Camerata—the beloved Houston, Texas wine bar attached to Paul Petronella's eponymous, unfussy Italian restaurant Paulie's—is run by partner and sommelier (and opera singer!) David Keck, the guy also credited with mentoring 2014 Young Gun nominee Felipe Riccio. Keck is in charge of organizing Camerata's lengthy, Europe-heavy wine list, which skews to boutique producers and underdog grapes. Below, Keck contemplates big, bold Italian Amarone wine, and offers thoughts on wallet-friendly finds.
Q: I love Amarone, but bottles are generally pretty pricey. Are there any great and affordable bottles of Amarone out there? And also, if I love Amarone, is there another similar wine that you'd recommend?
One of the reasons that Amarone is so difficult to find at a reasonable price is that it, like Champagne, is a process-driven wine. Amarone is made, at least in the most traditional method, by drying grapes on straw mats to concentrate the juice, thus resulting in rich, full-bodied, frequently high-alcohol wines with very unique, raisinated characters. This process, which is preceded by very careful selection in the vineyard, is expensive and also results in substantially less juice per cluster of grapes than grapes that are pressed directly after harvest.
One of the reasons that Amarone is so difficult to find at a reasonable price is that it, like Champagne, is a process-driven wine.
That said, there are some truly wonderful options at relatively reasonable prices. One of my favorites is Tenuta Sant’Antonio’s Selezione Antonio Castagnedi ($57). Produced by four brothers who adopted the estate from their father, the wines are ripe and concentrated, without losing their freshness and bright red fruit character.
Another Amarone producer that I love to work with is Tommaso Bussola—the wines are very rich and densely-packed, and include some new oak, contributing notes of vanilla and cedar, but the oak influence is secondary to the blackberry, cassis and dried fruit aromas.
Where the real value is to be found, however, is in looking for the Ripasso-style wines from the great producers. Valpolicella Ripasso is made by taking fresh juice and allowing it to referment on the skins of the dried grapes used in Amarone production. Through this technique, much of the concentrated dried fruit character of Amarone is actually passed on to this "second wine," which is usually a fraction of the cost. I frequently look for Ripasso wines from producers that make outstanding Amarone. The two listed above, certainly, but also some of the boutique producers such as Marion ($36) if you can find it. But even the larger producers turn out some really excellent values—try Speri ($19), Zenato ($16) or Allegrini ($14).
Where the real value is to be found, however, is in looking for the Ripasso-style wines from the great producers.
If the occasion arises for a bottle from one of the icons in the area, there are still bottles from Romano Dal Forno and Giuseppe Quintarelli that, although expensive, won’t require mortgaging the house. The Valpolicella DOC bottling from Romano Dal Forno goes through a similar drying process as the Amarone and is differentiated primarily through the length of that drying (slightly shorter) and the age of the vines (slightly younger). From Quintarelli, the Ca’ del Merlo ($75) bottling—a single vineyard selection that goes through the Ripasso method—is truly outstanding and is a great value from the godfather of Amarone.
Beyond Amarone, for those looking for a similar concentration of flavor, intensity of aroma and full-bodied character, I’d recommend a good Zinfandel from Rockpile, try Mauritson ($35) or Bruliam ($35). Also, Dry Creek in Sonoma or even a great Grenache blend from the Southern Rhône (Gigondas or Vacqueyras for good value and intense wines). For something powerful but a little more in the blue fruit camp, try some Monastrell from Jumilla in southern Spain.