Amarone is enjoying a surprising degree of popularity in the United States – surprising especially for a wine that many wine experts think is too big, too austere, too overpowering to match comfortably with any part of a meal except a course of strong, old cheeses. I strongly disagree. I’ve long been a proponent of Amarone: I love its heft and complexity, and I think it partners beautifully with equally hefty meats – unctuous prime rib roasts to be sure, and almost any game dish you can name, but also lamb roasts, or long-cooked braises of all sorts, as well as any number of cheeses. A well-made, well-balanced Amarone has no problems with any dish that can match it in scale.
We winos don’t talk very much about scale, but its importance can’t be overestimated – and it’s almost self-evident, as soon as you stop to think about it. A light wine can be as elegant, or complex, or balanced, as acidic or as tannic, as a big, full-bodied wine, but you would match it with different foods because of its size, its scale. It’s not just the meshing or counterpoint of flavors that makes a good wine-and-food match: It’s also important that, like boxers, the wine and the food belong to the same weight class. With as authoritative a wine as a great Amarone, that element of the match is crucial, lest the wine appear bullying and brutal.
We’ve been very lucky here in the US in that we have for years been receiving steady supplies of some of the very best Amarones, largely from a group of producers who were not represented in the blind tasting of 2013 Amarones that climaxed my week in Verona last month. (The producers who call themselves the Amarone Families withdrew from the Consorzio a few years ago. Allegrini, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Masi, Speri, Tedeschi, Tommasi, and Zenato are the best known here.) Consequently, I had what was initially the very welcome opportunity to taste wines from more than 80 producers, most of whom were unknown to me.
It quickly became clear that this was a mixed blessing. The 2013 vintage was sound but not great – a wet spring, followed by a hot, dry summer, followed by colder than normal weather during Amarone’s crucial drying period, resulted in wines with high acidity (normally good for Amarone) but also lots of tannins. (For what makes Amarone different from other wines, see here.)
Additionally, many of the wines in the tasting were barrel samples, and many of those that were in bottle had either been specially bottled for this tasting or bottled only a few weeks ago. A good many simply hadn’t pulled themselves together yet. Trying to judge wines this young is always an exercise in crystal ball gazing, and it is particularly difficult to judge anything definitively about a wine as long- and slow-maturing as Amarone. We tasters weren’t even dealing with infants but, for the most part, with premature births.
That said, and my expectations tempered to that reality, I was still very distressed by a lot of the wines I tasted. To put it bluntly, far too many wines tasted far too sweet to suit my expectations of Amarone. A few samples had so much sugar that I thought I had mistakenly been given a Recioto to taste.
This is a serious problem. The DOCG regulations for Amarone specify that the finished wine can contain a maximum of 12 grams of residual sugar per liter. For my palate, that is already high. I checked with a few of my wine colleagues (Michael Apstein, Ed McCarthy, Mary Mulligan, Charles Scicolone) about sugar levels in Champagne, just to provide a baseline for comparison. They all agreed: 5 g/l is above the detectable level of sweetness: 12 g/l is the highest limit of Brut Champagne. So 12 g/l is moderately sweet, but a drinker’s perception of that sweetness will depend both on other factors in the wine (acids, tannins, alcohol, etc.) and subjective factors (personal tolerance of sugar, e.g.). I’m not very fond of most sweet wines, and I can’t tolerate a sweet dinner wine, so 12 g/l is really pushing the envelope for me, and I consequently found many of the Amarones in the blind tasting well above my threshold for sweetness. I don’t think I’m way off base on this, so if my palate is any reflection of what the market for Amarone wants, there are serious problems here.
Having said all that, I have to stress that the total picture was not all negative. Even in the blind tasting of these unformed embryos, I found some wines that showed real Amarone character – and of course I tasted yet more mature examples on my round of winery visits. Here are the ones I liked best from both venues (unless otherwise noted, all are 2013 vintage):
From Stefano Accordini:
- Amarone Acinatico. A forceful, grapey nose, followed by a big mouthful of fresh fruit. Very young but well structured. Will be excellent.
- Amarone Acinatico 1981. The winemaker poured this to make a point, which he did indeed. A big, soft, delicious wine, marked by mushroom and earth flavors and great depth. It kept changing in the glass, getting even richer as it opened – as great Amarone always does.
From Albino Armani:
- Amarone Cusianus. Good dry Amarone nose, slight sweetness on palate, with just softening tannins; should develop well. (Barrel sample)
- Amarone Cusianus 2011. A big, well-balanced wine, with excellent fruit, maturing exactly as it should.
- Amarone. Tobacco, black pepper, and dark fruit in the nose and on the palate, coming together in a fairly classic way.
- Amarone Valpantena. Very closed on the palate, but the absolutely classic aromas and finish indicate it will be fine. Bertani is, of course, one of the pioneers of Amarone, and its older vintages are benchmarks for Amarone ageability.
From Carlo Boscaino:
- Amarone San Giorgio. A still closed barrel sample, but like the Bertani wine, the nose and finish promise excellent future development.
- Amarone 2012. An almost smoky, grapey nose; tobacco and berry palate; balanced, while still forceful and elegant. Aged 30 months in big old barrels (botti). Very traditional, very fine.
From Ca’ Botta:
- Amarone Tenuta Cajò. Classic, dry Amarone nose, big fruity finish. Another fairly tight sample, but showing the proper signs: should pull together and start opening in a year.
From Ca’ Rugate:
- Amarone Punta Tolotti. Needs lots of time to pull together its rich components – tobacco, tar, mushrooms, mineral, black fruits – but in a year it should start to be wonderful.
From La Collina dei Ciliegi:
- Amarone L’Amarone. Tobacco, pepper, and earth, both in the aromas and on the palate; long finishing. Very characteristic and promising.
From Corte Sant’Alda:
- Amarone Valmezzane. Fruity, peppery nose, lightish on palate. Still coming together, but should be fine.
From Corte Rugolin:
- Amarone Monte Danieli. Despite being a barrel sample, this wine impressed me as very correctly made and properly developing. It needs time, but should be fine.
From Corte San Benedetto:
- Amarone. Very like the preceding wine. Still slightly closed, but showing all the right signs in nose and finish.
- Amarone. Cherry and tannin all through. Big, fresh, and structured. It seems likely to develop very well.
- Amarone 2011. A classic Amarone – very soft on the palate, with lots of fruit and lots of structure. The tail is still tannic, but it will soften in a year or so.
- Amarone Riserva Octavius 2010. A huge wine, with an intense stemmy/tobacco nose; round in the mouth, with loads of soft tannins, smoky cherry, tobacco, and hints of chocolate. Still young, but balanced, on a big scale.
From San Cassiano:
- Amarone 2012. Very young, with tons of fruit and tannins, plus excellent minerality and nice acidity. Needs lots of time: The producer says to give it five years.
From Santa Sofia:
- Amarone 2011. Just lovely – austere and rich at the same time. Structured to go on for years. A fine traditional Amarone.
- Amarone Corte Bra 2006. At 10 years old, this classic Amarone was just entering maturity. Perfectly balanced, it felt light on the palate despite its rich fruit and impressive structure. Just fine.