Wine Wednesdays With William: All About Amarone

Like any other business, companies that make wine need to grow revenues and increase profits. They have a choice, though: They can either increase production or prices—or do both. Valpolicella, a red wine-producing region in northeast Italy whose name means “valley of many cellars,” did both, with mixed results.

In 1968, the historic zone of production to the north of Verona was renamed DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) Valpolicella Classico, and the DOC Valpolicella was extended eastward and south onto the fertile valley of the river Po. Under the new regulations, inferior grape varieties were authorized, and the weight of grapes permitted to be grown on any given hectare of land—the yield—was much, much higher than before. Over time, the decrease in the quality of the wine was followed by a drop in the prices paid for Valpolicella grapes. Soon the hillside vineyards were being abandoned and the only profitable ones were those on the high-yielding, poor-quality valley floor. There was a lag before consumers spent their money elsewhere, but between 2005 and 2013, production of DOC Valpolicella fell from 41 million to 19 million bottles. Ouch.

Amarone della Valpolicella is a style of wine that has only been made commercially since the 1960s. It’s made from dried grapes, and the resulting wine is very strong and soft, with an attractive rich/bitter character. In the beginning, this style was restricted to the hillside wineries above the fog line, where the drying grapes would not be affected by rot, but the number of consumers, principally in Germany, Scandinavia and the United States, willing to pay $40 to $100 per bottle, quickly encouraged the valley floor producers to invest in temperature and humidity controlled warehouses and produce Amarone themselves.

The modern style of Amarone may be less characterful than it once was, but it’s still over 16 percent ABV, which may explain why yesterday, at a large party outside London, a fellow guest who rapidly consumed three of four glasses of Amarone at the end of an already bibulous lunch, decided without warning to treat fellow diners to a full-throated rendition of his favorite operatic aria.

Wine Challenge No.15:
Compare and contrast a bottle of DOC Valpolicella and a bottle of DOC Valpolicella Classico. Pay attention to the presence or absence of Valpolicella’s signature sour cherry character. Compare levels of acidity and sugar, and the persistence of the flavor on the finish.

For Part I of William’s London adventure, click here.

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