Amarone (della Valpolicella) of Conti Dagostino
Veneto, located in northeastern Italy, is one of the country’s twenty regions; and Valpolicella is Veneto’s most famous wine district. (The name “Valpolicella” is believed to derive from the Greek language, meaning “valley of many cellars”). Of all the wine styles of Valpolicella, “Amarone della Valopolicella,” or simply, “Amarone,” is the most venerated. And of all the Amarones of Italy, the one produced by Conti Dagostino ( www.contidagostino.it ) is the best.
The Italian word “amarone” (pronounced “ama-roh-neh”) literally means “great bitter”; it derives from “amaro,” which means “bitter,” and the suffix “one,” which denotes impressive size or volume. But to inhale the bouquet of, or to taste the decadently delicious wine, is to wonder how it ever received its disparaging appellation. One unfamiliar with the history of the wine might think that the ever-creative Italians, in a clever attempt to keep the precious liquid all to themselves, gave the wine a discouraging name—the way the wily Danes encouraged unwitting mariners towards barren “Greenland” while keeping the more habitable “Iceland” for themselves. But in the case of Amarone, the Italians were more innocent than their Nordic neighbors.
Like vin santo, Amarone is a “passito” wine: It is made from partially dehydrated grapes. But unlike vin santo, Amarone is not a dessert wine; instead, it is a rich, flavorful, dry, red wine made primarily of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes, sometimes supplemented by Corvinone, Negrara, and Oselata varieties.
Traditionally, the grapes destined for Amarone production are selected while still on the vine: Sparsely spaced bunches of vine-ripened grapes are hand-picked during the first two weeks of October and allowed to desiccate for a period ranging from three weeks to 120 days atop reed mats in a warm, dry, well-ventilated room or portion of the winery. (Today, with modern wine technology, the drying process, called “appassimento” in Italian, occurs in temperature-controlled rooms atop stainless steel racks or upon wooden pallets). The dehydration process allows the natural sugars in the berries to concentrate.
At the end of the designated appassimento period, the grapes are gently pressed, and their sweet “must” (juice) is allowed to ferment until all the sugars have been converted to alcohol, resulting in a robust wine with an alcohol content of about 15 percent by volume. The wine is then aged in barrels (called “barriques”) of French, Slovenian, or Slavonian oak for at least two years, but usually for around five or six years, before being bottled for commercial release.
Veneto’s most famous wine today, Amarone is a relative “new-comer” on the wine scene: In 1953, Bolla and Bertani produced the first vintages for commercial release. While Amarone-style wines have existed in the region for centuries, it was rarely deliberately made. Typically, Amarone was “made” by “mistake” when a vintner producing “Recioto,” a popular dessert wine of the region, would inadvertently allow his or her Recioto to fully ferment, thereby converting all the residual sugar in the Recioto into alcohol, producing, in the process, a strong, dry, somewhat “bitter” wine—bitter as compared to its sweet Recioto counterpart. (When producing Recioto, the fermentation process is purposefully interrupted so as to preserve some of the sugar content of the wine). In 2009, the production of Amarone wine in the Valpolicella zone was granted DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita/ controlled and guaranteed designation of origin) status. And today, when one thinks of the wines of Veneto region, one thinks of Amarone.
Technically, “Amarone” may be made anywhere within the greater Valpolicella wine-producing zone; but only the Amarone from the Valpolicella Classico and Valpantena sub-zones can legally be labeled “Amarone della Valpolicella.” And the finest terroir (the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma) of the entire Valpolicella zone is found in the northern portions of the Valpolicella Classico—in the villages of Fumane, Marano, and Negrar. There, the hills rise more than 2000 feet (610 meters), allowing the grapes to capitalize upon the crisp sub-Alpine air, the northern Italian sunshine, and all the subtleties and aspects that derive from unimpeded exposure from every direction. The grapes of Conti Dagostino’s Amarone della Valpolicella are grown in the hills of Negrar.
For the gentleman who likes dining the old-fashioned way, the way Romeo and Juliet and the other ladies and gentlemen of the Houses Capulet and Montague of fair Verona would have dined—great feasts featuring game-meats such as venison, wild boar, turtle, rabbit, pheasants, geese, and duck, for example—Amarone is without equal anywhere in the world. And of all the Amarones, the one produced by Conti Dagostino is unsurpassed.