The shortest road from novelty to tradition is extraordinary quality, and there are two outstanding examples of that in Italian wine, two appellations with – by the Italian time scale – very short histories: Brunello, created 150 years ago, and Amarone, created about 60 years ago; both now prestige wines with their own established character and passionate defenders. Most wine aficionados know the story of how Brunello came to be, but how Amarone came into being is a much less familiar tale, and one that, despite the wine’s youth, is still not entirely clear.
I started thinking about this because of an Amarone tasting I attended two weeks ago at the Ai Fiori Restaurant in New York. Andrea Lonardi, the young winemaker for Bertani, presented a lovely vertical of the firm’s Amarones, a tasting that came close to being a whole history of Amarone.
As we tasted six Amarones running back from 2006, the current release, to 1964, one of Bertani’s earliest releases, Lonardi remarked, “Amarone was born in 1958, and it was born at Bertani.”
Well, yes and no: Bertani certainly originated Amarone as we know it, and Bertani unquestionably marketed the first commercial bottlings of “Reciotto della Valpolicella Amarone,” as the wine was then called, in 1958. That made 2013 the 55th year of its production, and the vertical tasting Lonardi was leading close to a capsule history of the wine.
But surely, Amarone didn’t suddenly, in 1958, spring fully mature from Bertani’s cellars, like Athena from the mind of Zeus. For instance: Masi some years later released its 1957 vintage as Amarone, and Bolla may have done a one-time-only release even a few years earlier. Surely something like Amarone had to have existed before, or the Bertani brothers, like the Biondi-Santi ancestors in Montalcino, had to have spent some time in developing it. There seem to have been sporadic appearances of big, Reciotto-like-but-dry red wines in the Valpolicella zone for decades, perhaps for centuries, before Bertani’s breakthrough. The question becomes, what was different about this time?
Over the years, I’ve heard several different versions of the origins of Amarone. They differ in details, but they agree in two fundamental points: Its ancestor was the lusciously sweet Reciotto della Valpolicella, which was then the Valpolicella zone’s most prestigious wine; and the discovery of Amarone was an accident. Reciotto certainly provided the base from which Amarone could develop. Its vinification involved the passito process, in which selected bunches of grapes are allowed to dry for some time – days, weeks, sometimes months – to concentrate their sugars before being pressed and fermented. This much of the process Reciotto and Amarone still share.
According to one version of the story, an unnamed wine maker – presumably a Bertani or an employee of the family’s, since no one disputes its key role in the development of Amarone – neglected to rack off a barrel of what was intended to be Reciotto. Racking is done to draw off yeasts and stop fermentation at a modest alcoholic level, leaving the necessary degree of residual sugar for a classic dessert wine. Omitting that step allowed the fermentation to carry on to complete dryness, so that when the wine was finally tasted, it was first judged to be a dismal failure – amaro, bitter – and only later determined to be something really good: not Reciotto, but another wine entirely, a big dry one, Amarone.
The other most common version of Amarone’s origin that I’ve encountered involves a run-away fermentation, a fermentation that simply couldn’t be stopped until the yeasts had exhausted all the grape sugars and fermented the wine to total dryness, with, once again an apparently ruined Reciotto being discovered to be a whole new kind of wine.
Both those stories, and all the other slight variations on them I’ve heard, beg the fundamental question of how you get from a one-off accident to a process that reliably yields the same wine every time. Just one problematic instance: the yeasts. As I understand it, the alcohol that the yeasts create out of the sugars they consume is also their death knell, and most yeast strains can’t survive in the kind of alcoholic stews that produce Amarone. If that is so (and I would appreciate some knowledgeable person illuminating me about this), then somewhere along the line someone had to isolate a strain or strains of yeasts that would do the job for Amarone on a consistent basis.
Then there is also the question of the blend of grapes that goes into the wine: Not just any grapes will yield a wine as distinguished as Amarone. In the past, Rondinella was the dominant grape in Valpolicella, both the zone and the wine, but from the beginning the Bertanis had focused on Corvina, which, with its sibling Corvinone, is now recognized throughout the zone as the most important variety for both Valpolicella and Amarone.
That doesn’t sound like another accident to me: It sounds more like someone who had been thinking along the lines of developing a serious dry wine in the zone for some time, and consequently experimenting with the properties of the different native varieties. But if so, why has no one stepped up and taken credit for that foresight? An odd situation, for sure, and a murky one, for so recent a development as the modern advent of Amarone.
In any event, what we do know of Amarone’s modern history leaves the Bertani firm (which, for the record, is no longer owned by the Bertani family) in the same relation to Amarone as the Biondi-Santi family is to Brunello. Each created the wine as we know it now and has overseen its progress from oddity/rarity to international darling.
Like the Biondi-Santis, Bertani has not been happy with what other producers have done with the wine at every stage of that development, particularly at attempts to restyle it to international tastes and passing fads. These include some misguided experiments with barriques (which even Bertani tried for a few years), as well as exaggerated alcohol and residual sugar levels, which are characteristic of too many Amarones today. This is far from saying that Bertani is the only good maker of Amarone; happily, there are many excellent ones – Masi, Allegrini, Quintarelli, and Dal Forno, to name only a few.
All those fine makers share with Bertani a commitment to preserving the character of Amarone as what the French call a vin de garde, a wine that deserves and wants long cellaring in order to reach its peak of velvety perfection. To demonstrate that was indeed the point of the vertical tasting that precipitated all this subsequent rumination about Amarone’s orgins.
From the current vintage to the oldest, the Bertani Amarones showed themselves to be enjoyable drinking at every stage – 2006; 1991; 1990; 1981; 1973; 1964. But there was a definite intensification of the taster’s pleasure and the wine’s subtlety and complexity and depth at each increase in age. The tasting group was unanimous in opting to keep the oldest wines to drink with lunch – in fact, the only real disagreement was about whether the ’73 was a better vintage than the ’64. I couldn’t make up my mind, because the two harvests gave such different wines. Here is a condensation of my notes on the two:
1973: Lots of fruit and a little alcohol in the nose. On the palate, round and soft (acid a touch lower than usual), tasting like a mouthful of walnuts and dry sherry. Extremely long-finishing, with lingering flavors of dried black cherries and concentrated raspberries. A lovely wine.
1964: Harvested late October; crushed in January/February; bottled 1983. Beautifully balanced – round, bright (excellent acid), with mature, almost-sherry-like fruit. Like all the Bertani Amarones, very long finishing. It cries for big roasts and the best cheeses. A classic wine.
By the way: That ’64 Amarone was aged in chestnut for four to six years before bottling, as was normal practice back then. In the past decade, Bertani has been returning to the use of chestnut, and also occasionally cherry wood, for maturing its wines. Chestnut used to be the most common wood for barrels and vats in many parts of Italy, and it does different things to wine than oak does. Cabernet likes oak, but a lot of Italian varieties don’t. In the past few years, I’ve tasted both new wines and old ones aged – and occasionally vinified – in chestnut, and I’ve liked very much what that wood does. It often confers a velvetiness that tames the sometimes harsh tannins of many Italian grapes. In Bertani’s case, the return to using chestnut is part of the firm’s admirable effort to maintain and carry forward the style of wine that originally – and justly – made it famous.