The amazing story of an ageless Amarone

“If I could save time in a bottle

This 1988 Remo Farina Amarone had a life and a story to tell.
This 1988 Remo Farina Amarone had a life and a story to tell.

The first thing that I’d like to do

Is to save every day till eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you.”
— From Jim Croce’s song “Time in a Bottle”

The Wine Goddess was upset.

We’ve shared nearly everything in our 25 years together —  except for my losses at Saratoga each August — so it was only natural that she expressed dismay when I told her about my decision to open the 1988 Remo Farina Amarone della Valpolicello Classico without her.

Later she forgave me, but it left me with profound regret until I discovered that Bella, her cat, had chucked up a hairball on a book I had been reading.

The 26-year-old bottle of red wine, with its original $14.99 pricetag, had languished for five months in the cellar. When I first showed it to the Wine Goddess back in July, she said, “You’re not going to drink that, are you?”

Paraphrasing the late great comic Will Rogers, I said, “I’ve never met a wine I wouldn’t like to try.”

Yet I wasn’t brave enough to pop the cork — and for good reason.

The 1988 Remo Farina Amarone, from Verona, had been abandoned in the basement of an Andover home for nearly three decades with dozens of other old, dusty bottles. It came into my possession via Helen Dunigan, my generous neighbor who purchased the lot from an estate sale.

The ruby red color was a sign that the 26-year-old Amarone had aged well.
The ruby red color was a sign that the 26-year-old Amarone had aged well.

After inspecting the bottles for her, I determined most were tainted from improper storage. The seals showed leakage and/or mold. The wines were discolored, too, the reds turning brick brown and the whites a shade of lighter fluid.

Helen told me to take what I wanted. I selected eight bottles to study, including the Remo Farina which appeared the best conditioned of the bunch. Its seal was intact and its color a distinct cherry red.

One Saturday morning in September, I took the box upstairs to the kitchen and began opening bottles. The Wine Goddess was horrified that I actually poured a sip of each into a glass and touched the liquid to my lips. To save face I told her my experiment was successful: yes, I reported, the wines were bad. She called me “Dr. Frankenwine” and ordered me to clean up the “lab” or there’d be no dinner. She was funny. I poured all the wines down the drain except one — the Remo Farina which I returned unopened to the cellar. I was intrigued by it. If nothing else, I could show friends the old bottle.

A week before Christmas, however, I finally got the courage to try it. I called Richard “Wine Wizard” Rourke at Ricardo’s Trattoria and told him I was bringing in a surprise. A few friends were contacted to meet me there.

The cork from the 1988 Remo Farina Amarone was thinning with age but intact.
The cork from the 1988 Remo Farina Amarone was thinning with age but intact.

When I arrived, The Wizard took one look at the bottle and got excited. He got a decanter and a corkscrew and gingerly opened the Remo Farina. Much to our delight the cork exited the bottle perfectly intact. Next came a slight musty smell which lasted only a few minutes in the 21st century air. Then Ricardo poured the wine into the decanter and, wow, it was the prettiest ruby color I had ever seen. Moments later a perfume of dried fruit could be detected —  another good sign. It was time to learn the truth: We filled four glasses, took a healthy sip and swallowed. All agreed we were drinking a miracle of time and place. It was superb.

When our dinners arrived, I offered a sip to a waitress. “I can’t believe it,” she gushed. “I was one year old when this wine was made.”
Soon, our group was reminiscing about 1988: The names Michael Dukakis and Ronald Reagan came up, as well as Joe Morgan’s incredible pennant-winning Red Sox. I noted 1988 as the year I met my wife, the

Wine Goddess, on a blind date in Beverly Farms.

After 26 years of slumber, the magic of the Amarone was  bursting forth, telling a story, and reviving beautiful memories of a younger time — our own.

 

Part II: What is Amarone Della Valpolicella?

The 2004 Speri Amarone is filled with intense flavors of chocolate cherries, anise, coffee, and dried spices.
The 2004 Speri Amarone is filled with intense flavors of chocolate cherries, anise, coffee, and dried spices.

“Amarone” translates into the “big bitter” and is a recent 20th century creation from the Valpolicella Classico region in Verona, the home of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. It is a formidable dry, red wine of luxurious texture and layers of taste that continue to evolve in the bottle for 10 to 15 years if not longer.
It is not to be confused with Recioto della Valpolicella dolce, the sweet version which is produced from the same rare blend of grapes used in the production of Amarone: Corvina Veronese, Rondinella, Molinara.

Amarone is a high alcohol wine, usually 15 percent to 17 percent, the result of a fermentation process designed to eliminate residual sugars.

Amarone’s unique production cycle separates it from other big Italian reds. The ripest grapes are handpicked and placed on straw mats for 4-5 months to shrivel like raisins. Almost 30 to 40 percent of the grape’s liquid is lost in this appassimento process. Next, the husks are crushed producing a highly concentrated, syrupy extract. The liquid goes into vats where wild yeasts consume the sugars and creating dryness.  The wine ages in oak barrels for two years, picking up different scents preferred by the winemaker. The development continues in bottle for another 2-4 years. Amarones hitting the market today date back to 2010, but don’t be surprised to see new offerings from 2009 or 2008. These wines only get better with age.

So is Amarone worth the wait? For the answer, it is best explained from Matt Kramer’s splendid book “Making Sense of Italian Wine.” He wrote:

“A good Amarone is like no other in the red wine in the world. You get scents and tastes of preserved cherries, various black fruits, whiffs of licorice and tar, along with a swirl of spices. It’s an austere wine. It demands — and rewards — attention.”

I have a dozen Amarones “sleeping” in my wine cellar, the oldest dating back to 2001. The producers are from Speri, Masi, Le Bessole, Luigi Righetti, and Tedeschi. The bottles range in price from $35 to $90 a bottle. While perfect with hard cheeses or slow braised osso buco (veal), Amarone can be enjoyed alone for its ageless elegance. It is a reason the Italians call it a vino da meditazione — a wine to meditate over.

Try one and you’ll drink it always.

Email comments to jcampanini@lowellsun.com.

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