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Amarone, Barolo, Chianti: an ABC Guide to Iconic Italian Red Wines

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Sarah Knowles MW Sarah Knowles MW / 26 March 2020

When we think of the 'classic' wines of Europe it is very easy to think French. Bordeaux, the Rhône and Burgundy have set the standard. However, over the last year as I have taken on the buying responsibility for Italy my 'classic' wine lexicon has shifted entirely to Italy's ABC – Amarone, Barolo and Chianti. Here's my ABC guide to these Italian classics.

A is for Amarone

Introduction to Amarone:

Of the three, this is Italy's most flamboyant and often richest red, with 14% minimum alcohol, and most sitting at 15, or 15.5%.

Hailing from Veneto in the north-east of Italy and the sub-region of Valpolicella, where cooler weather meant winemakers of this often light red wine looked for ways of strengthening it, to create a more full-bodied wine. This is done by partially drying the grapes in a process known as appassimento. This reduces the water content and concentrates the flavours and sugars in the grape. These raisined grapes are then fermented creating a fuller wine, with richer, sweeter flavours than you would find in a straight Valpolicella. Amarone must also be aged for a minimum of two years before release, often in old oak, adding to its complexity.

Amarone della Valpolicella, to give it its full name, has only been a named style of wine since the 1930s however the region has made Recioto (fully sweet red wine) for a very long time; a style much prized in Roman society. It is suspected that Amarone was an accidental discovery – a winemaker having perhaps forgotten about a barrel of Recioto in the cellar that then continued to ferment, the sugars creating a drier but very rich red wine. It goes some way to explain the name – amaro means 'bitter' in Italian, so this was the 'great bitter wine' which compared to the sweet Recioto, it would have been!

What does Amarone taste like?

Allegrini’s Valpolicella vineyard where Amarone grapes are grown
Allegrini’s Valpolicella vineyard where Amarone grapes are grown

With its ripe, rich fruit flavours, full, velvety body and high alcohol, this distinctive dry Italian red is a real treat for lovers of powerful, intensely-flavoured wines. On the nose there can be surprising violet or floral notes but on the palate expect more prune, black-forest gateaux and cigar box flavours. The tannins are full but softer than other Italian reds, supporting the concentrated flavours. On the finish there can often be a little more game, leather or savoury flavours that can also develop with age.

How and where is Amarone made?

The vineyards of Valpolicella are found in the hills just outside of Verona in the north-east of Italy.

The appassimento method is a process in which grapes are picked a little early (while they still have good acidity) and dried, traditionally on straw mats outside, but more commonly now inside a designated well-ventilated room or loft space. This concentrates the flavours and sugars in the grapes as they raisin. The winemaker ferments these dried grapes getting a very concentrated must as a result, with a higher than usual proportion of sugar. This in turn leads to a fuller, richer red wine being produced with elevated alcohol, and a touch of residual sugar as often the yeasts can't ferment the wine to a bone-dry style. The wine is then aged, often in older large oak barrels called botti, for a minimum of two years to create an Amarone. Amarone della Valpolicella Riserva, must be aged for a minimum of four years before sale. This long ageing enables the tannins to soften, and the flavours to develop more complex savoury notes.

A modern-style drying room for making the appassimento grapes
A modern-style drying room for making the appassimento grapes

Amarone will age brilliantly with most benefitting from 3-5 years in bottle, and the best improving in cellars for 15 years plus.

Which grape variety is used to make Amarone?

The juicy, cherry-scented corvina grape is the main grape variety used to make Amarone. However most are blends with corvina as the lion's share but other local grapes such as molinara, rondinella and corvinon playing their part.

What should I eat with Amarone?

Often wines go extremely well with the local food, and this is no exception.

North-eastern Italians have a reputation for eating plenty of pork or wild boar, both full-flavoured and well suited to Amarone. 'Bollito con pearà' is the tradition of boiling meat (often pork), serving it with a rich peppered bread and bone marrow sauce – which again the bright acid and concentrated fruit of Amarone can well pair with. Amarone is often used in cooking too, locally, with Risotto all'Amarone being a very popular dish.

More generally, the rich, full-bodied nature of Amarone means that it will match bold strong flavours well, Victoria Moore suggests that it's a great pairing with 'a hunk of top-quality, grainy Parmesan cheese', and I would agree entirely, but also add strong-flavoured mushrooms, game and stilton!

Browse our Amarones

B is for Barolo

Introduction to Barolo

The small wine region of Barolo (less than half the size of Chablis, for context) in Italy's north-western Piedmont region is responsible for one of the world's most perfumed and age-worthy wines. Made from the truly noble nebbiolo grape, which has been cultivated in this region since the 13th century. Winemaking has an even longer history in this small region dating back 2,500 years. Barolo, as a designated named wine has been in common use since the mid19th century which is when the shift began from selling only locally from cask to producing bottled wines for wider sale.

What does Barolo taste like?

Barolos are known for their haunting bouquet of roses, earth, spice and smoke (in fact 'tar and roses' is often the short-hand description, an invocation of the delicate floral notes combined with a woody, savoury tone), and their elegance, despite famously firm and angular tannins.

Winemaking and ageing

To qualify as Barolo DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), the wines must be aged for a minimum of three years, with at least two in oak and a further year in bottle, before release. For a Barolo Riserva the minimum ageing is increased to five years (a minimum of three in wood with usually the last two in bottle).

Over the last 15 years there have been some clear style differences between traditional Barolo winemakers who chose to use older, larger format oak barrels (botti) to age their wines, which allow the tannins to soften without necessarily adding any overtly 'oaky' flavours, and modern producers who have trialled smaller format (Bordeaux) barrels, or newer French oak to add more vanilla 'oaky' notes to the final wines. Often critics and winemakers will have a view on which of these methods is 'right' however when done well, both can create beautifully balanced Barolos. Each to his own!

Given the highly tannic and acidic nature of young nebbiolo, these ageing regulations are essential to delay the release of these wines to market so that when purchased they are ready to enjoy.

However, Barolo is truly one of the world's greatest cellar-worthy wines, with huge potential to age and improve with time, the best ageing for 30 years plus and most benefitting from five years at least!

Emma Briffett of our tasting team and Sebastian Payne MW looking out over the at the vineyards at Coterno, Barolo
Emma Briffett of our tasting team and Sebastian Payne MW looking out over the at the vineyards at Coterno, Barolo

What should I eat with Barolo?

Again, (as is often the case with the wines of Italy) local options are a perfect match, in this case also a decadent one as some of the most prized truffles are foraged from the hilltop forests that surround the vineyards. A perfect local match specifically is fresh truffles grated onto butter-laden, yolk-heavy, fresh pasta preferably the tagliatelle-like tajarin!
See our Travels in Barolo for more mouth-watering images and a recipe!

However, Barolo with its unique structure, floral perfume and delicate spice is a perfect foodie wine. Think pork chops, mushrooms, stroganoff, aubergine parmigiana, parmesan risotto, or duck to get you started.

Browse our Barolos

C is for Chianti

Castello di Brolio, the birthplace of Chianti
Castello di Brolio, the birthplace of Chianti

Introduction to Chianti

Chianti has a chequered past (red and white checked tablecloths at least!).

As arguably Italy's most famous red wine, Chianti has had peaks and troughs in popularity and a myriad changing styles over the years, but from straw-wrapped bottles (aptly called a 'fiasco' in Italian), to film references (anyone else fancy fava beans and liver?), it has rightly become an icon. Its long history in the Tuscan hills stretches back beyond the Romans gracing historic tables from Popes to Kings as well as being well enjoyed in more humble homes.

Chianti is a sub-region of Tuscany, stretching from just south of Florence, and encompassing Siena. In the 1930s the area of Chianti was divided into seven sub-regions, the largest of which is Chianti Classico, which incorporates the older areas associated with wine production like the villages of Greve, Radda and Panzano. Chianti Classico wines are also marked with a black cockerel emblem. The other six sub-regions are Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colline Pisane, Colli Senesi, Montalbano and Rùfina. Chianti Rufina along the Arno Valley, north-east of Florence is the best of these and home to some of the cooler northern vineyards at elevation that can produce very elegant styles of Chianti.

Fontodi

What does Chianti taste like?

If a red wine is labelled Chianti it must be made from a minimum of 80% sangiovese, and many are 100% sangiovese. However 20% of some wines are made up of other local varieties including canaiolo, colorino, ciliegiolo and mammolo, all of which can add complexity and further dimension to the wine.

However the classic flavours of Chianti are also that of sangiovese. Look out for red cherry, tart cranberry and peppery spice, with noticeable firm tannins and fresh acidity. The best are concentrated yet medium-bodied, with a refreshing style that leaves the mouth watering, and can have a very long, scented finish.

How is Chianti made and aged?

This is where it gets a little complicated. The different sub regions of Chianti each have different laws around some parts of production. However all must have 80% minimum sangiovese and all grapes must be from the Chianti region. As an example of the differences – simple Chianti must by law be at least 11.5% alcohol and have three months' ageing before release. However Chianti Classico must have at least 12% alcohol and can't be released until its had a minimum of 10 months' ageing (seven of which must be in oak, often older barrels). However, a Chianti Classico Riserva must have at least 24 months' ageing often in both oak and bottle.

What should I eat with Chianti?

For a 'full house' this is another Italian wine that works hand in glove with classic Tuscan and Floretine foods. Start with a great steak (Bistecca alla Fiorentina for preference) add in cannellini beans with bay and lemon, or tomato salads and wonderful cured ham and you are on to a winner.

However Chianti is also often described as the claret of Italy – and as such is perfect with a classic roast dinner!

Browse our Chiantis

Take a more in-depth look at Chianti with Nicolas Belfrage MWs in-depth guide

Read more on Tuscany

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