© by Tom Hyland

Marilisa Allegrini
Marilisa Allegrini in the family's estate vineyards.

Amarone is one of Italy's wine treasures that is loved by wine drinkers looking for ripe fruit, power, roundness and a sense of adventure in their red wine. Put a combination like that together and it should come as no surprise that Amarone is so popular these days.

Why is Amarone enjoying such renown and acceptance these days? Being a big read 14 percent alcohol wine doesn't hurt and either does the name which most people can pronounce, unlike some Italian words. But it may be the singularity of this wine that makes it such a favorite.

Amarone is produced in the region of Veneto by estates that make Valpolicella, one of the most popular wines of this area in Northeastern Italy. The same grapes, primarily Corvina (usually the leading component in the blend) along with Rondinella and Molinara, are used to produce Amarone. But the difference between the two wines is usually striking; where Valpolicella is a medium-weight wine meant for consumption with lighter fare with in its first 3-5 years, Amarone is a much more robust wine that is perfect with game birds or other such sturdy fare over the course of 7 to 15 years.

The reason for the stylistic difference in these wines is in the winemaking. To produce an Amarone (properly known as Amarone della Valpolicella Classico), a winemaker will take the harvested grapes and lay them on a straw mat, often in an attic or other warm room. The grapes then dry over the course of several months creating a raisiny flavor that is a distinctive character of Amarone.

As Amarone comes from the Italian word amaro ("bitter"), most examples have a tartness or slightly astringent edge to them. Alternatively, you may notice a sweet edge to them that can be explained in the concentrated sugars the grapes pick up during the drying process. Certainly, the combination of raisiny and sweet black fruit can make Amarone an irresistible temptation.

That slightly sweet edge in the finish can also come from the fact that a particular Amarone may not be entirely dry. Amarone is actually a recent innovation, dating back only from the 1950s. Before that, the process of drying grapes in this fashion (known as appasimento) resulted in a sweet, super-rich wine known as Recioto. Legend has it that the first Amarone was a mistake, as a winemaker had let a barrel of wine ferment too long and the wine's residual sugar had been eliminated. Recioto is still made today and its sweetness and richness make it a perfect choice at the end of a meal, often with powerful cheeses. (Many producers of Amarone also produce a Recioto the official name is Recioto Della Valpolicella with Masi and Tedeschi among the best.)

Here are notes on current releases of Amarone. The 1997s are excellent and represent a ripe, powerful vintage. The 1998s, though less brawny, are quite impressive and tend to have more acidity.

Produced in the traditional Amarone method where the grapes are dried for about 100 days, losing about 40 percent of their original weight. A blend of 75 percent Corvina, 20 percent Rondinella and 5 percent Molinara grapes. Deep ruby red- violet with an aroma of plum, rosemary, soy sauce and a touch of chocolate. Medium-full to full body with excellent concentration. Firm but balanced tannins and very fine acidity help round out the flavorful finish. Drink now or over the next 5-7 years. ($40) ****

Deep ruby red with an aroma of black cherry, plum, thyme and oak. Full-bodied with very ripe fruit. Long finish with big tannins and moderate acidity. As with most producers, the 1997 Allegrini Amarone is bigger than the 1998. The 1998 is a more gentle wine for now and the next few years, while the 1997 is a more powerful wine and should drink well for a few more years, peaking out in 7- 10 years. Both are excellent quality however. ($40) ****

Costasera literally means "evening slope" and refers to the vineyards that catch the setting sun. Ruby red with an aroma of sour cherry, raisin and evident oak. Medium-full to full-body with excellent concentration, this is a ripe, forward style of Amarone. Big tannins are a major component of the finish, so give this some time to settle down. A lovely accomplishment, this should drink well for 10-12 years. ($45) ****

Another single vineyard Amarone, this has a deep ruby red color and an aroma of raisin, black cherry and violet. Medium-full to full-bodied with excellent concentration, this is ripe and forward like the Costasera with a touch more alcohol (16 percent). Big finish with abundant tannins, this should drink well for 10-15 years. ($45) ****

A single vineyard Amarone that receives more aging in small oak barrels than the previous two examples. Deep ruby red with a classic Amarone "raisiny" nose. Full-bodied with layers of flavor and big, but silky tannins in the finish. There is a light sweetness to this wine (about 2 percent residual sugar) in the wonderfully complex and long, long finish. This should drink well for 12-15 years. Instead of trying to match this with red meats, try this wine instead with full-flavored cheeses such as Pecorino or Parmigiano. Exotic and outstanding! ($50) *****

Ruby red with an earthy, cedary aroma with hints of cherry and thyme. Medium-full body with very good concentration. Long finish with rich fruit and balanced tannins. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. ($50) ****

Ruby red, with an aroma of red raspberry, cedar and thyme. Medium-full with very good concentration. Big finish that is elegant with balanced tannins and a hint of sweetness. Classic style of Amarone to be enjoyed now or over the next 7-10 years. ($60) ****

This is a single vineyard Amarone with a deep ruby red color and a fabulous nose of plum, oregano, sage, a touch of raspberry and a hint of tobacco. Medium-full to full body with excellent concentration. Long, long finish with great complexity. Excellent acidity. Drinkable now, although it will be better in a few years, reaching its peak in about 10 years. ($45) *****

A blend of 70 percent Corvina, 20 percent Rondinella, 5 percent Sangiovese and 5 percent Molinara. Light purple with an aroma of tobacco, black raspberry and a slight raisiny character. Medium-full with very good concentration, this is an elegant and fairly straightforward Amarone for drinking over the next 5-7 years. ($55) ***

A blend of 80 percent Corvina, 10 percent Rondinella, 5 percent Sangiovese and 5 percent Molinara, this wine received one extra year in wood as compared with the regular Amarone. Ruby red with a lovely aroma of tobacco, walnut and black cherry. Medium-full to full bodied with excellent concentration. Layers of flavor on the palate and in the finish, this is quite complex and satisfying. Elegant enough to drink now, this will be enjoyable for 10-12 years. ($60) ****

***** Outstanding
**** Excellent
*** Very Good

Sept. 23, 2002

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