Amarone Wine: The Definitive Guide

If you are seriously about Amarone, the best way to learn all about this important Italian wine is to book one our guided tours in Valpolicella. In a half or full day itinerary, you will become an Amarone expert, walking the vineyards where the grapes grow, seeing where the Appassimento (grape drying) takes place, visiting the cellars where it rests inside large wooden barrels and sampling various types of Amarone to learn about its characteristics and styles.
However, if you do not have time to come to Italy, or you have not planned your trip yet, you should read this guide, currently the most complete on the web.

Contents

1. The History of Amarone: «This wine is not amaro!!»

Oldest bottle of Amarone – on display at the Cooperative Winery of Negrar (Cantina Sociale di Negrar)

(When was Amarone born?)

In spite on what many believe, Amarone is a fairly recent wine. According to the legend, Amarone was “discovered” in 1936, in the cellars of Villa Novare (now Villa Mosconi Bertani), then the headquarters of the Cooperative Winery of Negrar. In those years the most appreciated product of Valpolicella was Recioto, the sweet wine made from semi-dried grapes that is still produced today.
The cellar master Adelino Lecchese discovered a forgotten barrel of Recioto in a corner of the cellar. He feared that the sugars had turned into alcohol, and that the wine had become dry, bitter and basically undrinkable. He tasted it and to his surprise he immediately realized that the wine had become dry indeed, but that it was also extremely pleasant. Apparently the name Amarone was born that moment, when Adelino shouted: “This wine is not amaro, but an Amarone!” (“amaro” being the Italian for bitter, and the ending “-one” the augmentative/ameliorative suffix).
The first bottles with the name Amarone on the label appeared few years later, in 1938. In 1953 started the production on a regular basis.

1.1. Recioto

It wasn’t uncommon for Recioto to become bitter because of the rudimentary techniques used to stop fermentation before all the sugars were trasformed into alcohol. We could almost say that Amarone has always existed, at least since Recioto existed, that is more than two thousand years. Recioto is probably something very similar to the so-called Rhaetian Wine, which was produced in a region of northern Italy that includes the current Valpolicella and that the Romans called Rhaetia. This wine was so well known in ancient times that Cato (234 BC – 149 BC), Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC), Pliny (23 AD – 79 AD) and other Roman poets and writers praised it in their books. Suetonius (70 AD – 122 AD) states that the Emperor Augustus himself appreciated it (“De Vita Caesarum” – About the life of Emperors).
Romans loved sweet wines so much that they even added honey and spices if they were too dry and sour.
In the fifth century AD, Cassiodorus, minister of Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, in a letter describes a wine produced in Verona with dried grapes. He suggests to his king to try, once there, this wine «…dense and fleshy…with a regal colour and an incredible sweetness...».

1.2. From Recioto to Amarone

Natural sweet wines like Recioto are obtained by artificially stopping the action of yeasts during fermentation, so that not all the sugars inside the must are transformed into alcohol. Today, with modern winemaking techniques and tools, this is easily achieved, but in the past the action of the enzymes was not always properly stopped. It was not uncommon for a sweet wine, stored inside a not perfectly sealed cask, to continue to slowly ferment so that all the sugars contained in it were transformed into alcohol. The result must have been rather disappointing for the winemakers of the past who, expecting a sweet nectar, ended up with a very dry wine, which in contrast to their expectations felt bitter on the palate. Such a “bitter” wine in a world where sweet wines were appreciated did not have much market, and it was sold for cheap, given to servants or used for cooking. This would explain the origin of some traditional Veronese dishes that require large quantities of Amarone such as Pastissada, horse meat stewed in Amarone, or Amarone risotto. Only in recent years, with the change in tastes of wine lovers, Amarone has become famous, appreciated, and expensive. If it had been so since the beginning, they wouldn’t have wasted it for cooking.

1.3. Modern Amarone

Consumer tastes change with time and gradually, towards the end of the 19th century, dry wines began to spread, and what was previously considered a mistake, gradually began to be produced intentionally. At the beginning on the labels the indication was Recioto Amaro (Bitter Recioto), then came Recioto Amarone. And it was only in 1990 that Amarone finally gained its independence from Recioto and got its own identity on the label. Since then Amarone has continued to increase in popularity, becoming one of the most famous and appreciated wines not only in Italy but all over the world.
Since the 2010 vintage, Amarone has obtained the DOCG certification, the highest mark of control and quality for Italian wines. The full name is “Amarone della Valpolicella” which is to all intents and purposes a registered trademark protected by international laws. In order to use the “Amarone della Valpolicella” denomination on the label, a winery, in addition to having the vineyards within the boundaries of the area designated for the production of Valpolicella, must follow a series of very specific rules that establish every single aspect of production: from the type of vine, the duration of the drying of the grapes, the aging time, etc.. Consorzio di Tutela del Valpolicella (www.consorziovalpolicella.it), the association that groups together all the producers, is responsible for the drawing up of these regulations and of their implementation by wineries.
It is important to underline that the rules of the DOCG establish only the minimum quality parameters that a producer must meet to obtain the right to use the denomination. Each wine maker can then decide to do more and better.

2. Production Regions

Valpolicella wine producing area, which is where Amarone is made, is divided into two macro-areas: Valpolicella Classica (historical Valpolicella) and Valpolicella Allargata (extended Valpolicella). It is possible to determine where the wine has been made by looking at the bottle. Wines from the historical area will have “Valpolicella Classica” or “Amarone Classico” on the label, wheras wines from the extended area will only have “Valpolicella” or “Amarone”.

Valpolicella wine producing areas map
Map of Valpolicella wine producing areas. (Courtesy of Consorzio per la Tutela dei Vini Valpolicella)

 

2.1. Valpolicella Classica

It is the region that gave the name to Valpolicella wines, including Amarone, where they had their origin.
It is a not very large hilly area between the city of Verona to the east, and the valley of the river Adige to the west.
The shape reminds of an upside-down left hand, where the fingers are hills, and the spaces between one finger and the other four parallel valleys that run from north to south towards the plain. Each valley its named after the small-town that lie at its bottom: Negrar, Marano, Fumane, Sant’Ambrogio, plus a fifth that closes the border of the production area to the south: San Pietro in Cariano. Subtle variations in the composition of the soil, differences in altitude, exposure to the sun and wind, give a fairly distinct caracter to the wine produced in each sub-area. Competition between producers and territories is obviously very fierce, and of course everyone says they produce the best Amarone.

2.2. Valpolicella Allargata

When the demand for Valpolicella wines started to increase around the end of the ’60s, especially because of foreign demand, it was decided to expand the production area to supply the increasing requests. Going eastwards from Verona, the enlarged area consists of the valleys of Valpantena, Mizzole, Marcellise, Mezzane and Illasi. Valpolicella Allargata borders Soave wine producing region on its eastern side.
Although initially the wines from Valpolicella Classica were considered better than those from Valpolicella Allargata, this region has in fact always had its own history and independent dignity when it comes to wine making. In the extended area there are some of the most prestigious cellars of the denomination, both old and new. For example Bertani, a winery that has made the history of Veronese winemaking, is located in the valley of Valpantena. And Romano Dal Forno, who produces some of the most prestigious (and expensive) Amarones, is in Val D’Illasi.
Today, the quality of the wines of Valpolicella Estesa is in every way comparable to those of Valpolicella Classica, and the only difference is only in the name.

3. Amarone Bottle-Aging Potential

(How long can I keep an Amarone in the cellar?)

Amarone is among the wines that can age longer in the bottle.
Any Amarone, from the moment it is bottled and put on the market, can easily remain in the cellar for 10-15 years. This, of course, provided that the storage conditions are correct. Temperature around 16-18 °C (60-64 °F) all year round with very little temperature variation, darkness and humidity around 60%, bottles kept horizontally. We can say from experience that bottles of Amarone kept vertically at home at room temperature, with hot Summers and cold Winters, remained excellent after years. Of course we also have to add the disclaimer: “don’t try this at home”.
Particularly favorable vintages from wineries that make long aging in large casks, can easily age for 20-25 years and in this case the storage conditions, if you want to have a good experience when you decide to uncork it, are very important. Bertani winery for example, still has on sale some old vintages from the ’60s and ’70s, guaranteed in conditions of perfect drinkability.
If you want to be sure without trying your luck, whether you can keep your Amarone in the cellar for more than 15 years or it’s better to drink it, the only way is to know the producer and how he works. Wineries usually conduct regular tastings of their old vintages, keeping record of how their wines evolve. We always suggest to contact them for advise. They will be happy to help.

3.1. Young Amarone Vs Aged Amarone

When you choose to buy an old vintage or when you decide to leave an Amarone in your cellar, a very important thing to keep in mind is that wine is alive, and continues to evolve in the bottle. A wine aged twenty years will be very different from a wine that has just been bottled.
The color will change. From bright ruby red it will gradually shift to garnet, and then it will turn to brick color with orange shades.
Above all, it will change the nose and palate.

  • A young Amarone still retains many fruity hints of cherry, maraschino and black currant jam.
  • An aged Amarone will have more spicy aromas, with hints of tobacco, leather, ground coffee.
  • An older vintage over the years will tend to turn to earthy aromas such as old wood, dried mushrooms and violet, tar and turpetine.

Being aware of what you like is important to be sure to open the bottle at the right time.

4. Pairing

Amarone is a full-body red wine with a big structure and high alcohol content that nowadays easily exceeds 15%. When it comes to food matching, the same rules used for this type of important red wines apply: stew, braised meat, game, red meats with rich gravy, mature, tasty cheese.
However, unlike prestigious wines made with Cabernet, Sangiovese or Nebbiolo, what makes Amarone so unique, is its great and very typical softness and roundness since a young age. Thanks to the particular drying process, and the long aging in barrel, Amarone is normally ready to drink few months after bottling. It generally doesn’t need long years of bottle-aging to tame rough and sharp tannins as it often happens for many other wines in the same price and prestige range. Someone called Amarone a steel fist inside a velvet glove. These characteristics make it particularly versatile even in combinations.
Despite the high alcohol content, some particularly elegant Amarones can be easily matched with more delicate dishes than the usual stew of wild boar.

5. Amarone Buyer’s Guide

In the last twenty years, due to its growing international success, Amarone has also seen the prices of its bottles rise dramatically. Nevertheless, there is a wide variety of prices on the market with considerable differences between one bottle and the next, which can range from 15 to 250 euros per current year. Such a price disparity often causes great confusion when it comes to choosing a bottle on the shelf.
We will try to make a minimum of clarity here by providing the tools to make informed purchases.

5.1. Fraud – (Is it really Amarone?)

Fraud is unfortunately always possible, and fortunately it is often discovered and severely prosecuted, but in principle, if an Amarone has the DOCG numbered label (for vintages from 2010 onwards, DOC for those before) it means that it has passed the quality controls to be certified as Amarone. These include both chemical-physical analyses carried out in the laboratory, and tastings by groups of certified sommeliers who must determine whether the organoleptic characteristics of the wine fall within the minimum parameters of classification.
Once the bands are received, the bottle is uniquely identifiable and it is possible to verify its traceability by entering the code on this site: https://www.siquria.it/tracciabilita

Amarone tracking.
Amarone tracking.

5.2. Under 15 €

As we have repeatedly pointed out in this guide, the rules of the DOCG set only the minimum parameters of quality. In a supermarket or wine shop, if at the time of buying an Amarone I do not know the winery and the vintage, as much as the label and label guarantee that the wine has all the requirements to be classified as Amarone, I cannot know how good it actually is.
In this guide we believe we have well illustrated how laborious it is to produce Amarone. Production limits, manual harvesting, specialized personnel able to select the right bunches, reduction of up to 40% of the final volume due to drying, long aging in barrels. All this work is inevitably reflected in the final price.
Excluding fraud, in order to be able to go below certain prices, the wine must be a mass product at the limit of the minimum requirements to be called Amarone. That is why we do not recommend buying Amarone that costs under 15 euros per 0.75 bottle. The price refers to retail shelves in Italy. Abroad, including transport, taxes, duties, distribution and retailer recharging, depending on the country, the figure should be increased by 50-100%. In the price range 15-20 euro you can find excellent Valpolicella Superiore and Ripasso. We strongly recommend to enjoy an excellent Ripasso rather than a mediocre Amarone.

5.3. Luxury Amarone

It is a general rule of the economy that the price of a product is determined by what the buyer is willing to pay for that product. This of course also applies to Amarone. If it is almost always true that a too low price is an indication of a rather simple and uncomplicated product, not always a very high price will reflect the quality of the wine.
The price of an Amarone certainly depends on some production factors. One of the elements that most determine the final cost is the time spent in cask for aging. Producing Amarone costs money. Cellars invest a lot in the production of grapes, harvesting, buying barrels, etc.. Having the wine immobilized in the cellar to refine for years means moving away in time the time when you will recover the money invested. The wineries that leave the wine in the cellar for a long time do so to have a product of superior quality, but this of course has a cost.
Even if it is an important information to determine the quality of the wine and its value, the time of aging in cask is not information that the producer is required to report on the label. The year on the bottle always indicates the harvest. It is therefore possible to find Amaroni from old vintages, aged in cask for the minimum of two years required by the regulations, which were then left in the bottle for the rest of the time. Although the wine is also aged in the bottle, this is a different type of ageing.
When we write (end of 2018), as a general rule (to which there are obviously exceptions), you can find excellent Amaroni, young, with 2-3 years of aging in cask, in the price range 20 – 30 euros per bottle.
Mature Amaroni, with 4-6 years of aging in cask, greater complexity and intensity, in the range 40-60 euros.
Above 80 euros per bottle you enter a price range in which spending is justified by the value we give to that particular wine or by the prestige of a famous and recognized brand. If we like it so much, we find it so unique that we think we won’t find anything like it anywhere else, then the expense is justified.
As always, we talk about the cost of purchasing directly from the cellar.

5.4. Vintages

A differenza di certi vini francesi o americani, il prezzo dei vini italiani non varia a seconda dell’annata. Come abbiamo detto, negli ultimi anni il prezzo dell’Amarone è andato aumentando ma questo è stato un processo progressivo senza grosse variazioni di anno in anno, e soprattutto senza abbassamenti di prezzo per annate in cui la produzione è abbondante e la qualità scarsa e repentini innalzamenti per annate con quantità limitate di alta qualità. Questo naturalmente vale se si considera l’acquisto in cantina. Nel mercato secondario ci possono poi essere variazioni in base al ricarico o alla scontistica che il rivenditore applica.

Masi vintages evaluation chart.
Masi vintages evaluation chart.

Naturalmente, per vecchie annate molto ricercate e ormai esaurite, i prezzi possono aumentare. In questo caso però è importante sottolineare che una bottiglia ha valore solo se il vino al suo interno è in perfette condizioni. Per l’acquisto di vecchie annate bisogna sempre e solo rivolgersi a rivenditori di fiducia che garantiscano che le bottiglie sono state conservate nelle giuste condizioni di temperatura, umidità, assenza di luce.

Amarone Wine Tours

Discover the history, the legends, the wine making secrets and all about Amarone and other Valpolicella wines with Amarone Winery Tours. All our guides are passionate about their territory and wines and will take you through a unforgettable tour around the many wineries of Valpolicella. Amarone Tours is specialized in small party, tailor made winery tours and will take care of everything: transport, booking at wineries, organization of tastings, lunch, English translation and even wine shippment. You only have to relax and enjoy your favourite wine.

send us a mail at:
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or call +39 389 983 5269