Amarone is one of the world’s great red wines, and also one of the most easily misunderstood. The full name, Amarone della Valpolicella, deceptively invites comparison to a wine of much lesser quality, and with reason. The same grape varieties are used in both Amarone and garden-variety Valpolicella (Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara). Anyone who has sampled the best Amarone, however, will remember it for years, or even decades.
The production process can be time-consuming and tricky. After harvesting, grapes are dried for up to four months, traditionally on straw mats. This dehydrates the grapes, concentrating both the sugar levels and intensity of flavor. Amarone is then aged in casks for up to seven years as it re-ferments and intensifies further. If aging is arrested, the result is usually a sweeter version called recioto. If not, a dry, powerful, and full-bodied wine is bottled with high levels of alcohol and ripeness. For an introduction to the category at a modest price, look for a ripasso—a wine fermented with leftover Amarone pomace.
In modern times, the holy trinity of Amarone has consisted of Quintarelli, Bertani, and Masi. The late legendary winemaker Giuseppe Quintarelli was the key person who established Amarone as a world-class wine. Today, his estate is run by his grandchildren. Production is tiny (roughly 5,000 cases annually), the wine is very hard to find, and prices are stratospheric—beginning around $300 and reaching $1,000 per bottle in a top vintage.
Bertani was one of the first estates to sell Amarone in this country, beginning in the 1950s. Its approach is extremely traditional, with the wine remaining in cask for a minimum of six years and re-fermenting every spring. Prices hover in the $100 range, even for recent excellent vintages such as 2004 and 2006.
Of the three top estates, Masi presents the most appealing profile for the consumer: Quality is extremely high, prices are reasonable, and the wine is readily available in retail stores as well as online. The Boscaini family purchased its first vineyard in 1772, and has been making wine ever since. Beginning in 1973 it collaborated with the Alighieri family, descendants of the poet Dante, to manage the most celebrated estate in the region.
I recently revisited a trio of Masi Amarone and found each to be exceptional in its own way. The workhorse of the portfolio is Costasera, made from four selected vineyard sites overlooking Lake Garda. The nose of the 2010 ($50) reveals scents of savory herbs, anise, and mint; flavors of spiced plums and black cherries linger on the palate, along with an herbal edge on the finish. The 2008 Costasera Riserva ($70) offers whiffs of mushrooms, minerals, and black fruits on the nose. In the mouth, it is even more seamless and balanced than the regular bottling, filled with flavors of plums and blackberries—an absolute pleasure to drink. The Serego Alighieri Vaio Armaron 2007 ($75) is the most forceful of the three. Aromas of black plums, prunes, and walnuts soar from the glass. The wine is full-bodied and edgy, filled with pepper-tinged flavors of ripe black fruits and underlined with good acidity.
Food pairings: Since Amarone is a powerful red from the northern region of italy, look to the local dishes for the perfect entrée match; think slow-roasted meats, stews, and wild game. It also makes the perfect accompaniment to a platter of strong cheeses to conclude a meal.