Complexities and Characteristics of Amarone
Rhys visited Italy earlier this year to better understand the complexities and characteristics of Amarone. Here are his conclusions on this unique wine, ideally suited to fall.
by Rhys Pender, MW
Amarone is something of a legendary wine for those newly discovering what the world of wine can offer. It isn’t something new, nor is it something with a long history, and in fact it could more likely be considered a wine created by modern tastes and times. The first wines were probably a mistake, a fermentation that kept going to dryness rather than stopping to make the sweet recioto wine that the Veneto region was traditionally famous for.
The wines didn’t really get popular until the heady days of the 1990’s when bigger, richer, rounder, oakier and darker were all synonyms for quality wine. This worked perfectly for Amarone, and while originally the wines were dryer and maintained some elegance and freshness alongside all the intense flavours that drying grapes produces, most of the last twenty-five years were years of lushness and the winemaking started to focus on sweeter, softer, more alcoholic and less tannic styles. A warming climate helped exaggerate these changes, demand and prices were high, and red wine lovers around the world gulped it down. Oak barrels got smaller and newer too, furthering the rich, soft style. As a result, Amarone has evolved significantly in its own short life as a wine, and style.
Before the 1990’s, less than 10% of the area’s production went to Amarone. Now it can be as much as 40% in some vintages. The technology and understanding of the process has improved and the drying of the grapes is more predictable, allowing richer wines to be produced. There are now many clones of the key corvina and corvinone grapes and many other local varieties are being experimented with to add complexity to the wines.
The challenge for Amarone producers is to decide on what style to make. The heady days of the 1990’s and 2000’s are now over, and there is a slow but growing movement towards fresher, lighter, more savoury red wines that are lower in alcohol. This hardly follows the path that Amarone had been on, leaving the producers in a bind. Stick with the big, sweeter, richer, boozy style that many customers like, but is waning, or try to freshen up the wines to meet the changing trends? Not an easy decision either way, though with current climate trends, making a lighter version of Amarone may not even be possible.
Sweetness has become an issue. The wines are supposedly dry but that is not really true. Apparently Amarone can have up to 10 g/l of residual sugar if at 14% alcohol, and 1 gram more as the alcohol goes up each 1%. It was not uncommon to find wines of 17% alcohol with high levels of residual sugar, lower acidity and loads of new oak that felt much more akin to dessert wines than table wines. If ever there was a time when you think the technology to lower alcohol might be useful this would be it, but it is not allowed and it certainly doesn’t seem to be happening illicitly given the alcohol levels out there.
Some producers seem to be doing a fantastic job creating flavour intensity with the richness you expect from Amarone while maintaining some freshness and elegance. Corte Sant’ Alda springs to mind as being particularly successful in this regard. I was also impressed in many of the older wines, with lower sugar and alcohol resulting in better balance and more enjoyment. Yes they are more tannic, and have less rich fruit, but there are obviously trade-offs. Producers will have to pick a style and stick with it. Like so many other wines, Amarone can’t be everything to everyone. As a result, consumers need to know a lot more about the wine and the producer beyond that it is just Amarone.
A selection of Amarone currently available in BC Liquors stores. Click on the bottle image or wine name below to read the critic reviews and find these wines at a store near you.