When I first started getting serious about wine in the mid-1990s, Amarone, that famous Italian wine made from semidried grapes, was all the rage in Austin, Texas, where I lived at the time. And Amarone actually figures in my conversion: One night I ordered the crispy roasted duck with port-soaked figs and butternut squash purée at a restaurant called Vespaio with a Brigaldara Amarone 1990. A perfect pairing with the syrupy-salty sauce of port and duck stock, the dense, cherry-coffee-flavored Amarone captured my heart. That night, I committed myself to a deep relationship with wine.
But, strangely, that relationship no longer includes Amarone; I never drink it anymore. Amarone, what happened to us? One of us changed. Was it me or you? Actually, I think we both did. You became bigger, richer, and overwhelming, while I moved away from big, rich wines.
Amarone is a uniquely made wine. Three varieties of grape indigenous to Italy’s Veneto region (near Venice) are picked when ripe. But then they are placed on mats and allowed to dry for up to four months. Over that time some water evaporates, leaving concentrated sugars and flavors, like in a raisin. These semidried grapes are then fermented, making for a powerful wine. For decades of Amarone production, the grapes were prone to rotting during the drying process, because the Veneto is a humid region. Now, thanks to climate control, pristinely dried grapes make for more pristine wines.
“In the past 10 to 20 years the wines have technically improved,” says sommelier and Italian wine expert Claudio Villani (of Quince in San Francisco and formerly of Bartolotta in Las Vegas). “Better vinification techniques have removed the old flaw of volatile acidity. Also the installation of fans and air conditioning in the drying rooms has made for better grapes.”
But Villani also agrees that Amarones have become bigger in style. “The wines are cleaner,” he says, “but they’re also heavier,” because winemakers are now adding some Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are drier today too, with a higher alcohol content. “Now Amarone at the dinner table is almost impossible because they’re so rich and powerful,” Villani says.
It’s true. Italians are famous for always having food with wine. But I remember a couple of years ago at a vertical tasting of Dal Forno, the world’s most famous Amarone, someone in the audience asked the winemaker, Romano Dal Forno, what foods he likes with his wine. It was surprising when he answered: “No food. My wine is a vino da meditazione.” A wine to meditate upon.
Nevertheless, as we move into cooler winter weather, I think I’m going to try to bring Amarone back to my dinner table. There are still some wines that are made in a style that can work with food. Villani suggests heavy dishes: winter stews and braises, or rich risottos with meat or game. He also says that if the wine is too big for the main course, it can always be brought out with a strong blue cheese at the end of a meal. He suggests a wine like the Costasera from Masi or the Acinatico from Stefano Accordini, both of which are still light enough to work at the table. Or I might look up my old flame Brigaldara to see if there’s any magic left.