It was standing room only. Truly, it seemed like everyone in the New York wine industry had cleared their calendar to attend the Amarone Families event last October. Participants were advised to arrive early and I was glad I did, snagging a seat in the front row, with a complete set of 12 glasses. Later arrivals weren’t so lucky, counting their blessings if they had a seat and a single glass at all. Adding to the confusion, moderator Robin Kelly-O’Conner advised attendees that the wines were no longer in the order of the tasting sheet, noting, “It’s called the Italian way.” But, we all made do and finally, about 10 minutes after the published start time, the event kicked off.
The object of everyone’s affection (and attention) was the Italian wine known as Amarone della Valpolicella from Italy’s Veneto region. Produced primarily from Corvina and Corvinone grapes, local archeological evidence of these vines dates to 40 million years ago. Moreover, records of wine production in the Veneto area go back as early as the 5th century BCE. Located north of Verona, the larger Valpolicella appellation translates as the valley of many cellars and with the general profusion of wine production here, it is easy to see why.
However, Amarone della Valpolicella is a smaller, more specialized appellation than Valpolicella itself. And, operating within the Amarone appellation, the Amarone Families is a self-regulating consortium of Amarone producers who have banded together to take up the cause of quality Amarone. The initial group of families met two years ago to establish this organization.Current members include: Allegrini, Begali, Brigaldara, Masi, Musella, Nicolis, Speri, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant’Antonio, Tommasi, Venurini and Zenato.
Membership is restricted to family-owned wineries that have been producing Amarone wine for a minimum of 15 years and that export their wines to major global markets. Accepted members must adhere to more stringent production requirements than those of the regular appellation laws. More specifically, even though the Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG permits production at 14% abv, members of Amarone Families must achieve alcohol levels of at least 15% abv. Moreover, while the law requires a minimum of 20 months of barrel aging; Amarone Families members must age their wines for 30 months and many of them actually exceed this time frame. Further, Amarone may only be produced in good vintages; when less favorable conditions exist, members must declassify their wines.
The Amarone Families’ attention to quality is reflected in the area’s production figures. In 2001, 5 million bottles of Valpolicella were produced compared to 16 million bottles in 2011. Among the Amarone Families producers, production during this same period rose from 2 million bottles to 2.5 million bottles, an increase of only 25% as opposed to the regional increase of 300%.
When further discussing this emphasis on quality, participants were advised that the key to making Amarone is “not technology, only grapes, grapes, grapes.” Come harvest time, the experienced workers look for healthy grapes with loose berries and thick skins. Close attention is also paid to the weather post-harvest, since, unlike in the production of other wines, winter weather will also influence the quality of Amarone wine. Cold and dry conditions are necessary for proper drying of the grapes; if the weather is wet, it becomes increasingly challenging to create a quality wine. The drying process in creating this appasimento-style wine is critical. The drying period officially runs from September through December 1, but the Amarone Families continue to dry their grapes until January 1. This additional month means that the grapes become more concentrated, but also lose more juice content. When making Recioto della Valpolicella, the drying process is further increased to build up more sugar in the grapes, since, unlike Amarone, it is a sweet wine.
Once the drying period is completed, pressing takes place followed by a month-long fermentation. As a result of this complex and time-consuming production process, the wines are big and bold with high alcohol (many of the wines we tasted were 16% abv) and robust flavors. Most of the wines in the line-up were from the 2001 vintage, which showed developing aromas of dried figs, prunes, spice, cinnamon, dried cherry, balsamic, vanilla and, despite their age, were still quite concentrated and tannic. In describing the profile of these wines, Salvatore Esposito of Italian Wine Merchants claimed that if the U.S. produced Amarone is would be a “…wine made in Texas.”