Anteprima Amarone is a 3-day wine festival held annually in Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Verona's famous Piazza Bra. The event provides an opportunity to enjoy a sneak preview of the region's latest vintage before it hits the market, as well as a selection of earlier Amarone vintages.
Organised and promoted by the Consorzio per la Tutela dei vini Valpolicella, over 70 cantinas are present. For the very reasonable entry price of €30, you can sample as many wines as you like. The entrance fee also includes a tasty selection of local sweet and savoury snacks.
Equipped with a glass, a map of the famous wine growing region and a steely resolve, I bravely enter the fray.
The territory - Valpolicella
Valpolicella (the latin translation is said to be "valleys with many cellars") is a semi-rural area to the north of Verona. The region extends from the shores of Lake Garda in the west to the Lessini Mountains in the north, beyond which lie the Eastern Alps. The area is heavily cultivated, with most farm land dedicated to wine production. A fan-shaped landscape, with a series of valleys that emanate from the city itself, they open outwards as they extend north.
These gentle hills, the fertile soil and a particular microclimate, provide the perfect conditions for wine production. Many of the vineyards in Valpolicella are small family run affairs, for whom sustainable and environmentally-friendly production techniques are a long-standing way-of-life, rather than simply just a modern marketing fad.
The wine - Amarone della Valpolicella
Amarone is widely regarded as one of the best and most important Italian red wines. Although production has expanded significantly since the mid-1990s, limits on overall production capacity mean that ordering a bottle of Amarone should never become a routine matter of course.
Amarone originated from the ancient Recioto, (a sweet velvety wine) and was originally known as "Acinatico", in recognition of its dry, bitter taste. Amarone itself was first bottled in the early 20th century for family use or for sharing with friends; it was only put on the market the years after the second world war. In 1968 it received the controlled designation of origin (DOC). Some of the cantinas that produce Amarone have been making wine in Valpolicella for centuries, others, are relative newcomers, having been established in the last 20 years.
Amarone production requires the very best quality grapes and attentive, hands on, care. Depending on local climatic conditions, the grapes are generally harvested towards the end of September or the beginning of October. Once harvested, they are carefully laid out in wooden or plastic crates or on bamboo fruit drying racks. In order to allow the air to freely circulate and to avoid crushing, the fruit is laid in a single layer. The racks are then moved to the grape-drying building known as the fruttaio. In order to survive this delicate drying phase, the grapes must be perfectly healthy and ripe.
The grapes remain here for three-four months until they lose at least half of their weight and reach a concentration of sugars equal to 25-30%. They are kept under constant control and the bunches are turned regularly to avoid rot or mould forming.
When the drying process is over, the grapes are crushed. The crushing generally occurs in January and February, when the temperatures are low.
Maturation takes places in wooden barrels ranging from big Slavonian oak casks to small French barriques. Remarkably, some of these casks have now found there way to the Scottish Island of Arran, where they are used to mature a unique malt whisky. You can read about that here.
After maturation the wine is finally bottled. About 6 out of every 10 bottles of Amarone are exported. The USA and Canada are the biggest export markets. Switzerland, Sweden and Germany are also popular export destinations.
The 2013 vintage
Although it seems to have been a tough year for the local winemakers, the 2013 vintage is considered to be of medium to high quality, offering wines of high color intensity, rich nose and taste, with significant alcohol that blends harmoniously with the acidity and body. Generalisations are difficult, however, and I was genuinely surprised at how different each Amarone tasted. From robust and full bodied, to light and watery. Some were extraordinarily fruity while others were spicy, caramel flavoured and even medicinal.
With over 70 wines to choose from, you could quite happily spent the entire day at the fair. I limited myself to sampling around a dozen. There can't be many better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon!
Single malt Scotch Whisky is an iconic product recognised the world over for its quality, character and complexity. The same could, of course, be said of Italian wine. Indeed with exports of between £4-5 billion each, whisky is to the Scottish economy what wine is to the Italian - more than just a social lubricant!
Economics aside, I didn't fully appreciate the esteem in which whisky is held until I left Scotland and settled in Verona almost five years ago. In Italy, few important family occasions pass by without a revered bottle of scotch arriving on the table. And almost every bar in Verona has a selection of at least 4 or 5 single malts to choose from, should you be so inclined.
Of course Italian's in general, and the Veronese in particular, know all about prestige food and drink (Italy, for example, has been granted 284 protected status products (things like Parma Ham, Basilico Genovese and Aceto Balsamico di Modena), the United Kingdom, in comparison has just 60 (including Stornaway Black Pudding and the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie).
Verona itself is the gateway to Valpollicella, an area that is to wine production what Speyside is to Whisky. In fact, Valpolicella is second only to Chianti in terms of the number of Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) wines it produces and the local economy is heavily dependent on wine production.
Winemaking in the Valpolicella region has existed since at least the time of the ancient Greeks and the name "Valpolicella" appeared in charters as early as the mid-12th century. The Valpolicella Classico, made from grapes grown in the original Valpolicella production zone, is a high quality entry level wine, at least on par with its better known Tuscan counterpart Chianti.
Also from this region comes the incredible Amarone.
Most of the tasting notes I've seen for the Arran Malt Amarone Finish describe Amarone as "a dry Italian red wine". This massively understates what Amarone is. Even the casual drinker will quickly realise that Amarone is something special. James MacTaggart, Arran's renowned master blender, couldn't possibly have picked a better Italian wine to finish his distinguished single malt. Made from dried grapes and typically bottled at around 15%, it is a sublime, full-bodied but silky smooth red. It is a late harvest wine (the grapes are left on the vine as long as possible, well beyond ripe). After harvesting they are stored in special drying rooms for between three to four months, by now resembling raisins. The resultant wine is then aged for several years, normally at least five, in large wooden barrels of either Slovenian or French oak.
These magnificent barrels have somehow found their way on to the magnificent Scottish island of Arran.
Arran is Scotland's most southerly inhabited island and its 7th largest. Its position at the mouth of the Firth of Clyde and frequent ferry service between Ardrossan and Brodick make it easily accessible from the mainland. As well as its whisky, more of which later, Arran has plenty to offer the visitor. Some excellent food and drink, from cheese and seafood to the islands own locally brewed beer, incredible wildlife and an abundance of outdoor activities, including (weather permitting) hiking, cycling and sailing. The island's geology is truly remarkable (see: "the Hutton Unconformity", which shaped the thinking of a young Charles Darwin). The island is also home to an array of Stone Age hut circles, burial cairns and stone circles.
More importantly, for our purposes, the island's climate and geological composition provide the perfect source of that most crucial whisky making ingredient - water.
Whisky had long been produced on the island, but following the introduction of punitive tax laws, Arran's last distillery ceased production in the 1830s. On 29 June 1995, nearly 160 years after the last island distillery had closed for business, the Isle of Arran Distillery was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in the village of Lochranza. It remains the only whisky producer on the island.
Despite being a relative newcomer, and independently owned, recently released figures suggest that the Arran Distillery is outperforming the whisky market more generally, making a net profit of £1 million last year. In further positive news for the brand, planning permission has now been granted to build a second distillery on the island, enabling this exciting whisky label to further expand and diversify (rumour has it that the company will seek to increase production of its Machrie Moor line, the distillery's popular peaty single malt).
On our recent visit to the island, we somewhat unconventially arrived by the alternative Claonaig to Lochranza route.
After a short crossing we were soon disembarking the ferry and passing the iconic image of Lochranza Castle. We didn't have far to go. The cottage where we were staying was located just outside the village. As luck would have it, directly opposite the island's only distillery! It was here we stumbled across the Amarone Cask Finish Single Malt.
After 8 years of maturation, a very lucky batch of Arran Single Malt is further matured, this time in the aforementioned Amarone Casks. Although there are in fact, three cask finished whiskies produced on Arran (the others being the Sauternes Cask Finish and the Port Cask Finish), when I saw this one I Just had to try it. And, of course, take a bottle back to Verona with me. My neighbours will love it.
The perfect whisky for pondering Hutton's Unconformity.