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The unique, ageworthy wines of Amarone

amarone wine
Photo credit: Tedeschi Wines

With so much cross over nowadays, in terms of viticultural and winemaking techniques, it is getting harder and harder to find unique wine styles. Burgundian look-a-like Chardonnay is cropping up through-out Australia. German Rieslings are getting drier and more alcoholic, especially in the warmer sub-zones, making them harder to differentiate from Alsace.

To make matters worse (from the point of view of a Masters of Wine student), popular grape varieties – think Syrah or Sauvignon Blanc – are being planted all around the world. Deducing the origin of a wine in a blindtasting scenario has never been so complicated.

So when you (the wine student) are handed a glass of inky, dense, full-bodied red wine, with a heady fragrance of stewed black fruits, figs, kirsch, peonies, and spice, you find yourself smiling. For Amarone is truly a wine apart.

A dense, full-bodied red wine, with a heady fragrance of stewed black fruits, figs, kirsch, peonies, and spice.

Hailing from the Valpolicella region of Northeast Italy, Amarone is a very specific wine style. It is made from the same indigenous grapes as Valpolicella, but from the best vineyard sites featuring mature vines and lower yields. Harvested at optimal ripeness, the grapes are then left to shrivel in warm, ventilated drying lofts for several months. For more information on this special process, called appassimento, click here to read my article “Valpolicella 101”.

Once the grapes are deemed sufficiently raisined, they are lightly crushed and then macerated at cool temperatures for an extended period prior to fermentation. This “cold soak” process allows good colour and aromatic development without excessive tannin extraction. A long, relatively cool fermentation follows bringing the wines to near dryness, with warming alcohol levels, regularly surpassing 15%.

Amarone is a very specific wine style…from the best Valpolicella vineyard sites featuring mature vines and lower yields.

An extended ageing period follows in small barrels or large oak casks whereby tannins mellow, wines harmonize, and aromatic complexity heightens. This is where “tertiary” aromas and flavours like fig, leather, or earthy notes originate.

On a grey, blustery day last month, I pulled the hood of my parka tightly about my face, and trudged through the snow to a very worthy event. The 13 Valpolicella estates that make up the Famiglie Storiche were in town presenting a vertical tasting of Amarone.

This group of prestigious, family-owned wineries share a passion for Amarone as a symbol of the Valpolicella territory. They hold themselves to a higher standard of quality than is required for the appellation.

The aim of the Famiglie Storiche estates is to show the world just how impressive Amarone can be when produced to the highest quality standards.

They believe that the finest, Amarone-worthy vineyards are situated on slopes. These hillside vines receive more direct sunlight, allowing for optimal ripening. Furthermore, these sites have shallow soils that limit vine vigour, lowering grape yields, and thus giving wines of greater concentration and intensity. Grapes are left to ripen to a minimum potential alcohol of 15%. The appassimento period is longer, and the minimum oak ageing duration is 36 months (vs. 24 months required for basic Amarone).

The aim of the Famiglie Storiche estates is to show the world just how impressive Amarone can be when produced to the highest quality standards. The Montréal tasting spanned vintages from 8 to 20 years-old, and ably proved how age-worthy fine Amarone can be.

The stand out wines of the tasting for me were the following. For the ultimate Amarone evening, scroll to the bottom for a great local recipe.

(What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out)

Torre d’Orti Amarone della Valpolicella 2010 – 92pts. LW

A modern, opulent style of Amarone with lavish new French oak nuances (cedar, sweet spice), and a dense, yet velvetty texture. Ultra-ripe dark cherry and plum fruit feature on the nose, underscored by notes of dark chocolate. Fresh, full-bodied, and moderately tannic, with well-integrated 15% alcohol. Hints of tobacco linger on the finish.

Where to buy: L’Enoteca di Moreno de Marchi (Québec)

Masi “Costasera” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2007 – 94pts. LW

Classico is a term used in many Italian vineyards referring to the historic growing area of a region, from which the vineyards spread outwards. The Classico sub-zone is generally considered the “heart” of the appellation, often consisting of the best vineyard sites.

Masi’s dark, brooding Costasera 2007 is still incredibly youthful, featuring vibrant acidity and a tightly knit palate structure. Elegant, complex aromas of peony, rose, dark fruits, and cocoa delight on the nose. The mid-palate shows great depth of flavour, with meaty, savoury nuances adding interest. The tannins, while polished, are still quite firm. Needs a few more years cellaring to mellow and integrate further.

Where to buy: Authentic Wines & Spirits (national)

Musella Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva 2006 – 94pts. LW

Riserva refers to wines aged longer before bottling. The minimum duration for Riserva status is 4 years (vs. 2 years for basic Amarone).

Intense aromas of licorice, red cherry, blueberry, plum and dried fruit feature on the nose. The palate is highly concentrated, with a velvetty smooth texture, and perfectly balanced acidity. Very firm, grippy tannins frame the finish. This bold, weighty, warming red needs an equally hearty meal to do it justice.

Where to buy: Importation le Pot de Vin (Québec)

Tenuta Sant’Antonio “Campo dei Gigli” Amarone della Valpolicella 2004 – 90pts. LW

Intriguing aromas of prune, licorice, tobacco, and pepper gain in intensity upon aeration. Fresh, and full-bodied, with a moderately concentrated core of sweet dark fruit and savoury hints. Moderately firm, powdery tannins diffuse across the palate, framing the finish nicely. Drinking well now.

Where to buy: Mark Anthony Wines (national)

Tedeschi “Capitel Monte Olmi” Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2001 – 95pts LW

A massively structured red, with a dense, richly textured palate profile. Brimming with blueberry, cherry, fig, mocha, sweet spice, and tobacco notes, this is an incredibly complex, fragrant wine. The whopping 16% alcohol is seamlessly integrated, as are the firm, ripe tannins. Drinking well now, with the power and depth to hold for several years yet.

Where to buy: La Céleste Levure (Québec), Noble Estates (Ontario)

Speri “Vigneto Monte Sant-Urbano” Amarone della Valpolicella 1998 – 92pts. LW

Dried fruit, herbal notes, roasted nuts, and mineral nuances feature on the nose of this 20-year old beauty. Still very fresh, and firm on the palate, with a layered complexity of prune, leather, and tobacco flavours. Overall, a very harmonious, well integrated red with a powerful, concentrated nature, and lengthy finish. Drink now before freshness fades.

Where to buy: Lifford Wines (Ontario)

Pairing Suggestions

Amarone should be opened several hours before serving, and decanted if possible. I prefer it chilled down a couple of degrees. The alcohol can feel quite hot on the finish if served too warm.

While dining in the Valpolicella region a couple of years ago, I was served the most decadent meal, with a fine Amarone. It was a rich, savoury risotto, made by replacing the majority of broth with Amarone wine. It is absolutely delicious, but remember… a little goes a long way!

Click here for the recipe. Buon appetito!

Producers Reviews


Masi winery valpolicella

If you live in Canada and like Italian wines, you have certainly come across the prodigious line up from Masi Agricola. They are known as one of the founding fathers of Amarone. Last week, I had the great pleasure of attending a tasting of some of their finest cuvées.

The process of drying the finest grapes to make richer, more concentrated wines is an old one in the Valpolicella region. However, until fairly recently, production was largely dedicated to crafting the sweet recioto style. Amarone, meaning “the great bitter”, refers to the technique of fermented the raisined grapes to near dryness, making for a full-bodied, high alcohol yet still luscious and velvetty red wine. Masi has dedicated generations to perfected their Amarone style. The grapes undergo the appassimento (drying) process on small bamboo racks in well aerated drying rooms. While the minimum drying time for the appellation is 55 days, Masi holds themselves to a higher standard, waiting an average of 100 days (until the grapes lose 35% of their weight). The resultant Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC wines are bold and intensely flavourful.

Masi’s ever continuing quest for quality improvement and innovation extends to all of their plethora of DOC and IGT wines.  Another case in point is Ripasso della Valpolicella. While the process of macerating the Valpolicella wines on Amarone pomace was used by many winemakers throughout the region, each estate had their own name for the technique. Masi coined the phrase “ripasso” in the 1980s and started selling the medium bodied reds internationally. The name and style caught on and, in 2009, a DOC was granted. By this time however, Masi had already abandoned the concept.

Masi’s ever continuing quest for quality improvement and innovation extends to all of their plethora of DOC and IGT wines.

They decided that simply steeping the lighter (and generally lesser quality) Valpolicella in the dregs of the Amarone wasn’t yielding the quality of wines they sought. They therefore developped a new process dubbed “double fermentation”. The concept is simple. The grapes are classed in three quality tiers; the best for Amarone, the second best for their former Ripasso wines and the third level (less concentrated grapes) for their simpler, every day wines . The second tier is further subdivided, with a portion immediately fermented and the rest put through the same appassimento process as Amarone, but only to a weight loss of 15%.  The dried grapes are added to the fermented wine causing a secondary fermentation to occur, making for a more complex, layered wine. Masi’s Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC wines like the delicious Montepiazzo cuvée are crafted in this manner.

Masi Agricola has been in the Boscaini family since 1772. Their story began with the acquisition of a vineyard plot called Vaio dei Masi (little valley). The estate was thus named and a legacy was born. Today, patriarch Sandro Boscaini heads up the estate, with children Alessandra and Raffaele managing the technical department. Like Robert Mondavi’s role promoting the Napa Valley, the Boscainis work tirelessly to show that the Veneto is capable of world class wines. Deemed “Italy’s wine factory” by Jancis Robinson, the region is best known for the millions of entry level bottles of light bodied Valpolicella and neutral Soave. Great vintages are rarely hailed in the press like those of Piedmont or Tuscany. The Boscainis have therefore taken matters into their own hands, creating a “5 star” concept to highlight top quality vintages like 2012. Weather conditions need to be optimal during the growing season and the appassimento period (good aeration of the drying grapes) for a vintage to be named.

My top picks from the tasting included the following:

Masi MontePiazzo Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC 2014 – 89pts. PW

Attractive dark ruby colour, with ripe notes of plum, black cherry, mixed spice and earthy undertones. Rounded acidity, medium bodied and a velvetty texture define the palate, with classic sour cherry flavours on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (27.00$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 10% Molinara

Masi Grandarella Refosco delle Venezie IGT 2011 – 88pts. PW

Refosco is an ancient variety, native to the Veneto region. It is generally quite a bold, tannic grape with a touch of bitterness. It is blended here, with Carmenère, which is planted in small pockets of the Veneto and Fruili regions. Intriguing aromatics of potpourri, red cherry, cedar and a subtle animal note define the nose. Pleasant on the palate, with a dense structure and tart acidity providing lift through the mid-palate. Ever so slightly rustic with ripe, chewy tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.30$), LCBO (28.95$)

Blend details: 75% Refosco, 25% Carmenère

Masi Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 1997 – 94pts. LW

A brilliant example of the ageing potential of fine Amarone. The nose delights, with a lovely mix of tertiary earthy, truffle and prune notes, and fresh red and black berry fruit. Still bold and full-bodied, yet showing the mellow smoothness of its age. Sweet sappy fruit, and lifted tones of sour cherry linger on the persistent finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (107.50$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara

Masi Campolongo di Torbe Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2009 – 95pts. LW

South west facing slopes catch the afternoon sun and benefit from the drying effects of the prevailing wind, ensuring optimally ripe, healthy grapes.  The result is an elegant wine, redolent with floral notes, cedar, black cherries, dark berries and subtle tertiary aromas. Firm, yet broad through the mid-palate with tangy acidity and a long, cigar box scented finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (107.50$ – 2007 vintage), LCBO (101.95$)

Blend details: 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 5% Molinara

Masi Serego Alighieri Vaio Armaron Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2008 – 92pts. LW

A denser, more structured style. Subtle botrytis notes on the nose interweave nicely with macerated black fruits, spice and dried floral aromas. Full bodied with big, chunky tannins that frame the cedar, cigar box scented finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (86.75$), LCBO (69.95$)

Blend details: 65% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 15% Molinara (Serego Alighieri clone)

Masi Mazzano Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2009 – 91pts. LW

Intense aromas of plum, mixed black berries and a lively minerality feature on the nose. Full bodied, fresh and tightly woven, with firm, chewy tannins and a lingering toasted note.

Where to buy: SAQ (99.25$), LCBO (101.95$ – 2007 vintage)

Blend details: 75% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 5% Molinara