For many years, Valpolicella has seemed a divided wine region, its simple, joyous Valpolicella and big, imperious Amarone barely showing a family resemblance when tasted side by side. Through the first decade of the 2000s, Amarone bulked up so dramatically that the chasm grew vaster still.
Then, as the 2010s progressed, something changed. Many Amarone started to slim down, regaining their sheerness and, critically, their drinkability. Perhaps it was that climate change had made it too easy to achieve what Amarone’s production method had been designed to attain, and so bigger no longer seemed inherently better. Gabriele Dalcanale of La Dama says: ‘If once, research was aimed at supporting the potential to produce wines with great power and high alcohol content, nowadays the new challenge is to tame this ever-increasing potential.’
Late-ripening native varieties started to replace international ones. The pergola veronese – providing shade from strong sunlight and bunch-cooling air circulation – gradually gained favour over the once-fashionable Guyot system for training vines. Appassimento times shrunk back down from four or more months to just over three. Many exciting new wines recall Amarone from the ’70s and ’80s with scale and potency (say 15-16% abv), but not the 17+% alcohol plus ample residual sugar of the mid-2000s; Dalcanale says the latter style has largely disappeared. The best balanced new wines are an exhilarating reminder that appassimento concentrates not only sugar and dry extract but also acidity. As a result, ‘new Amarone’ is also drawing closer to non-appassimento Valpolicella: sheerer, redder, more lyric than spinto.
The best balanced new wines are an exhilarating reminder that appassimento concentrates not only sugar and dry extract but also acidity
This is, admittedly, just one direction, best embodied (among the producers below) by La Dama and Secondo Marco, where proprietor Marco Speri notes that concentrated ’90s- and ’00s-style wines still have their adherents. Le Guaite di Noemi iterates on the wines of trailblazing Dal Forno, exemplifying the notion of balance at any size. Corteforte and Damoli sit somewhere between, with extended oak age used to tease nuance and transparency from solidly constructed wines.
This also points to a challenge of discussing the ‘new’ Amarone: its varying and sometimes extremely lengthy maturation times. Some of the 2023 releases listed here were produced over a decade ago. Though 10+ years is extreme, ageing times don’t seem to be shortening much (the youngest wines I tasted in mid-2023 were 2019s) and the growing popularity of larger vats and extended bottle ageing make it unlikely they will soon, at least among fine wines. So, what do the Amarone of the 2020s look like? Check back with us in 2030.
Five pioneering Amarone estates to watch
I hadn’t heard much about Fumane-based boutique Corteforte prior to visiting Valpolicella for the 2023 Amarone della Valpolicella Report, but I was intrigued by their aromatic intricacy and vivacity during the tasting. This turned out to be a throughline in their five wines despite their quite distinct structures and fruit character. I later learned that this estate – acquired in 1989 by current winemaker Carlo Maria Cerutti – belongs to a new wave of Amarone producers aiming for a fresher, more aromatic style, many of whom work with consulting oenologist Enrico Nicolis.
Upon further inquiry, I noted a few factors that, on paper, don’t sound immensely conducive to these aims: the vineyards, some surrounding the farmhouse, are relatively low-lying (150-300m asl) and southwest facing, both favouring ripeness. The grapes are also selected for maximum ripeness, undergo a lengthy, four-month appassimento and mature in a mix of small French oak vessels.
And yet, tasted blind without the benefits of the, surely, beautiful surroundings (there are both a 14th-century fortress and 17th-century farmhouse on the estate, which is also an agriturismo) the wines are extremely compelling. Their modest scale helps, mostly sitting around 15% abv with plentiful acidity, possibly attributable to pergola training. Ample time maturing in steel, oak and then glass has helped them coalesce into beautiful, clearly delineated shapes with a fascinating spectrum of aromatics. The inclusion of the ‘little grapes’ of Valpolicella, like Dindarella, Pelara, Oseleta and Molinara in the wine from their home vineyard, Vigneti di Osan, no doubt adds to its shimmering complexity, as well as helping ‘maintain tradition’, something on which Cerutti says he places great value.
Damoli is a classic small, multi-generational family winery in Negrar, the slice of Valpolicella Classica that boasts the largest portion of prized hillside vineyards and is known for its robust, long-lived wines. The Damoli family’s plots, totalling over 3ha, are split between the prestigious Jago plateau with its chalky clay soils and the higher-elevation Mazzano cru, reaching up to 500m above sea level (asl), which is known for formidable tannins (quite evident in the Amarone, especially compared to the Riserva).
Though the land has been owned by the family for centuries, the winery was resuscitated a few years ago after a two-decade pause. This seems, if anything, to have deepened the family’s sense of connection with their land and heritage, with the top wines named after Bruno’s father Francesco, nicknamed ‘Checo dei Merli’, who was the family’s first commercial winemaker.
The overall approach is hands-off, with (uncertified) organic farming and relatively low-intervention winemaking overseen by Bruno Damoli and son Daniele respectively. However, the focus on ripeness is marked, with grapes harvested slightly overripe (a deviation from the typical practice of harvesting grapes for appassimento relatively early). This is followed up by a 100-120 day appassimento and 30-40 day fermentation for generous concentration and extraction.
Maturation is sensibly prolonged (five years for the Amarone and 10 for the Riserva). Neutral vessels have been chosen to minimise the aromatic impact of oak, though in recent years, French barriques and tonneaux have entirely replaced Slavonian botti. Their greater oxygen exchange seems to be helpful, giving the Riserva a silkier, more refined feel than the Amarone, at least at present. These are evidently wines that want extended maturation, first in the winery and later – I would suggest – in the cellar.
Genuine newcomer La Dama came into being in 2006 with the purchase of the first vines by husband-and-wife team Gabriele and Miriam Dalcanale, who met at university. Within a relatively short time, they had converted to organic viticulture (2011), achieving certification for their wines in 2015, which Gabriele feels has put them in sync with their property, ‘respect[ing] the times, rhythms and natural cycles of the vines and of the entire ecosystem that populates our vineyards.’
Those vineyards are split between prestigious Negrar, where the winery is located, and Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella, also in the Classico zone. The former are less dramatic, with 6ha of vines, some up to 50-years-old, sitting in a low-lying, well-ventilated plain of clays and alluvial debris to the south of the town of Negrar. It’s the pergola veronese here that helps retain freshness, both of aromatics and acidity. The Sant’Ambrogio site is a later acquisition, roughly 4ha of vineyards surrounded by forest. Facing west into the Val d’Adige on the furthest western slope of Valpolicella, it gets the full force of sunlight mirrored off Lake Garda but also the lake’s summer cooling effect, with diurnal variation (and hence acidity) exaggerated by the higher altitude (around 350m asl).
The evident restraint in the winemaking, which steers firmly clear of the opulent style of the mid-2000s, may be a product of having largely missed that decadent decade. The target customer, according to Dalcanale, is somebody invested in the concepts of ‘typicity’ and wine culture. There is a markedly ‘contemporary’ quality to these wines, made without modernism’s unshakable faith in technology (see their use of natural ventilation for appassimento and spontaneous fermentations) but a decided cleanliness, with more fruit purity and approachability than strictly traditional wines.
Try this wine: La Dama Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG 2019
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Le Guiate di Noemi
The name Le Guaite di Noemi is a (presumably intentional) play on words, referencing both Le Guaite, the Pizzighella family’s parcel of land that they acquired a few years before the 1994 birth of their daughter Noemi – and the literal meaning of ‘Le Guiate’, roughly translating to ‘place of observation’ or ‘point of view’. When she officially took over the family’s winemaking business in 2015 and chose to rebrand from ‘Dal Bosco Giulietta’, Noemi Pizzighella chose ‘Le Guaite’, her favourite of the family’s vineyards. The striking labels are also Noemi’s handwork, bold graphic designs that underscore the change of generation.
It is in fact a winery with a strong point of view, its long-aged wines potent and unapologetic in an era when many Amarone are growing lighter on their feet. This is partly due to the influence of famous mentor Romano dal Forno, on whose wines the Pizzighella family’s earliest wines were modelled (including the 2011 effort, which was made by Noemi’s parents but shepherded by her until its release). The winemaking seems to have remained similar in spirit since, with climate-controlled appassimento of three to (an unusually long) five months and three years’ maturation exclusively in new French oak barriques. For all that, they are impressively drinkable.
It is also the only winery on this list outside the Classico zone, sitting to the east in Mezzane di Sotto, part of the overlap between Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG and Soave DOC but increasingly known for red wine production. The area specialises in Corvinone, which plays an important role in Le Guaite’s Amarone, buttressing its structure. It will be intriguing to watch as the wines made entirely during Noemi’s tenure come on the market. A clue to what lies ahead may come from her Valpolicella Superiore, with its slightly shortened appassimento and drier profile, all of which makes eminent sense in a climate that is supplying more than enough concentration and power.
Try this wine: Le Guaite di Noemi Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG 2011
Secondo Marco is the brainchild of Marco Speri of the illustrious Speri clan, who set off to chase his own vision in 2008 with a brand name meaning ‘according to Marco’. He wasted no time before firmly pulling the various levers of Amarone production, seeking more finesse and lighter volume. The efforts seem to have paid off, as Speri says there has been a great increase in interest in the wines, particularly in the Italian market among mid-to-top-tier restaurants.
For all the attention that has been paid to Speri’s oenological experimentalism – and it is true that he has pushed the limits of, for example, maceration, stretching it to 100 days and even beyond while keeping fermentation temperatures low and maturation in Slavonian oak and then bottle extensive – viticultural innovation has also played a key role. Though the sites – in Cengia near Pedemonte (home of Speri) and in lower-lying areas of Fumane – might not have quite the drama that the wines, with their angularity and almost shrill aromatics, would seem to imply, the estate’s Y-shaped pergola has suffused them with thespianism thanks to better airflow and ample shade. Use of the Corvinone grape, Corvina’s peppery, even petulant alter ego, has also left its spicy mark.
As a long-time admirer of the Speri wines – known for bright, pure-fruited but nonetheless authentic Amarone – I initially found it somewhat bemusing that a rebellion against their style was even necessary. I’ve since come to feel that Secondo Marco’s efforts are more of a natural evolution than a charge in the opposite direction. If the Speri family’s wines tread the line between modern and traditional, Secondo Marco’s seem to span the contemporary and the ancient; idiosyncratic and quite brilliant.
Try this wine: Secondo Marco Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG 2015