Amarone: A Historical Happy Accident

  • By Beatrice Bessi
  • 10 Apr 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
Made possible by
Appassimento process - Credit : Masi AGRICOLA SPA

It is quite unbelievable to think that Amarone, the famed red dried-grape wine from the Valpolicella area in the northeast of Italy, was born as an oversight.

The legend attributes the proper birth (or discovery) of Amarone in 1936 to Adelino Lucchese, the cellar manager of the local cooperative in Negrar, as he found a forgotten barrel of Recioto, and he feared it may have lost all the sugars, becoming too alcoholic, bitter, and unpleasant.

When he tasted it, with surprise, he exclaimed: “Questo vino non è amaro, è amarone!” (this translates as “This wine is not bitter (amaro), but amarone!” with the ending “-one” acting as an augmentative/ameliorative suffix). Recioto is a wine that has been made for two thousand years, as its history can be traced back to the Romans. Recioto was originally the final goal, and Amarone was simply a rather fortunate mistake.

In fact Amarone has always been known as Recioto Scapà in the local dialect, meaning a Recioto wine that has “escaped” and fully fermented as dry wine, when the intention was to produce a sweet one. Recioto was the traditional wine produced by the families in Valpolicella, usually for festivities like Easter, celebrations for new mothers, and even being used as medicine.

The wine is carefully made by selecting only the best part of the bunches, the “recie”, or ears of the bunches. The grapes are harvested fully ripened and left for months in a Fruttaio, where traditionally the bunches are piled up and left to dry out and reach the desired concentration before heading to the fermentation.

Amarone In More Recent Times 

We have to wait until the 1950s for the first commercially produced Amarone. Until then, Amarone was usually cheaper in price than a Valpolicella “house” red. Amarone finally gained its own identity on a wine label in the 1990s; until then the wine was still labelled as “Recioto Amaro” or “Recioto Amarone”.

Today Amarone production represents 20% of the total wines produced in Valpolicella, with 15 million bottles produced every year. It has been an incredible success in countries like the USA, Germany, and Scandinavia. Amarone della Valpolicella gained its DOCG status quite recently, in 2010.

The appellation dictates the following rules: 

  • Only 65% of the total producer’s maximum yields can be destined for the production of Amarone.
  • Amarone della Valpolicellaismade of 45 - 95% Corvina or Corvinone, with 5 - 30% Rondinella, and a maximum of 25% other red grape varieties. Those varieties can be indigenuous to the Veneto area, like Molinara and Oseleta, or native to Italy, like Croatina for example.
  • Grapes may not be vinified until December 1st of the harvest year.
  • Amarone needs to be fully dry with a max of 9g/l residual sugar, with minimum alcohol of 14%.
  • Amarone della Valpolicella can beproducedin the western Classico area, comprising the five valleys of Sant'Ambrogio, San Pietro in Cariano, Negrar, Marano, and Fumane, in the Valpantena area, and the eastern area, surrounding towns like Mezzane and Illasi.
  • The minimumageingrequirement  is a minimum of two years for the Amarone della Valpolicella, and a minimum of four years for the Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva. However, the top quality producers tend to age their Amarone for longer before releasing them, sometimes after 7 - 10 years.

Amarone Is Made In Both The Vineyard And The Cellar 

Even for Amarone, a wine style that goes through a unique process in the cellar, it is important to have healthy grapes, with the best exposition to the sunlight, good soil, and good ventilation in the vineyard, to achieve the best balance between acidity, tannins, and structure.

The Valpolicella region is very varied in soils, aspect, and altitude. The major soils here are based on solid limestone, with a mixture of fossils, rocks, marls, and calcarenites. In some areas one will also find volcanic soil.

This diversity leads to different qualities, flavour profiles, and acidities, and so traditionally Amarone is made by the blending of different parcels, in order to maintain consistency. Saying this, over the years the tendency of producers to bottle single vineyard Amarone, usually selected from the best high-quality grapes, had steadily increased.

Traditional vs. Modern 

The fermentation and the maturation were traditionally made in big old French oak casks or big Slovenian botti. In the last 20 years we have witnessed many producers taking a different approach, with fermentation in stainless steel vats, and maturation in new French small barriques, recalling similar developments with Sangiovese in Tuscany, or in Barolo, Piemonte with the Nebbiolo grape. Nowadays producers often embrace a combination between the traditional and the modern, as the producers’ final goal has always been to achieve both quality and balance.

Appassimento process - Credit : Masi AGRICOLA SPA