So it’s not made like normal wine, then?
No two wines are made in exactly the same way. From the needs of the grapes to the traditions of the region, the ideas of the winemaker or the demands of the vintage, there are innumerable concerns and exigencies which can influence any of the multitude of decisions which go into the making of wine.
That said, few wines are as particular in the way they are made as Amarone della Valpolicella. Like Champagne and Sauternes, it is the best-known example of a method used around the world, and like those methods produces results of unique quality. As well as this, Amarone is virtually the only major dry wine in the world resulting from this method, which has been used to make sweet wines for millennia
Alright, what is this method?
Amarone della Valpolicella is commonly described as being made from raisins, and while this is not strictly accurate it does give the general idea. After the harvest in October rather than being crushed immediately as with most wine, the grapes for Amarone are traditionally laid out on straw mats for the drying process known as appassimento, which gives the method one of its other names – ‘straw wine’ (some wineries will speed up the process by using special heat-regulated rooms). By law this must last until at least 1st December, and can take as long as a hundred days or more, until the liquid level has reduced to around 60% (a true raisin will be reduced to 15-25% of the original water content).
It is then that the grapes are crushed – but unusually slowly, given the need to extract every drop of grape juice remaining, and then fermented for a long time (as much as 50 days, which is massive) to reach a minimum 14% percent alcohol (which, again, is pretty massive). It can then be aged in either traditional botti (large barrels generally made of Slavonian oak or other relatively neutral woods) or barriques (smaller barrels made from French oak) depending on the winemaker’s tastes. Regular Amarone della Valpolicella will be aged for at least two years, but bottles labelled Riserva will have been aged for a minimum of four years, with some producers will leaving the wine to age for as much as ten years!
OK, got it, but what do you do all this for?
It all comes down to what Amarone della Valpolicella is and how the regulations protect that name and what it represents. Those regulations even have rules for how Amarone should look, taste and smell (even though they are fairly broad and flexible). The ultimate aim is to produce a wine with the typical characteristics for which Amarone is known – powerful, fruit-forward, concentrated, and age-worthy. Drying the grapes increases the concentration of sugar in the remaining juice, meaning a higher percentage of alcohol after fermentation. Furthermore, the actual process of drying changes the chemical composition of the grapes and their skins, and the resultant wine is different to regular Valpolicella as well – more prone to smoky, leathery flavours, as well as tobacco, cocoa and (naturally) raisins.
..Powerful, fruit-forward, concentrated, and age-worthy..
The Short Version
How: dry the grapes, crush slowly and ferment slower. Then age.
When: For at least a month and a half after harvest, then for a further fifty days, then for 2-4+ years.
Why: concentration – first of sugar, then of alcohol, and ultimately of flavour and colour.
Do say: Mm, you can really taste the subtlety of the Slavonian oak ageing on this one.
Don’t say: But I only like raisins in panettone.