Buzz: Hey, Marnie, someone just gave me a fancy bottle of wine for Christmas — an "amaroon" one! I'm not an expert on that, so I don't know when to drink it. Is it sweet or dry?
Marnie: I think you mean "Amarone," Buzz. These unusual Italian red wines are almost always dry, but it's not uncommon for them to have a subtle hint of sweetness.
Buzz: Ha! I would've guessed there was some sweetness there.
Marnie: Technically, the full name is Amarone della Valpolicella. The style makes a great holiday gift, in part because it's an intense and unusual red wine well-suited to winter weather.
Buzz: It sounds classy, and that means expensive, doesn't it?
Marnie: It's a wine that signals what the giver spent. It's like the Italian red equivalent of French Champagne: You're unlikely to find one for less than $40. For example, they say cabernet sauvignon is king, but you can find wines made with that grape at every price, from the $10 magnum to the $500 bottle. There's no such thing as cheap Amarone.
Buzz: You mean people tried to find cheap Amarone and it was impossible? How is that possible?
Marnie: The main reason is that Amarone is not the name of a grape variety, but rather a style that is laborious and expensive to make. Normal everyday Valpolicella is a light, fruity red, typically a blend of three Venetian grapes: corvina, rondinella, and molinara. Amarone has the same ingredients, but it is one of Italy's most powerful red wines, thanks to an intensification technique called appassimento.
Buzz: OK, now I get it. It's not the ingredients so much as how it's done. Man, this can get complicated.
Marnie: Ah, but that's what makes thing great. This process involves partially drying grapes for anywhere from 30 to 90 days after harvest to reduce their water content. That concentrates the components that remain behind, like sugars, acids, and flavor compounds. The extra sugar is not preserved to make the wine sweet, but fermented away to boost the wine's alcoholic strength instead. It's not uncommon for Amarones to reach 15 percent to 16 percent alcohol, which makes them feel much heavier than other Italian wines.
Buzz: So it's a delicious wine with a nice extra pack. But can you get me something that good for less than $40?
Marnie: Well, if you like the Amarone present you got, you could always look for Valpolicellas made in the ripasso method. These are much more affordable wines from the same region that have a hint of Amarone character. Some clever Italian winemaker figured out that by pouring his everyday red over the raisiny solids left over from his Amarone, he could referment the wine a second time and turbocharge it with extra color, flavor, and alcohol.