Can Amarone della Valpolicella age?
It isn’t as strange a question as it might seem. Not all wines age well, and most of the Amarone more than ten years old that I have tried have been more tired than lively. Nevertheless, over the past 70 years Amarone has rightly secured a place as one of Italy’s great red wines, and most wines that are considered “great” are also quite ageworthy. For a look at this phenomenon, feel free to read about the unbelievable tasting of 70 years of Barolo I was recently privileged to take part in.
But previous experience combined with recent events – namely the opportunity to taste a hallowed (and ferociously expensive) bottle from the 1998 vintage made by the undisputed titan of the zone – had led me to suspect that, just maybe, Italy’s legendary Amarone might not be worth keeping beyond a decade or two. There would be no shame in that, of course, as there really isn’t anything wrong with a wine providing wonderful drinking enjoyment over the short to medium-term.
That bottle of 1998 Amarone, by the way, was made my none other than Giuseppe Quintarelli, and the nearest vintages I could find to it that were available locally in retail were 1993 and 2003, rarities selling for over €1000 and €500, respectively. The 1998 was still alive and very drinkable, don’t get me wrong, but the fruit on the palate was mostly dried, with plenty of leather and clear signs of oxidation. In fact, several of the others tasting blind with me had estimated it at more than ten years older than its actual vintage. My tasting note on the wine is at the end of this post. After tasting that wine, I was no longer optimistic about the ageing potential for Amarone; however, I remained very intrigued by the tasting of aged Amarone that had been organised for a few days later. Let’s call it academic curiosity.
As it turns out, I need never have doubted; the tasting was spectacular, the wines: vibrant and alive.
So, apparently, the answer to that seemingly innocuous question about whether Amarone can age is “and how!” At least if the evidence presented to a room full of journalists on Saturday, February 3rd at the Anteprima Amarone 50° is any indication.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What is Amarone?
Amarone is a happy mistake.
Back in the 1930s a “forgotten” barrel of Recioto della Valpolicella, which is a sweet wine made from red grapes that have been dried to concentrate sugar, acids and aromas, ended up fermenting dry. The resulting wine was found to be enjoyable in its own right. Before long, this new wine had been dubbed “Amarone”, which means “big bitter one”, partly because the wine was not sweet, as it should have been, but also because the resulting dry wine possessed big structure, depth and power – and had high alcohol. No shrinking violet, this new wine. Originally the name on the bottle was Recioto Amarone della Valpolicella, to communicate the style of the wine properly. Now, of course, the legal name is Amarone della Valpolicella, but its friends simply call it Amarone. And it is unquestionably and deservedly one of Italy’s great red wines.
What is an Anteprima?
All across Italy there are events called anteprimi which are generally put on by the local wine consortium. The point is to present the youngest wines before they have been officially released on the market. Producers will present the latest vintage of wines from the denomination, in this case it was for Amarone della Valpolicella, and it was the presentation of the 2014 vintage – which was an extremely challenging year for the zone.
An Amarone Retrospective
But this rather exclusive tasting of vintage Amarone was only tangentially related to the anteprima; 2018 also just happens to mark the 50th year since the establishment of the Valpolicella DOC, to which Amarone belonged until its elevation to DOCG in 2010, and it was this auspicious anniversary that encouraged Olga Bussinello, director of the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella, to hold a tasting looking back across the history and development of Amarone.
And so it was that a group of around 70 journalists and members of the wine trade gathered in a large room in the Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Verona. The wines were drawn from the cellars of the families who made them – in one notable case, the estate itself no longer exists, but the wines endure. Service of the wines was performed immaculately by a precision-drilled corps of Italian sommeliers, smartly-dressed and with their tastevins hung around their necks on thick-linked silver chains.
1950 “Reserva del Nonno” Recioto Amarone della Valpolicella – F.lla Bolla
Already the colour in the glass was surprising, dark as it was even after 68 years. This bottling predates the existence of the Valpolicella DOC by a good 18 years; it was truly a piece of vinous history. But the deep garnet – going to mahogany – that it offered belied its age. Linseed oil, dried figs, leather and black truffles dominate the nose. Balsamic, yes, but still powerful and with a warm finish. There is still very good freshness here, the finish is long and raisiny, with just a hint of bitterness. Fascinating wine.
1969 “Montresor” Recioto Amarone della Valpolicella – Cantine Giacomo Montresor
Again, as the wine was poured I was impressed by the deep colour. If appearances were the only guide, there would be no way to say that this wine was already 49 years old – the ruby-garnet colour is both intense and dense. Ground flax, dried figs and dates with sweet spices and a hint of strawberry. Still tannic after all these years, but not unpleasantly so. Anise and lightly bitter black coffee, but with a honeyed finish following waxed leather and a hint of polish. The alcohol here is powerful, the finish is long, leaving a memory of plums and port. Expressive and enjoyable.
1983 Recioto Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Superiore – Santa Sofia
Lots of mushroom and sweet black plum, followed by prune, cinnamon and nutmeg. Incredibly, it seems to have less alcohol than the Montresor that was poured previously. The finish offers sweet herbs and there is a suggestion of bacon fat, the tannin lingering alongside.
1985 “Terre di Cariano” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico – Cecilia Beretta
With 1985 we are solidly in the “Parker” years, and the colour of this wine shows it – it is significantly darker than #3 despite being only a couple years younger. There is a lot of tobacco and forest floor in the nose, and it is a bit smoky. Spicy cinnamon, just a hint of mushroom, port-like and with smoother tannin and less obvious acidity than its predecessor. Not quite as sweet in the finish, but still full of mulberry and plum, with a final note of dried cherries.
1997 Amarone della Valpolicella – Roccolo Grassi
This was just the second vintage produced at this estate, which, up until 1996, had been selling its grapes instead of making their own wines. These days they are among the top estates in Valpolicella, and with good reason. This wine was also the only one that I noticed had been decanted before pouring. The nose is medicinal with more than a hint of rubber, but in no way unpleasant. Dark plums and leather baked by the sun. The palate is heavily tannic (now I know why it had been decanted – well, that and the obvious sediment), warm and full. Dried plums, dried cherries and even acai berries going into the finish, with a pleasing menthol touch.
2004 Amarone della Valpolicella – Dal Forno Romano
One of the legendary producers in Valpolicella, some would say as great as Quintarelli. The wine is purple and young – really, far too young. Supremely dense and medicinal, with huge tannin. Black plums and cherries, but a whole box of herbs like thyme and sage. Black coffee and very bitter chocolate. The acidity keeps the wine from becoming too heavy, but this is no lightweight. Extremely long, with a surprising lingering blueberry finish.
2008 “Mater” Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva – Domini Veneti
The only Riserva of the tasting. In contrast to the normal bottlings, which currently require a minimum of two years of ageing before release, the Riserva must be aged for at least four years. There was a good whiff of tomato and tobacco, followed by lots of plum and dried herbs. Mulberry and black plum dominate the palate, then leather, roasted coffee and some mushroom. The finish shows a bit of rum and butter, with lingering traces of vanilla and coconut. Loads of tannin and very good acidity that will only be tamed with plenty of time.
This wine, the youngest of the lot, was quite restrained in the nose and tight on the palate. Black cherries and plums push their way through the masses of tannin, with menthol and mulberry on their heels. The length is good, but the finish is a bit hot, with fig rounding out the profile. This wine was also a bit exceptional for the simple reason that there was a bit of Turchetta in the blend, which is a permitted native variety that used to be widespread, but which I have only seldom seen these days. Not that it was possible for me to identify it in the wine.
1998 Amarone della Valpolicella – Quintarelli Giuseppe
I had this wine in a blind tasting a few days before this historical tasting of Amarone took place. I am very grateful to have been able to try it, but I have to admit that I would never have placed it in the league that Quintarelli is supposed to be playing in. Now, after having benefitted from this tasting of aged wines, I really do believe that it was simply a sub-optimal bottle – there is no way it should have been showing the kind of age and premature oxidation that it was. The vintage was quite a surprise; many of my colleagues pegged it at least ten years older than it was.
The colour is garnet going to mahogany at the rim. Medicinal and slightly nutty in the nose, with a fig and prune undercurrent. Caramel and molasses, and plenty of mushroom. On the palate it suddenly seems much more youthful, with more black plum and some mulberry, even some strawberry. Tannin is still firm and acidity is good, length is reasonably good as well. A good wine – and interesting – but clearly oxidised.