On a bright chilly winter’s day I was invited to taste Amarone. The tasting marked the 10 year anniversary of the Famiglie Storiche, 13 historical families who came together in 2009 to present the best of Amarone DOCG; to uphold tradition while pushing the boundaries. That sort of thing.
Before I delve into the tasting notes, here’s a quick Amarone briefing: Amarone is a member of the Valpolicella family. You’ll be familiar with the quaffable light bodied and lightish alcohol Valpolicella from the eponymous DOC in the North of Italy not so far from Verona. This is made from native grapes Corvina Veronese and/or Corvinone, Rondinella and often a small percentage of Molinara and maybe a little Oseleta. Valpolicella is the bread and butter of the region.
At the other end of the sweetness spectrum there is Recioto DOCG. It’s made from the same grape combo but is a super selection, hand picked of course as the bunches are harvested in tact. These are first dried in well ventilated spaces – traditionally attics or lofts, but these days less romantically in purpose built buildings.
These concentrated grapes are fermented until the yeast gives up leaving plenty of residual sugar in the finished wine. This sweet stuff is aged for goodly time. Result – a truly scrumptious pudding wine.
In the dim and distant past some tenacious yeasts continued the ferment and almost finished the job,. There was just a slug of residual sugar (2019 regulations limit this to 15 g/l in a 15% wine). This style was dubbed Amarone, derived from the word bitter – an appealing bitterness. The Italians are adept at attractively bitter tastes in food and wine.
The last family member is Ripasso de Valpolicella which received its own DOC in 2009. To make the Ripasso style, Valpolicalla is added or re-passed over the skins of the pressed Amarone fruit. The sugar activates a bit more fermentation. Valpolicella with turbo boost. A little more body, richness, sweetness, alcohol and complexity. This style is super versatile, love it, but I digress as this blog is about Amarone.
So what should you expect from a decent Amarone DOCG. Quite a lot of alcohol for sure – 15% maybe more, a rich texture, tannins aplenty, a full body and bitter cherry notes. I like those with bitter chocolate on the finish to offset the residual sugar. Traditionally Amarone was pretty robust with burly tannin, but modern interpretations are more fruit driven with softer tannins and greater approachability in youth. Many producers are now ageing their Amarone in French barriques together with the more traditional large Slovenian oak fudres.
Sergio Zenato (beside his vines in the photo below) explains that the Famiglie Storiche are all family domaines of at least second generation and each owns a patch of the best terroir in the region. Whatever that means. A quick shifty on the internet also mentions that they must produce a certain volume and export to several markets. Many of them declare on their label the number of bottles produced, as a mark of exclusiveness The bottle count seemed high to someone specialising in Côte d’Or Burgundy where quantities are much smaller. However the group go above and beyond legal obligations for drying grapes. This permits producers to gather their dried grapes and start fermenting on the 1st December, while the Famiglie Storiche wait at least 100 days for maximum shrivel.
I tasted one Amarone, sometimes several, from each producer of the group and found three stand out wineries… which were more than good or good value or appealing.
However to kick off, Zenato make a benchmark modern style Amarone.
Zenato Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2015
Smooth, juicy and accessible with plenty of dark fruit richness and sturdy, but soft tannins. 17.75 (RRP £50 Eurowines Ltd)
I found their wines particularly elegant and energetic and it was no surprise to discover they follow biodynamics. There was a notable sensitivity in the handing of their fruit. The delicacy and purity would be be easily missed in such a tasting. I tried all their wine.
Musella, Valpolicella DOC Superiore 2017
Vibrant cherry, light tannins and finished with a nice dry sapidity (£20)
Musella Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Superiore 2016 has the extra level of richness and sweetness (£21)
Musella Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG 2012
This had wonderful intensity of fruit and vibrancy (£38 for 375ml bottle).
However this is a blog about Amarone… I really must stay on track!
Musella, Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Riserva 2012
A refined Amarone, pure with silky tannins, elegance, freshness and energy. A long and intense finish.18.25/20 or 94/100 (£50 approx)
Emilio Pasqua di Bisceglie is assisted by his daughter Maddalena (seen below) and nephew Enrico Raber. I spoke with Maddalena. Clearly they are working in tune with their vineyards and with their environment. Their vineyards are on three west facing slopes of clay and tufa are in the most southern part of the region so early picking is essential to achieve this elegance.
A seventh generation estate, which dates back to the early 1800s. Three generations are now involved.
Tasting their Amarone it stood for a graphite-like minerality on the palate. Amarone tastes sweet (of course) and the best are balanced with fresh acidity, but this tasted more savoury. I liked this savoury bitterness and the tannins were finely grained.
Speri Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico Vigneto Monte Sant’Urbano 2015
Svelte with a dark mineral core and graphic pencil shaving on the finish. Rich, intense, but with cool grip. Good savoury finish. 18.25/20 or 94/100 (RRP £53)
I also liked their Valpolicella DOC Superiore Vigneto Monte Sant’Urbano 2016 RRP £22.
These wines take their name from the Monte Sant’Urbano single vineyard. It is clear they are looking for finesse rather than power.
Founded in 1902 this now has an enviable 205 hectares with 105 in the more exclusive area of Valpolicalle Classico. At the top end Tommasi focus on individual vineyards. The current Tommasi incumbent explained how humidity control is paramount in the drying process. He describes their process as “fairly natural” in a loft – if it is breezy the windows are opened, but if the weather is damp or foggy they close the window and put on the humidifier.
This is an estate with a high and merited reputation for Amarone. I tried three – here goes.
Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico 2015
Very accessible, fruity modern take on Amarone. A rather nice introduction to whet the appetite for something more …. 17.85/20 or 92/100 (£40)
Tommasi Ca’ Florian Amarone Della Valpolicella DOCG Classico Riserva 2011
Now this is more like it. Direct, straight, well defined, powerful and channelled. Serous stuff. 18.5/20 or 95/100 (£80)
Tommasi De Buris Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG Classico Riserva 2008
Intense and precise with a wonderfully persistent and elegant finish…very discreet and intense. 18.75/20 or 96/100 £250
I will also mention another small winery I liked…
A small family run winery founded at the end of the war by grandpapa Giordano. Just 12 hectares of high altitude vineyard. Adriana Giordina highlights the importance of the stems drying quickly in a few days. This reduces the possibility of any botrytis forming as there is then a seal at the end of the stalk where it meets the berry.
Begali Ca’Bianca Amarone della Valpolicella DOGC Classico 2013
I like this for its classic bitterness, plenty of cherry fruit with notes of dry coriander seed on the finish. Perhaps not the most elegant of tannins, but very attractive none the less. (Sun and Stone approx £50).
They also make a really rather appealing Valpolicella with soft tannins. It’s bright and fresh with almond marzipan notes..delish and just £15)
Musella. Available in the UK from Armit Wines. Musella.it
Speri. Looking for an importer to the UK. speri.com
Tommasi. Maison Marques et Domaines. www.tommasiwine.it
Zenato. Eurowines Ltd. zenato.it
Begali – Sun and Stone and The Italians in Chiswick. Begaliwine.it