What’s in My Glass? Amarone
Ok, so I may have actually had 12 glasses during my Amarone experiment at the New York Public Library this week–but who’s really counting?
Definitely not the snazzy Euro-chic Italians who make this juice in the North Eastern hills of the Veneto region and then travel all the way here to sample it. (If anything, I’d think they’d want us all to have at least 20 glasses.)
Amarones are rich, high-alcohol reds that burst with flavor and complex aromas. They’re often aged for decades (with prices to reflect their cellaring), and it pays off.
The secret to Amarone’s honeyed, nutty, complex combinations of cherry, cooked fruit and vanilla is the drying process performed on the grapes between when they’re harvested and crushed. Bunches of indigenous grapes–Molinara, Corvina, and Rondinella, among others–are dried indoors (usually in large, root cellar-esque caverns) until 40% of their moisture has evaporated, leaving the remaining juice super-concentrated and sweet under the shriveled skins. It also creates a higher ratio of skin-to-juice contact, which is what gives Amarone the structure and bite it needs to develop gracefully for up to thirty years in the bottle.
Waiting 30 years for a taste of these wines can make pairing daunting–nothing like decades of anticipating juice only to find your mother’s pot roast is a godawful match for the bottle. Luckily, I’ve found they make great sipping wines–cooked apricot, fruit, and spice flavors unfold gently, and lingering complexity makes them a great conversation piece around a table.
If you do want to throw a little food on that table, honey and aged cheeses (like Parmesan or Robusto) are excellent complements.
With a main course, I’d recommend braised cuts of meat like pork and a younger Amarone. A hearty squash ravioli would also please palates with an young Amarone like Musella Amarone Della Valpolicella Riserva D.O.C. 2006 ($50). Though on the young side, this juice had plenty of the blend’s characteristic honey-nut flavors, with a heavy dose of spice and intense dried fruit flavors.
Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico D.O.C. 1997 ($150) began to reveal how aging releases sublter, and more complex flavors than the Bam-in-your-mouth younger Amarones. Savory aromas like black pepper, herbs and cocoa revealed surprisingly elegant fruity flavors. This wine didn’t attack my mouth, but the flavors were very much alive with ripe red cherries dominating, and a finish that lasted well beyond the time allotted for this glass.
I was also lucky enough to taste the Masi family’s Mazzano Amarone della Valpolicella Classico D.O.C. 1990 ($300), which comes from what is arguably one of the best vintages the region has ever seen. To put is simply this wine was FANTASTIC. In one sniff, my nose was overwhelmed by an interplay between warm strawberries, vanilla, baking spices, leather, and caramel. In my mouth, the flavors evolved for minutes around an illusion of sweetness and teased me unrelentlessly with dried fruit flavors, a beef jerky-esque leathery-ness and a full-body that disguised 16% alcohol. The Masi was like organic candy that gives you a buzz instead of a sticker when you open the box–and I’d be hard-pressed not to finish the entire box once it was open.
As you can tell, aging completely changes the flavor profile of these wines so I’d recommend either looking for something old (and preparing to pay for it) or snatching up a young bottle now and burying it somewhere for five or ten years. Be ready for a big surprise once you wipe off the thick layer of dust.
Cheese courses! (And wines that give the perfect excuse to elongate a meal).
Fun Fact: Amarone comes from the Italian word ‘Amaro,’ which means bitter and refers to the astringent bite of younger Amarones.