As temperature plunges to below 15 degrees this week, it changes not only the way we dress at WWX, but also our wine cravings. Colder weather calls for fuller-bodied and richer wines and that takes us right to the forgotten back corner of our office cellars where we stock a handful bottles of Amarone della Valpolicella. The Italians call them wines for meditation (“Vino da meditazione”) – indeed classic Amarones deliver extraordinary depth and concentration, and upon ageing, marvelous complexity. These powerful, dense wines often come with a long-lasting finish, making them great wines to contemplate on and enjoy towards the end of a dinner, preferably in winter days.
What is Amarone della Valpolicella?
Let us recap how these great, unique wines are made. Often a blend of Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella, Amarones are raised from the area of Amarone della Valpolicella at Alpine foothills, right at the heart of Veneto in Italy. Cooler, continental climate provides for a well-aerated, dry enough environment for vintners to naturally carry on the process of “appassimento” (Partial drying of grapes usually by hanging in a well ventilated area) for harvested grapes. For Amarone, the drying process often takes 4 months. This condense flavours, concentration and alcohol content of the berries prior to fermentation, and add aspects of raisinated, dried fruit characters to the wine. After 4 months, the must is allowed to ferment dry, after which maturation takes place in oak barrels for a minimum of two years; and for riserva, a minimum of four years.
Classic producers include Quintarelli, Godfather of elegant, ethereal Amarone. His protege Romano dal Forno tends to deliver more masculine, structured version. For purity of fruit and value, look to Masi and Allegrini. For intensity and richness, Zenato and Tedeschi are go-to producers. For more exact recommendations, simply go all the way to the bottom of the post for our recommended wine selection.
So you like your wines sweet?
For those who’d like their wines sweet, the same region of Amarone della Valpolicella is also the cradle of Recioto della Valpolicella. The production method is essentially the same, except where instead of a 4-month drying process, Recioto often sees 5 to 6 months of drying. This results in additional loss of water within the berry and a higher concentration of sugars. The final product retains natural residual sugar which is not fermented into alcohol, thus creating a style that boasts notes of mocha, dark chocolate, Christmas spices and rasinated, pruney characters. Arguably, Recioto tops Amarone by just a notch as an impressionably Christmas wine.
Falling in love with wines made out of raisins
Making wines from dried grapes isn’t a novelty practice in Italy, or in general, the world of wines. Within national Italy, wines made from dried grapes often bears the term “Passito” in their names. To clarify, passito is a stylistic description whilst appassimento refers to the method. One of the most famous Passito wines hails from the wind-swept island of Pantelleria, a satellite island south west of main island of Sicily in Southern Italy. Ferocious winds made it possible for Sicilians to produce this luscious, decadently sweet wine from Zibbibo (also known as Muscat de Alexandria) for over 2000 years. Producers like Donnafugata has made a benchmark style of Passito di Pantelleria – Ben Rye of 10 years of age or beyond is a charming dessert wine to have.
Before we leave Italy for rest of the world, we must mention another quintessentially Italian wine style that is, again, made with dried grapes. Vin Santo, traditionally made in Tuscany, is made with wines that are either dried on straw mats or dried by hanging on racks. Given its Tuscan origins, Vin Santo is most often made with Trebbiano, Malvasia and occasionally Sangiovese. In other local regions of Italy, where Vin Santo is legally recognized as a wine style, local grape varieties are often used. Unlike Amarone, where the wines often see conventional top-up practices, Vin Santo is made in a way whereby during the extended maturation process lasting minimum 3 years, the wines in the barrel are not topped up when natural evaporation occurs. The result brings about a wine that has been influenced by oxidation and shows nutty qualities on top of dessicated fruit and wood spice characters.
Look around the world and you will find other examples of wines made out of raisins. In Rhone Valley and Jura region of France, look for vin de paille (straw wine). In Austria, wines made from berries dried on straw mat has its own designated term within the Pradikatswein classification. (Pradikatswein classification classifies wine by their minimum must weight levels upon harvest or before pressing.) To look for an Austrian straw wine, simply try to find the term Strohwein or Schilfwein on the label.
In New World regions, the most established style made from raisins comes from the region of Rutherglen in Victoria, South Australia. About 4 hours drive from Melbourne, the region of Rutherglen is a historic centre of indulgent, extremely ageworthy sweet wines made from sun-dried grapes. The key difference between this particular wine style and those formerly recommended is that all Rutherglen Muscat has seen fortification. Rather like Vin doux Naturel in France, Rutherglen Muscat is fortified by a neutral spirit after a brief fermentation. Instead of a single vintage offering, Rutherglen Muscat is often offered as a blend of different vintages. Like Port, you will be able to find an indication of the average age of wines that go into the bottle. The best of Rutherglen Muscat goes under the category “Rare”, which means that the average age of wine is at least 20 years in the bottle. In fact, it is not uncommon to find “Rare” Rutherglen Muscat with an average age of wines beyond 100 years old!