Sometime in the early part of the 20th century, a dry style of Recioto began to emerge, most likely by accident. It is entirely possible that a few barrels of Recioto destined to become sweet wine simply slipped by an inattentive wine maker and finished fermenting to dryness. Or it could be that the popular tale of winemakers away during the World Wars couldn’t be home to watch and tend to the wines, with the same effect. In any case, Amarone as we know it in its full-bodied dry style only appeared in the 1930’s, and it was even later in the 1950’s that it began to first be sold commercially. When the winemakers discovered that their formerly sweet Recioto wine had gone totally dry, they pronounced the resulting wine “Amaro”, Italian for dry/bitter, and thus the name was born. Once fermented to dryness, Amarone is then matured in wood – sometimes French oak barrels, sometimes in large Slavonian casks, for several years or more.
There are numerous stories (and a bit of dissention) about who actually made the first Amarone, but there is no doubt that in the short time since then it has become an Italian classic known all over the world. Today it is far more popular than sweet Recioto (which is still made but not easy to find), with most modern day wine drinkers preferring dry red wines to sweet. The unique process used in making Amarone produces a solid, dark and full bodied red, typically with alcohol in excess of 15%, that is perfect with hearty rich foods and an ability to age for several decades. The very best are sought after by collectors and connoisseurs alike for their superb quality, and Amarone from the very top produces such as the legendary Giuseppe Quintarelli (who recently passed away), and Romano Dal Forno fetch prices more akin to top Classified Bordeaux than the simple but delicious Valpolicella of the region.
With its popularity there is a downside as well, as demand for the wines has increased the amount of wineries making Amarone. Less scrupulous producers are making wines that barely meet the letter of the law in order to get cheaper versions on the shelves. While Amarone made using short cuts can be passable dry red wines, they often have little in common with their hand crafted, quality oriented (and yes, more expensive) brethren, as making great Amarone is costly in both time and labor. In order to combat this problem and potential threat to Amarone’s image, a group of the top producers calling themselves “The Amarone Families” and consisting of some of the top properties in the region, have created an organization to maintain and improve the quality and image of Amarone. They do this by requiring voluntary regulation and using wine making and grape growing practices that are above and beyond those required by law to create the very best examples of Amarone’s richness and power, as well as protect and maintain its prestige and image as a world-class red. Amarone received its recognition of being a DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) in 1968, which served to increase it popularity, and was upgraded to its own DOCG in 2009, in recognition of the highest level of quality by the Italian Government.
Amarone’s intense flavors and higher alcohols make it a wine that can be a bit tricky to pair with food. Traditional dishes from the Veneto work great, risotto all’amarone or Pastissada de Caval (yes, you guessed it), as well as beef, lamb and game such as rabbit, wild boar and venison are all great options, especially slow cooked or braised in hearty stews. It is also great after dinner with Cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino vecchio, old Gouda, and blue cheese such as Gorgonzola (dolce works too), Stilton, or Roquefort. Serve it just at about 65F in a large, good quality wine red wine glass to allow it to open, decanting will also help the wine top open and show its best.
Some of my favorite producers include Tommaso Bussola ($55), Romano Dal Forno ($350), Giuseppe Quintarelli ($350 and more), Bertani – ($80 and up more depending on the vintage/age) and Allegrini ($75-80).