Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend some time visiting a number of northern Italy’s largest co-operatives. During this time I was treated to some very interesting stories about why certain grapes are grown, shown traditional techniques used to develop some of Italy’s most complex wines and of course I sampled many of the regions great wines. However for the purposes of this blog, my abiding memory from this trip will be how Amarone one of the world’s great wines was discovered/created…..by accident!
For those of you that don’t know, Amarone is one of Italy’s most premium wines made traditionally from a blend of 3 grape varieties; Corvina, Rodinella and Molinara. The ripe grapes are harvested by hand in the first two weeks of October. Bunches of grapes are carefully selected as the quality of the grape skin is vital to the final quality of the wine as it is crucial in bringing tannin, colour and intensity of flavour to the end product. After harvesting, the grapes are left to dry traditionally on straw mats (see Figure 1) or hung from the ceiling, a process called apassimento which means to dry or shrivel in Italian. The grapes are left to dry for around 120 days with the result being a grape which is around 40% lighter than its original weight. The historical benefit of this was that drying grapes helped to increase sugar content, due to the high production caused by Pergola (canopy) vine growing systems, and by the colder climate which was not warm enough to obtain a quality wine. There is some truth in this theory. Nevertheless very recent researches on the DNA of the Corvina grape discovered that stress caused by the dehydration, activates portions of the genes in Corvina that do not activate in other grape varietals, developing unique flavours and aromas in the resulting wine. After the drying process around the end of January/beginning of February, the grapes are crushed and go through a dry, low temperature fermentation process which can last for 30-50 days. The wine is then left to age in either French or Slovenian oak barrels (see figure 2). The resulting wine is often full bodied, tannic, figgy and raisined in style and surpasses 15% alcohol. With the wine being released a minimum of 5 years after vintage although this isn’t a legal requirement.
But after all that did you know that it was discovered by mistake…..In the past the most appreciated wine produced in Valpolicella was a dessert, sweet wine called Recioto, which is also produced nowadays with semi-dried grapes. It was produced using the same method as described above yet fermentation was arrested early to produce a sweet luscious wine, however, what would occasionally happen is that once the fermented grape juice was transferred into oak barrels the wine would continue to ferment converting all the sugar into alcohol; producing a wine often described as bitter and given to the poor. The legend says that in 1936 the cellar master of the Cooperative Winery Catina Negrar (see figure 3) found a barrel of Recioto that had been forgotten in a corner of the cellar. He tasted the wine and screamed enthusiastically: “questo non è amaro, questo è un amarone!!” (this is not bitter, this is a great bitter). The word was soon used on labels together with the word Recioto – Amarone loosely translates as ‘big bitter’. From here, the wine grew in popularity throughout Italy and in 1990 was granted a DOC quality label given to Valpolicella wines. Finally Amarone had gotten its independence from Recioto gaining an identity of its own. From that moment on Amarone continued to increase in its popularity, becoming one of the most famous and appreciated wines not only in Italy but all over the world. In 2009 Amarone got the DOCG registration, only given to the very top Italian wines – what a quality mistake!