The Italian for Zinfandel

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Big ripe bunches of healthy corvina grapes lie like sun-bathers on bamboo racks in the Valpolicella Co-op's upstairs rooms, where giant fans are keeping the grapes cool and well-ventilated. The Co-op has just brought in a healthy-looking harvest but the general manager's face is as lugubrious as an undertaker's. "The harvest's too big," he says, contemplating a fall in prices for the second year running. His complaint is good news for us. At last, prices of amarone della valpolicella have stabilised. In the past decade it has been such a runaway success that demand for this most luxurious of Italian reds has seen it more than double from a tenth to a quarter of the entire valpolicella harvest. Laboriously made from the cream of the crop, and losing a third of its weight in the drying process, amarone della valpolicella bears little relation to cheap and cheerful spagbol valpol.

A modern phenomenon, the wine is in fact a reinvention of one of Italy's most ancient traditions, dating back to the Roman era. A sweet, special-occasion wine was made by snipping the most sun-soaked and sweetest grapes from the top of the ripe bunches. After three months drying on ranks in ventilated attics, the shrivelled grapes were fermented to make a sweet, strong port-like red. But when the sweet wine re-fermented by a happy accident of nature, it became drier with a bitter twist to it, hence "amarone" (bitter).

Until a decade ago, amarone was made in an old-fashioned style that made it what Italians call a vino da meditazione, a euphemism for hard to drink with food. But the taste for more food-friendly wines set Veronese winemakers thinking about how to modernise the style without losing its essential core of tradition.

Two-thirds of growers still make amarone in the traditional style, in old drying lofts. But, led by Franco Allegrini, one of Verona's leading producers, a group banded together to create a purpose-built warehouse to dry out the grapes so that they would be as healthy when crushed after 100 days as the day they were picked. "We can keep the character of valpolicella while making the wines more accessible in style," says Franco. The warehouse holds half a million kilos of grapes, stacked in small plastic crates, roughly a fifth of the entire amarone harvest. Over the drying period of three months, the weight reduces by 35 per cent.

This modern drying process has had the most dramatic impact on the harvest, but other changes have also helped. The first has been selecting the grapes in the vineyard itself, eradicating the bulk-producing molinara grape and sticking largely to corvina, the best grape. "You have to be selective in the vineyard to make amarone," says Franco. "Thick skins and loose bunches are the key. We use only corvina. You need chalky soils and hillsides too, to help reduce the vigour, with poor soils, smaller berries and thin clusters." Another change for the better is the use of smaller, new oak barrels.

Today's amarone shows that Italians are perfectly capable of adapting to modern tastes by updating their methods without having to change the traditional grape varieties. As a result, growers are producing amarone in a cleaner, fruitier style closer to Australian shiraz or Californian zinfandel. The best matches at this time of year are combinations of roasted sweet vegetables, like peppers, onions, sweet potatoes and parsnips on their own or with a robust game sausage. "In the old-fashioned system, half the wine was left in the bottle; today you drink the whole bottle!" says Franco.