Technical Note #1:
The Appassimento Process for Making Amarone
Making wine from dried grapes is an ancient process dating back at least 3000 years. It was quite common in the ancient world, especially in the warmer southern Mediterranean wine-growing areas of Palestine, Egypt, Sicily and Greek islands like Santorini (Thera). Most of these wines and their descendants today like Amarone della Valpolicella, Recioto and Vin Santo were made through a drying process (appassimento) that usually involved spreading grapes on reed or straw mats under the sun (or hanging them in nets) for an extended period (usually from September to January) before crushing and fermentation.
Today the grapes for modern Amarone are dried in well-ventilated drying lodges or chambers called fruttaio. Most producers harvest the grapes with minimum handling and place whole clusters directly into cane-rack trays or slatted packing cases, each holding about 8-10 kg of grapes. These stacks are placed on a pallet and then transported to a fruttaio for drying. The main grapes commonly used for Amarone include Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and Oseleta.
The length of the drying period for Amarone is anywhere from 60 days (the minimum required by the DOC disciplinare) to upwards of 120 days but varies from producer to producer and depends upon the ripeness of the grapes. In recent years there has been a tendency to shorten this period, as modern fruttai have proved more efficient not only in drying the grapes but also in preventing the development of any botrytis. While some botrytis was tolerated in the past for its contribution to the production of glycerin, it is now eschewed by most modern producers. The aim in the production of Amarone is to achieve intensity of color, flavor, and rounding of tannin in the dried grapes. As all of these components reside in the skins, anything like botrytis that degrades the skins is seen as diminishing the intensity and purity of the wine. High levels of botrytis produce wines that are extremely rounded, soft and fleshy with strong scents of overripe fruit, hints of oxidation, and fruit macerated in alcohol. Less botrytis produces more austere and less “showy” wines, which generally are drier and show greater tannic structure. Obviously, the potential for ageing and the maturation curves are also different in the two types of wine.
Weather is of primary importance in the appassimento process. Temperature and relative humidity are critical variables affecting the development of both botrytis rot and the common and destructive grey mold. Indeed, no matter how carefully the grapes are laid out to dry in the fruttaio, fungal rot easily develops. Humidity can easily affect the grapes, and grapes with damaged skins are an ideal host for mold. Modern drying facilities like the Terre di Fumane (see box) use fans and dehumidifiers to control temperature and humidity. They also briefly expose grapes to a low humidity environment and low temperatures when the grapes first arrive from the harvest. This initial operation ensures that the grape stems are fully dried which prevents botrytis from forming.
The appassimento process achieves more than drying of the grapes. It also results in other complex transformations in the grape, such as the decrease of acidity and the modification of the glucose-fructose ratio resulting in the concentration of polyphenols, and to a considerable increase of glycerin, which contributes to the richness and balance of good Amarone. The drying process is also said to contribute to the development of resveratrol, a substance that helps keep arteries clean and reduces the risk of heart attack. The use of drying rooms has also enabled producers to reduce the levels of alcohol without sacrificing the power and intensity that characterize good Amarone.
After drying, the grapes are de-stemmed, crushed and fermented. Since the grapes lose up to 50 per cent of their liquid during the drying process, the must is quite rich, so fermentation is slow to start. A stuck fermentation can easily result if insufficient care is taken in the cellar, which explains why so many Amarone display high levels of volatile acidity. Traditionally, the wines would have been aged in botti (large casks) usually made from Slavonian oak. Today, some producers also age at least part of their Amarone in French oak barriques for 12 to 18 months to encourage the development of supple tannins. After blending they store the wine in large casks and then in bottle for at least a year before release.
Amarones are produced in a variety of styles but are typically full-flavored and high in alcohol (14 to 16 percent). They exhibit flavors of cherries, plums, raisins, dried figs, smoke, nuts, a touch of bittersweet chocolate and earth. They are velvety and rich in texture with good acidity and have firm but round tannins. They are best paired with hearty and robust dishes such as steak, game, lamb, Osso Buco and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Joel Butler MW and Mike Potashnik PhD