The History of Amarone at Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, and Domìni Veneti Amarone Classico with Decadent, Braised Lamb Shanks (#ItalianFWT)




When we travel to different wine regions, I try to pick different types of wineries in each location to get a better overall sense of the area. I admit I'm often drawn to smaller producers – perhaps I romanticize them a bit, or maybe it’s that seeing individuals, couples, and families making and selling wine makes the dream seem just a little more within reach, even if still extremely difficult. That said, there’s nothing inherently better or worse about wineries of different sizes and scopes. Good and bad wineries come in all forms. Moreover, a lot of times bigger, forward-thinking producers are the drivers of research and innovation in an area because they have the means to do it. Likewise, large long-lived wineries are often the basitions of an area’s winemaking history. It’s just a matter of searching out the right spots.

Co-operatives are wineries that are jointly owned by a group of growers who contribute grapes and share facilities and equipment. They’re sometimes easy to overlook when planning visits, but when we explored Valpolicella, just outside Verona in Veneto, we stopped into Cantina Valpolicella Negrar on a recommendation. It was extremely illuminating and I think  I’d recommend it as stop number one for anyone visiting the area interested in an introduction to the history of Amarone and how it’s made. Moreover, this is the likely birthplace of the Amarone style.

The history of Amarone is much shorter than you might think. Valpolicella’s history as a region is very long, but Amarone only arose as a style in the 1930’s. Amarone is a dry style of wine that is made via the appassimento process, which involves drying grapes after harvest so as to concentrate and intensify the sugars and flavors. In Valpolicella, the process was historically used in the production of sweet wines made from a blend of the region's red grapes, with Corvina in the lead. (I’ve previously discussed this process in conjunction with white, sweet Recioto di Soave at iLatium Morini here.)

Amarone supposedly came about as a happy accident. The story goes that a vat of wine intended for Recioto was left unattended, accidentally allowing the fermentation to go too long. When the cellar master, Adelino Lucchese, found this barrel, he discovered that rather than the sweet Recioto wine that was intended, they had a dry wine instead. This initially seemed like a big loss, but when they tasted the wine, they found it was rich and robust. It also carries a pleasant bitter (amaro) quality, hence it was eventually called Amarone, and a new style was born.

It’s not 100% certain this  story accurately describes how and where the first Amarone wines were made, but the oldest example bottlings found to date were produced at Cantina Negrar invintages ranging from 1936 to 1942, from an anonymous collector.

What’s particularly nice about a visit to Cantina Negrar is their small museum that lays out the process and history of Amarone really effectively. The exhibit leads you through various systems that have been used for the appassimento process throughout its history. Nowadays grapes are typically dried in crates in well-ventilated rooms, but I found the displays of the old styles quite beautiful to look at. 






The museum also had displays of all the different grapes that have been used in Valpolicella and their descriptors and properties.


Corvina leads the blend in Amarone, making up 45-95%, but it has quite a few friends including Corvinone (now identified as a distinct variety), Rondinella,  Oseleta (which is on the upswing), and Molinara (on the downswing) and  many others.


Nowadays, the co-op has 230 participating growers, encompassing over 700 hectares of vineyards, producing around 16 million bottles per year. They have a very dedicated winemaking team, and all work in the vineyards is done by hand with no machine harvesting. They work with their growers to farm sustainably and use eco-friendly practices. (Read more about their philosophy and practices here.) The winery also is very involved in research and innovation, partnering with institutions and universities to explore new technologies and biodiversity through experimental vineyards.
 

Note: Our visit to Cantina Valpolicella Negrar was comped as a member of the wine industry and press. As always, all opinions are my own.
 

The Wine and Pairing

The winery has two main lines. Cantina di Negrar is the more classic line. The Domìni Veneti line evolved from the winery’s Quality Project, which began in 1989. The project first worked to identify particularly exceptional areas of Valpolicella – essentially developing a cru system for their vineyards. They then worked hard alongside the growers to further increase the grape quality. The Domìni Veneti brand is the bottled  result of this work.



I recently picked up a bottle of the Domìni Veneti Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2015 at K&L in SF. According to their website, the winery considers this the “best-known and most representative product of our company philosophy.”

I recently got back from a vacay and jumped back into a busy week. Also, compared to the temps in the 70°’s and 80°’s (F) I’d been enjoying in Mexico, the high 40°’s to 60°’s of the Bay Area was a little chilly, so a bottle of Amarone seemed like a nice warm wine-hug to welcome us back.

On the day I opened this bottle, I picked up aromas of warm, dried and cooked red fruits like cherries, raspberries, red plums, and craisins alongside a sprig of mixed herbs. The fruit quality was fresher on the palate and was joined by rosemary and more herbs, as well as touches of licorice, spice, and bitter chocolate. It was nicely balanced with firm tannins and a good amount of acidity.

My notes from tasting the wine at the winery (same vintage) included similar descriptors, as well as tobacco and kirsch. I also noted that this wine showed comparatively more fresh fruit notes and spice versus the more traditional Cantina di Negrar bottling from the same vintage.

I’d planned on making braised lamb shanks and had scoped out several recipes to draw from. Once I tasted the savory herbal components in the wine, I decided on one that would allow me to incorporate some of these factors. I also decided to make the lamb shanks in my Instant Pot to save time. 






I used this recipe for Mediterranean Lamb Shanks directly from the Instant Pot website. I followed it pretty faithfully with the exception of a few small changes. I used lamb stock since I had some on hand, and I added a handful of rosemary sprigs to further weave in herbal components. The recipe only calls for 30 minutes of cooking time under pressure (aside from the pressure release time), but I would recommend leaving it longer next time. Cooked for this amount of time, the meat was fully cooked through and mostly tender, but there were chewier sections that would’ve been completely fall-apart tender given extra time. 





That said the sauce was sooooo lusciously delicious served with creamy polenta. It made a very good match for our Amarone, which lightened up a little bit further when sipped alongside our food. We both had big satisfied smiles on our faces as we enjoyed this pairing. 

     


Geeky Details


Taken from the tech sheet.

Blend: 60% Corvina, 15% Corvinone, 15% Rondinella, and 10% other varieties as per DOCG regulations.
Vineyard: Located in the heart of the Valpolicella Classico area on dry terraces, between 150 and 450 metres above sea level. Southeast and southwest exposure. Loamy clay soil, sometimes limestone and over Eocene marl. Vineyard grassing.
Age of vines: 15-25 years.
Production:  Harvested between September and October, exclusively hand-picked. Drying until December/January in the drying room. Crushing at the beginning of February with de-stemming of the grapes Fermentation temperature from 12 to 23 °C. Slow maceration for 30 days, 12 of which cold. Manual punching-down three times a day. Complete malolactic fermentation. Wine aged in large oak barrels for at least 18 months and in bottles for another 6-8 months. Natural stabilisation.
Vintage 2015: A very balanced year, even if the summer was fairly dry, during which time the excess water supply from the rainy 2014 nourished the vines. Thanks to the warm and prolonged summer temperatures, the vines notably developed their photosynthesis, increasing the concentration of sugars and colors. The 2015 vintage is marked for its great balance and longevity, with very soft and sweet tannins.


The winery also makes the following serving recommendations:

It traditionally pairs well with game, grilled meat, braised meat and aged cheeses. Great with conversation after a meal.



Money Talk


I purchased this for $44.99 at K&L, which isn’t inexpensive, but reasonable for Amarone. Due to the production process, these wines tend to be a little pricey. They generally start at around $35 and climb quickly from there. I feel this was a Solid Value for a well-made version at the more moderately priced end at the spectrum. 


Traveling Tips


I mentioned up at the top that I try to pick wineries of different types when visiting an area. To give you an idea of how an itinerary of this kind can play out, here’s an example of the slate of the four wineries we visited while in Valpolicella at the end of 2018:

  • Allegrini - Larger production, still family-owned, with historical roots, and driven towards innovation. 
  • Cantina Valpolicella Negrar – Larger production, quality driven co-op, with a lot of history behind it.
  • iLatium Morini - Medium-ish, family-owned, outside the classico zones, making various styles in both red and white.  
  • La Marognole - Boutique, family-owned, on the newer side. (Well, for Italy anyways – it started in 2004.)
We really enjoyed our visits at each of these places and each showed us a different facet of winemaking in the area.



Photo credit on all of the pics in this post to Greg Hudson.

*****

The rest of the Italian Food, Wine, Travel group (#ItalianFWT) is exploring the co-ops of Italy this month check out their posts here:



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10 comments

  1. A post worth waiting for! This cooperative sounds really dedicated to Amarone. Great way to start out by visiting a museum to learn the process.

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    1. Thanks Linda! They make a full range of Valpolicella styles, but they were ground zero for Amarone.

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    2. Thank you Nicole for the great post!
      Hope to meet you again soon:-)

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    3. Thank you for a wonderful tour, Natascia!

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  2. I just last night looked at several Domìni Veneti wines in a friend's cellar, front label only. Had no idea they were a cooperative. $44 is on the affordable side for an Amarone. Thanks for including the lamb shank recipe link, yum!

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    1. That's cool! Maybe said friend could share one of the bottles for a winter toast.

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  3. Nicole - What an exciting post. First of all, it made me want to visit that winery and the wine museum - I loved the photos of the grapes drying horizontally. Second, who knew that Amarone was such a recent product. I didn't I can admit. Your dish looked super too. I'm tempted to have Amarone today. Cheers, Susannah

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    1. Thanks so much Susannah! I was completely surprised to find out how new Amarone was as a style as well.

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  4. That dish looks amazing with the amarone. Love the pictures! The appassimento process is so interesting to see.

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Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!