Wither not Amarone

The magic of the Appassimento method


Whilst the term ‘Appassimento’—or ‘withering’ in Italian—may mean little at first glance, reference to one of the world’s most legendary wines, Amarone, might provide a few clues. For Amarone’s unique characteristics derive from the drying or ‘withering’ of harvested grapes, which concentrates their flavours and elevates the sugar levels to produce wines of pronounced complexity and intensity.  

Silvia Bonomo, co-owner of Monte del Frà winery, reflecting upon the long and proud history of Appassimento, traces the technique back to the Romans; “when they were transporting wines through the Roman Empire, the only way to make sure they were still good was to dry them a little”. 

It is a technique most commonly associated with two of Italy’s wine regions, Valpolicella and Valtellina; the former renowned for Amarone, the latter for Sforzato. “There is no difference in the process of Appassimento, they both have full body with smooth flavour, but differences in sun exposure, soil, and altitude make them distinct”, explains Silvia. 

Whilst typically associated with the indoors, the first vital stage of Appassimento occurs during harvest. The grapes that go into the “cache” must be “totally dry”. The grape pickers “must be very careful to put the grapes down very gently so as not to break any part”, Silvia cautions—“any grape with a broken skin will become mouldy, affect the entire building, and we’ll have to throw everything away”. As she describes, it is like “putting a child down—you have to be very kind, very gentle”. 

The grape pickers must be very careful to put the grapes down very gently so as not to break any part

The harvest is undertaken entirely by hand. The classical ‘pergola’ system means that it is impossible for machines to enter, whilst many of the vineyards are on terraced plots. With a shortage of Italians willing to work in agriculture, Monte del Frà winery relies on migrant workers from as far away as India. Silvia proudly shares that her uncle is “a highly experienced and skilled agronomist who takes full responsibility for the harvest. He imparts his knowledge to the workers every day, ensuring that they are well-equipped to handle the harvest efficiently and effectively.” 

The harvest grapes are left to dry in boxes or ‘caches’ in large buildings. The grape loses some 30% of its water, resulting in higher levels of sugar concentration (around 28-30%). A dehumidification system works constantly to ensure that the drying takes place in a protected environment, whilst the ‘caches’ are arranged to ensure airflow that simulates the outdoor environment. 

“On the sunny days, we keep the door open”, Silvia relays, “but on cold days we keep the doors closed”. These northern parts of Italy can be very humid during winter, when intense fogs create considerable moisture. “Here the weather conditions are not like in the south of Italy, we cannot dry grapes into the sun”, Silvia compares, “some of the old buildings are still traditional as the old ‘devocote barns’ façade used to let light and air into the structure, facilitating the proper drying of the grapes stored inside”.  

For the uninitiated, it is a potentially deadly process. “It is not breathable air”, Silvia warns, ‘“as the process of drying creates CO2 and a lack of oxygen inside. It is very dangerous!” The doors have to be left open for at least an hour before anyone can enter. It is also deceptive. “You don’t realise that there is no air”, Silvia tells me, “you just breathe and faint”. Accordingly, only specially trained persons are allowed to enter. 

The drying process lasts until January; however, pressing of the grapes can not begin until the ‘wine regulatory consortium’—the body that regulates wines created by Appassimento—confirms the start date. “Each January they send us an email and—depending on the harvest, on the season, tell us when we can start”, Silvia expands, “January 10th, January 16th—they decide what it is possible to do. There is not a maximum, but always a minimum”, Silvia jokes.  

Some winemakers start pressing immediately, but others wait longer. “Once we have permission, we press Amarone Classico”, Silvia continues, “whilst the Reserva stays for another 15-20 days”. Of the six wines of the Valpolicella wine region, four are made through Appassimento—Ripasso, Amarone Classico, Amarone Riserva, and Recioto, a dessert wine produced by prematurely stopping fermentation, typically by cooling the must. 

Prefermentative ‘Cryo’ (or cold) maceration allows them to have a better controlled and gentle extraction of compounds from the grape skins, reducing the possibility of bacterial attack and resulting in wines with enhanced colour, aroma, and flavour profiles. “When people drink our Amarone, they experience a fruity, full-bodied wine that is well-balanced and easy to drink. Its high alcohol content is not immediately noticeable” Silvia elaborates.

The Corvina grape, the main one used for Amarone, was only rediscovered a few hundred years ago having been preserved by local farmers. It is a reminder as to how precarious the persistence of certain varieties and techniques has proven to be; and how the evolution of wine and winemaking can hinge upon specific individuals or communities.  

The name ‘Amarone’ is derived from the Italian word for bitter, ‘Amaro’ (not to be mistaken for the word for ‘love’, ‘Amore’). “There is a legend about a farmer who forgot the fermentation of his wines”, Silvia begins, “instead of becoming sweet, the lees ate all the sugar and the wine became dry. When he tasted it”, Silvia continues, “it was bitter —but not bitter and thin, but bitter and big—and this wine is Amarone, he declared!”

Arguably the most intriguing wine is the Ripasso, meaning ‘repassed’, which has become increasingly popular in recent years despite its humble origins. Silvia tells me how the farmers who used to manage the farms of the rich folk would be allowed to take the grapes after fermentation; adding that “the rich wanted their prestigious wines, whilst the poor farmers had the skins of prestigious wines”. 

The rich wanted their prestigious wines, whilst the poor farmers had the skins of prestigious wines

To supplement their wines, the farmers would add the skins; a concept Silvia compares to making vegetable soup. The lees would feed upon the sugar on the Amarone’s skin, forming alcohol, before the wine was filtered and placed in oak barrels that had previously contained Amarone. The name Ripasso, therefore, derives from the repass on the skins of the Amarone, and then in the oak barrels of the Amarone. “You can’t make Ripasso without Amarone”, Silvia concludes about a wine which is valued for embodying “the freshness of a Valpolicella with body as rich as an Amarone”.  

Whilst some may balk at the price of some Amarone, it is but a reflection of the labour-intensive nature of a process that can be easily compromised by a rogue grape or a spike in humidity. One cannot merely lay the grapes in the sun and wait for them to shrivel. The conditions need to be carefully controlled for months on end.  

“There is a story behind every label”, Silvia insists, referring to the different terroirs and micro-climates that distinguish her family winery from large producers. Appassimento is a unique twist that turns a more predictable tale into one where the character of Amarone (or Sforzato) conquers the mere mortals, bows in respect to Recioto (its standing since diminished by healthier bodies turning their backs on dessert wines) whilst elevating Ripasso to new heights. Whatever the future holds, Silvia and Monte del Frà are ready to face it.

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