Uncle Alan and I were talking about wine a few years ago. I'd said something about how my favorite winesrosés in the summer, into the heavy reds in the winter. Alan...well -- he's a man's man:
"I like reds. Heat of summer, dead of winter, doesn't matter. The bigger and more tannic the better. My absolute favorite is AMARONE."
It takes different strokes to move the world, yes it does. But I sure got curious about this Amarone stuff. I'd heard of it. I knew it was a monstrous Italian red. I knew it was expensive. I also never got around to trying it. I had the occasion to talk to him again not long ago (and yes, we've spoken in the interim), so I got inspired when I went wine shopping. I found a bottle -- Speri 2000 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico -- plunked down my $50 (hey...you only live once), and decided to give it a go.
So, what's the deal with this wine?
Amarone (Italian for “big bitter”) is from the Veneto region of Italy. The Veneto is best known for light, fragrant reds which are simply called "Valpolicella" usually. Both these light wines and Amarone are made largely from the same three native grape varietals: Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara.
Rather than using the standard "crush and ferment" process as with a normal wine, the grapes are harvested, separated, and laid to dry on straw mats for around four months. During this time, the grapes "raisinate" -- and the resulting dessicated grapes are then pressed and the resulting highly concentrated juice is fermented. The result? A very powerful, highly textured, extremely tannic wine. Once the wine is bottled, the tannins take a long time to mellow. These wines are rarely released within five years of bottling, and can take close to a decade to get to their proper flavor. The hefty pricetag comes from the combination of the long winemaking process and the necessity for even longer storage.
(Interesting pop culture note -- I've referenced Hannibal Lecter's love of Chianti before, but in Thomas Harris’ "Silence of the Lambs" novel, Lecter actually poured an Amarone to go with his liver and fava beans...)
I read in a number of places that the wine needs a good long while to breathe before drinking. So, one Saturday, I cracked a bottle of this, let it sit for an hour or so, and started putting dinner together. Amarone's recommended pairings are red meats and big cheeses, so I thought I'd combine the two -- grilled filet mignon topped with gorgonzola alongside little roasted rosemary potatoes and sautéed Cremini mushrooms in a red wine sauce.
While we were starting to put the meal together, we poured a couple of small glasses just to try it before pairing it up with the food. At first taste, there were soft fruit flavors, still a little bit of alcohol fuminess (Amarone is always at least 14% alcohol.), but a pleasant aroma overall. When it first hit my tongue, I said, "This is big...BIG-big." Coffee, cocoa, licorice dominated the palate. The finish was very tannic, dry, and set a new standard for "long lasting."
I let my glass sit for 15 minutes or so while I got to work on the steaks. After several minutes of sitting following swirling, like many big Italian wines, I came back to a whole new world. There was much more fruit on the nose -- all sorts of layered scents of raisins, roses, and coffee. The palate balanced out -- it reminded us both of dark chocolate-covered blueberries and blackberries. The finish was still very tannic, but the fruit and chocolate flavors rode the tannins for ages.
Then came dinner.
Oh. My. God.
"This meal would be good with water," said the Sweet Partner in Crime, "but with this wine...this wine..." Absolute hedonism. Thanks to this wine, a "good meal" turned surreally scrumptious. The filets, grilled to perfection by yours truly, had its juicy tenderness amplified by the fruit flavors in the wine. The tannins sliced right through the fat in the cheese, enhancing the Gorgonzola's bright flavors. "The cheese and this wine alone are like silk," declared the SPinC.
The earthiness of the wine brought out all sorts of flavors in the mushrooms. The spice in the wine echoed the rosemary in the potatoes.
At one point, the SPinC spilled a little while refilling. She sopped it up with her napkin. I took said napkin from her and sucked the wine out. Too good to waste. We found ourselves eating really slowly. We savored every bite, following each one with small sips off our glasses. A meal that might have taken 20 minutes to polish off stretched into almost three times that. At the end, we sat back, sated. The SPinC left a couple of slightly fatty bites on her plate for the pups. "Life's too short for dogs not to get some filet every now and then," she explained.
At meal's end, we sat, basking in the sensual glow of an absolutely incredible meal. I've talked before about how people make wine to go along with the food that they raise wherever they are. This wine was a perfect reflection of the pace of Italian meals. Additionally, this wine helped me truly understand why it's important to occasionally treat yourself to a really special wine from time to time. There are very few food & wine pairings I've ever had that were this good. Once again, I'll turn to the Sweet Partner to sum this up as well as I ever could:
"Some people might question why you'd spend $50 on a bottle of wine -- and then it's gone in an hour. But, with a meal like this, what an hour!"