.

So now you find Amarone emerging from the low lying plains, where the simple fragrant table wine of Valpolicella is usually made. Production of standard Valpolicella has now dropped from 50 million to 24 million bottles.

Resentment from the top Amarone producers has led them to form an association called “The Amarone Families” with Masi, Allegrini, Tommasi, Speri, Tedeschi and seven others agreeing to a charter to preserve artisanal character. All their wines will have an “A” sticker to show they are handcrafted Amarones.

The producers have agreed to adhere to restrictions such as minimum 15 per cent alcohol, minimum 30 months wood maturation and de-classifying in poor vintages.

The best Amarones are among the lushest, most full-bodied reds you can buy – slightly less raisiny than in the past, but a style which clearly appeals to modern drinkers.

Alpha Zeta Amarone 2009

(£21, The Wine Society, www.thewinesociety.com)

A lush, ripe, affordable style with dried cherry aromas, spicy smoky undertones and a savoury finish made by Matt Thomson at Allegrini.

Masi Costasera Amarone 2008

(£27, Majestic Wine; Edinburgh Wine Importers)

Rich, ripe cherry notes, light, bitter sweet finish.

Masi Mazzano Amarone 2004

(£70, The Vineyard Wine Merchants, Lancashire; www.winesearcher.com)

Balsamic savoury nose, high alcohol, still fleshy and sweet despite maturity, long length.

Allegrini Amarone Classico 2008

(£50, Valvona & Crolla; Villeneuve Wines; WoodWinters; Harvey Nichols)

Spicy soya aromas, rich, intense, very fleshy with fabulous long length.