One of the key winemaking processes that gives Amarone its depth and complexity is a process called Appassimento. Appassimento is an Italian term which translates to “withering” and refers to a winemaking process where dried grapes, instead of normally used fresh grapes, are fermented. When winemakers use the appassimento process, they create wines that are full-bodied and packed with intense fruit, balanced acidity and sometimes sweetness. This winemaking process is as old as wine making itself, with records of it that dates back to the Ancient Roman times.
The birthplace of the legendary Amarone hails from the area of Valpolicella within the Veneto region, which has been home to centuries of viticultural history. Valpolicella translates to “Valley of many Cellars”, which lies in the north-east of Italy, in the foothills of the Alps, featuring calcareous, limestone and clay-rich soils, with hills more than 1300 feet above sea level. The region is revered for its diverse red wines, spanning from dry, epic Amarone to the sweet Recioto, as well as the spicy cherry charms of Valpolicella Ripasso and lively, accessible Valpolicella. It has a cool and continental climate which is critical to the success of its wine. With the Alps to the north and sloping valleys to the south, the region is sheltered against the intensity of the Mediterranean summer, and the prevailing winds create diverse microclimates throughout the region.
To obtain the healthiest selection, grapes are usually handpicked and carefully packed into small crates to avoid any damage or crushing. After picking, the grapes are laid out to dry horizontally on bamboo or plastic racks. They are laid out in a single layer, in large, naturally ventilated warehouses called ‘fruttaio’ during the winter months and remain often between 100 to 140 days. Ideal conditions involve good aeration coupled with mild temperatures which allows the grapes to gradually develop a more complex array of aromas and flavours.
By picking the grapes when ripe, as opposed to letting them dry on the vine, winemakers can maintain the grape’s acidity while creating deeper flavours. When grapes are cut off the vine, it stops the ripening process, so they are no longer losing acidity as the grapes become sweeter. This concentrates the sugars, while integrating the acidity at the same time. Aside from concentrating sugars, acidity and tannins, the drying process will result in important microbiological changes in the grapes that can impart additional unique aromas and flavours adding greater complexity and intrigue to the final product. After the desired period of drying has elapsed, the winemaker will perform a final sorting to eliminate any unwanted fruit from entering the fermentation stage. Anywhere from 30% to 50% of the original harvested juice yield will be lost using this process.
There are many methods of drying grapes, and it is determined by the winemaker’s preference and desired result. The traditional drying process relies, as previously noted, on natural air circulation. Once a producer has dried the grapes to their liking, they can make a sweet dessert wine, like Recioto, or dry wine, like an Amarone. With this winemaking method, a desired mold often occurs to the grapes known as Botrytis or noble rot, which offers another layer of complexity to the final product. As bad as hearing any mention of mold, for red wines like Amarone, this mold is not a bad thing and harmless to ingest. This type of mold can make the grapes more floral and less fruity while maintaining sweetness. In contrast, grapes that do not have noble rot, have more anthocyanins, resulting in a darker wine with less sweetness but more fruit and structure. The patient results are a deep red colour, velvety mouthfeel and notes of dried fruit and spices characteristic of Amarone di Valpolicella.
The Difference Between Appassimento and Ripasso
For these two winemaking terms, there is often an associated confusion between them. Ripasso is a fermentation method whereby winemakers reuse grape skins. Basically, the winemaker reuses pressed grapes or ‘pass over again’. For example, during the fermentation process of Valpolicella which uses the same grapes and comes from the same region as Amarone, winemakers will add the skins from an Amarone pressing to make Ripasso. Unlike the appassimento wines where dried grapes make up part, or all of the final blend, Ripasso wines use fresh, undried grapes to make the base wine which is then ‘re-passed’ over the used grape skin leftovers from the rarer and expensive appassimento process. This second contact with the skins may start a short re-fermentation adding a slight increase in alcohol to the base wine while adding extra complexity and flavour. These wines are a great option if you are looking for a wine with a bit more substance than a traditional Valpolicella.
Now that we have a better understanding of the Appassimento Method. The next time that you pick up a bottle of a bold Amarone di Valpolicella or a flavourful Ripasso, you will know that the extra depth of flavour came from a labour of love. A love from passionate and patient hands that carefully picked, dried and fermented the grapes to bring you a memorable glass of wine.