Amarone, despite the drama inherent in its style and often instant popularity with nearly everyone who tastes it, is too often overlooked when the subject of great wines of the world comes up. Or, if not overlooked, then at least not spoken of in the same reverential tones that are used for the other prestigious wines of Italy—Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello, and the like.
But to give short shrift to Amarone is to miss out on one of the most intense, rewarding wine experiences one can have.
Perhaps that intensity, in fact, is Amarone’s Achilles’ heel: The perception that its success is dependant on opulence and power alone is not only wrong, but also diminishes the exquisite detail and silkiness that the best of these wines demonstrate. This, unfortunately, is the nature of the fine-wine world: Misperceptions and antiquated ideas often calcify, and dubious assumptions take on the power of wine gospel far too quickly.
To start with, then, truly great Amarone can be powerful, yes, but it also possesses a sense of complexity that certainly rivals its other prestigious countrymen. And its ability to age, and to evolve into something quite different from its youthful state, is remarkable.
This was made deliciously clear at an Amarone lunch I attended in February at New York’s Felidia restaurant, co-hosted by the Wine Media Guild of New York and Sandro Boscaini, president of Masi, one of the top producers of Amarone.
The wines—which were tasted on their own for an hour before lunch was served, and then alongside Felidia’s always spectacular food afterward—spanned four decades. The range of styles from producer to producer, and the widely varying imprints that each vintage left on the wines across a range of producers, was fascinating. The younger wines possessed all the rich, occasionally raisinated fruit that you’d expect from Amarone, but nearly all of them still maintained a sense of freshness. And indeed, Mr. Boscaini said during his remarks, Amarone production has improved significantly over the years.
One such leap forward, he said, has been in the process of drying the grapes for the wine. Amarone, after all, is produced from grapes that have been dried, which concentrates the sugars, changes the nature of the skins, and ultimately results in richer, higher-alcohol wines. And because of better controls during the drying process, fewer overripe and overly mature characteristics are finding their way into the resulting wines, which, these days, are often rather fresher-tasting than people expect. Plus, an improved selection of yeast has also raised quality by minimizing the amount of time it takes for a wine to ferment, therefore diminishing the oxidative characteristics that used to be too common.
This, of course, is not to say that the older wines were inferior in any way. Quite the contrary, in fact: From the oldest wine (Bertani Amarone Classico 1972) to the youngest (Masi Costasera Classico 2005), the wines showed the entire range of personality that Amarone fans love so much.
That Bertani 1972, for example, was a fully mature beauty whose silky texture coated the palate and whose grilled green pepper, bitter chocolate, and cardamom notes jumped from the glass. The Masi Costasera 2005, on the other hand, possessed all the exuberance of youth, its freshness offsetting the darker coffee and raisin-y notes with real elegance.
The highlights for me, however, were two wines from 1997, a legendary vintage that I have not had the chance to taste for several years. Happily, these wines showed that the reputation of 1997 is still completely justified. My first smell of the Masi Campolongo di Torbe Classico 1997 reminded me of that first breath of air when you step out of the airport in Torino (minus the car exhaust, of course): It was majestic, with a deep well of chocolate, truffles, moist earth and minerals, a hint of café mocha, and the gentle perfume of flowers floating in the background. The Masi Mazzano 1997, on the other hand, was more mature and perfumed, with concentrated notes of exotic brown spices carrying through to a finish that lasted forever.
Amarones are also incredibly versatile at the table; their richness, rather than overpowering the right food, actually adds a layer of depth that the pairing would have likely lacked had a different wine been used. From Felidia’s quail stuffed with chicken livers to a selection of cheeses, Amarone showed its ability to pair with a wide range of courses.
Age-worthiness, drama, nuance, and usefulness at the table: These are the hallmarks of great wine, and Amarone has them in abundance. And these days, there is no shortage of bottles that fit the bill perfectly. The time has come for a wider audience to begin considering Amarone in the same league as its other world-class countrymen. The quality is certainly there. All that’s left to do now is take advantage of it.
Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer, wine educator, and wine consultant. He is Director of Wine Education at The Wine School of Philadelphia, contributing writer for John Mariani's Virtual Gourmet, contributing editor and food and drinks writer for Philadelphia Style Magazine, contributing writer for Where Magazine and the annual GuestBook, and writer of the weekly wine blog at WineChateau.com. He is also available for speaking engagements, and can be found at www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com.