Don't Dry This at Home
Amarone-style wine requires patience, experience
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is Shakespeare’s ingenious deconstruction uttered by Juliet. In other words, if the fiore d’amore were not spelled “r-o-s-e” and, instead, represented a less salutary smell spelled with four letters, what would we do? Personally, I would find another Romeo.
Juliet’s words and their capacity to identify meaning relate directly to the wine in question here, Amarone. The storied wine has been made for centuries in the Valpolicella wine district of Verona, Italy, the location of the Bard’s most famous romantic tragedy. Nowadays, Verona hosts the largest show of its kind in the world, Vinexpo — the Superbowl half-time event for winemakers and wine lovers.
As the story of the star-crossed lovers has traveled so well around the globe, so too, has the famous wine from the hills and dales surrounding Verona.
Amarone, which means “great bitter one,” does not refer to an emotional state, but the fact it is not Recioto. Great moments in winemaking can occur by mistake. Recioto, left too long in some barrels, lost some of its native sweetness, becoming Amarone.
Five wines derive from the Valpolicella designation: Superiore, Classico, Ripasso, Amarone and the aforementioned Recioto. Three indigenous varietals go into fashioning these wines: Corvina, Molinari and Rondinella, with certain allowances made for other varietals. What makes Amarone the pride of this litter, however, is the technique used to produce it. Ultimately, we must ask not merely how the techniques used translate elsewhere, but also whether the effort pays.
For instance, the acidic Valpolicella Superiore will strike novice palates as astringent and thin. Pair with fruit or charcuterie plates and the message softens. Likewise, the “baby Amarone” inherits its well-fined acid-to-fruit balance by having been exposed to the pomace of Amarone — the remains produced from the fermentation stage. In our New World market, driven by Cab Sauv and related red blends, the Amarone matrix may seem daunting, when it is, in fact, approachable — you can build a five-course dinner around this family of wines.
People who become infatuated with the wine are an interesting group, defined both by their love of what’s needed to produce it, and also its sheer voluptuary abandon. It’s a wine that rewards anticipation.
As easily as the Amarone-style wine evokes appreciation — even, passion — we must remember that the sun-dried method used for the harvested grapes, called appassimento, is painstaking. While the ultimate quality is fashioned in the vineyard, we would be wise to appreciate the unique tasks performed to produce these marvelous wines.
Before drying the grapes, one must tend to the clusters, leaving plenty of room for air to pass along the individual bunches. The purpose is to ensure the health of the skins, which bring the tannins, color and intensity of flavor to the wine. Usually harvested in early fall, the grapes are placed onto mats — straw or canvas — to work on their tans up to four months.
Desiccation, says winemaker Ed Fus of newly opened Urban Crush in Portland, reduces the entire crop by volume, thus concentrating the developing flavors to emerge in winemaking.
As the fruit dries, potential problems can occur. Exposed grapes may be subject to bacteria and botrytis, ruining the suitability of the fruit. And this gamble, in turn, illustrates the nature of the appassimento process — for there is method in this madness.
The Romans of imperial times sought a substitute for honey, at that time, the primary sweetening agent for wine and other foods. The roads led up the boot to places where grapes were sun-dried, producing a solar sugar before Western civilization invented the plantation. The process itself seems to have immigrated to Italy by crossing the Adriatic, where it arrived from Crete at the far end of outre-mer. This “discovery” by phalanx and sword may have occurred as recently as the late third century AD.
Importer Ciro Cirillo of Mission Wine Company exclusively imports about 60 Italian wines, including Amarone and Ripasso. He points out that even on the straw, one considers what will happen next.
“It depends on the final proportions of the primary grapes. In one way, the Amarone has flavor profiles like Port. In another emphasis, the raisinated grapes show best. Then, in a third way, the effect may come from the relative lack of acid in harmony with the relatively high alcohol content, producing a mouth-filling bonanza.” He stresses there is not one correct approach. “All emphasis will produce wonderful wine almost too intense to drink every day. For that, we have Valpolicella Superiore.”
Grapes once dried go to crush and fermentation, long after other wines. “This is the point that poses a second chance for spoilage,” Fus says, adding the juice must be moved into new French oak to rest for as long as 15 to 20 months. In Italy, new French oak is one of three kinds of barrels used, the others being Slovenian and Slavonian. Even after this step, the wine, once bottled, must wait two to three years for release.
Joe Meduri, whose Cinzia label is produced in Oregon by Fus, notes that the numerous stages of production increase the cost of making the wine. “This is a labor-intensive wine, and we make it because we love it.” Like this writer, Joe and his wife, Cindy, fell for Amarone decades ago but only recently decided to try to produce some wine in the style of their favorite.
To date, no one has tried to root the Veronese varietals in the Pacific Northwest. Instead, Meduri sources Zinfandel, Petite Syrah and Primitivo for his production. This choice offers a wonderful symmetry. Zinfandel, long spurned by Cab-obsessed Type-A moneybrokers, is once again getting a little respect. And its kissing cousin, Primitivo, from Apulia on the Adriatic coast, has recently been traced to a Croatian vine that survived history and its trials since the time the Romans searched for a proto-sugar.
The major distinction of Cinzia’s production comes from the Meduri’s family business located in Salem, now operated by their sons. They are the dried fruit emperors of the state; they use their sophisticated drying system to replace the appassimento sequence. So their production curve is flattened and speedier.
So, does the effort pay? I think these wines acquit themselves very well. I recommend letting them take the air in order to allow their copious aromas and textures stimulate the senses. The high alcohol sails on a galleon over a sea made of sinew, spices and suggestion.
What’s in a name was the inspiration leading to Juliet’s analysis on the name and stink of the rose.
Apparently the answer, no matter your zip code, is everything.