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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Amarone trivia

While in the Valpolicella, I learned a slew of unexpected things about my favorite wine, Amarone. Three, in particular, came as quite a surprise. None are likely to be of interest to any but the most devout wine wankers out there.

Cepage: Forever, I've been told there are three grape varieties in Amarone: Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, with the first, Corvina, dominating the wine while the others add fractional perfume, colour, and other attributes. As it happens, that ubiquitously delivered wisdom is just wrong on several counts. First, a lot of Amarone doesn't use Molinara at all. Second, one of the grapes most commonly used in the wine was entirely unknown to me previously: Corvinone. Other grapes are also used in small quantities: Croatina, Dindarella, Oseleta and even, rarely and oddly, Sangiovese (famous for being the backbone of Chianti, which comes from a long way away).

Trellis: The Valpolicella's vineyards have a distinctive look because of the trellising system typical of the area. It's called “pergola”. The vines are trained literally overhead. You can walk down the rows under a canopy formed by the vines on either side meeting above you. (See the slightly twee picture which, unfortunately, shows fairly young vines.) While the system is centuries old, it has slid from favor and is on the way out. All new plantings are being trellised on the more familiar Guyot system: the way you're used to seeing vines trained, in narrow rows. There are apparently two reasons. First, you can comfortably pack a whole lot more vines per hectare. Second, the grapes get more sun and are exposed to warmer air (rather than hanging in the cool under the pergola), therefore ripening more reliably and being less susceptible to rot. The change seems sad, from a romantic and historical point of view, but it also seems sensible. A good portion of the grapes in the Valpolicella are already grown this way, so it's a known quantity.

Happy accident: Up until the late 1950s, the production of Amarone was considered to be the result of poor winemaking. The intended product, for centuries, had been Recioto, a sweet wine. Recioto is made in the same way as Amarone, but fermentation is stopped early by cooling the wine. With fermentation incomplete, there is significant residual sugar that is not fermented into alcohol, resulting in a sweet wine that tastes somewhat like Porto. Amarone, by contrast, is left to ferment completely, turning the sugars into alcohol, instead of retaining sweetness behind. The original Amarones were screw-ups: Reciotos that had been let go for too long by a careless winemaker. There wasn't much of a market for these “mistakes”, and they were sold cheaply, in bulk, considered at first too rich to be much use with food.

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