Amarone, with its dense Port-like body that drapes the palate like a rich, velvety robe, ranks high on my list of favorite Italian wines
Produced in the Veneto region in northeastern Italy, Amarone has layers of earthiness accented with traces of mocha and a hint of bitterness. It is made from indigenous Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella grapes, the same variety used for the popular Valpolicella wine.
A wine like Amarone begs for food that can celebrate its powerful profile. Think roasted or pan-sautéed meats to match the wine’s robust character; dried figs, plums or balsamic vinegar to enhance its Port-like flavor; and salty Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to contrast its sweetness.
What makes Amarone stand out
Rich, deep Amarone is distinguished from lighter-tasting Valpolicella by the long hang time the grapes enjoy to achieve extra ripeness. After being harvested at the beginning of October, the grapes go through appassimento, or the drying stage. This centuries-old traditional method is used in the Veneto region to concentrate aromas and flavors in wine.
The grapes are left to dry on mats or bamboo shelving in a cool drying loft for three to four months. By mid-February, grapes lose 40 percent of their weight and gain concentration. It’s the shriveled, raisin-y grapes that give Amarone its density and an alcohol level ranging between 15 percent and 16 percent. The concentrated fruit is crushed, fermented and aged in oak barrels for up to five years, and the wine is bottle-aged for six months before its release.
A meal to celebrate Amarone
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In crafting a meal to enhance these dense wines, I reached out to Italian friend Mario Mangone and his Californian wife, Kay, both superb home cooks. Mario arrived in California in the 1970s and set up an engineering firm, married Kay and settled the family in Ventura on California’s Central Coast.
The dinner menu was crafted to incorporate flavors to serve alongside full-bodied Masi Costasera Amarone (2010) and a Supervenetian, Masi Campofiorin (2011) from our cellar.
These Amarones are from Masi Agricola, a winery run by the Boscaini family renowned for Amazon, which accounts for 20 percent of total production in the Veneto. The name Masi is derived from “Vaio dei Masi,” the little valley purchased by the family in the late 18th century. Now in its sixth generation, Masi is headed by Sandro Boscaini, dubbed Mr. Amarone for his crafting of these iconic wines.
In 1964, the family created the “Supervenetian” category of Amarone with the release of Campofiorin, reinventing the double fermentation method. For these wines, fermented wine from fresh grapes is refermented with 25 percent whole grapes of the same variety that have been semi-dried for about six weeks. The wine is then aged in Slovenian oak barrels for at least 18 months and bottle aged for a minimum of three months.
A marriage of flavors
Mario Mangone’s simple approach to cooking is to marinate most every ingredient — from vegetables to meats, fish and poultry — in olive oil for 30 minutes before cooking.
For Mangone, who hails from Calabria, Italy, his experience with olive oil is personal. The couple purchased an 8-acre ranch in California’s noted Paso Robles wine region. Meant to be a retirement project growing just enough olives to jar for family and friends, the hobby caught on and the Mangones planted more than 600 trees of Arbequina and three Tuscan varieties (Pendolino, Frantoio and Leccino) on 5 acres. The trees now yield enough to produce some 300 gallons of extra virgin olive oil, which is sold at local gourmet stores along with their fig and plum balsamic vinegar.
For our dinner, Mangone used his oils for a four-course menu, perfectly marrying the flavors with the Amarone. We started with sautéed strips of portobello mushrooms and bell peppers served with slivers of parmesan cheese followed by spinach and cheese ravioli atop a rich tomato sauce cooked in beef broth. For the main course, Mangone conjured sautéed lamb chops with strips of sautéed fennel, and we finished this repast with dulce de leche-filled crepes topped with cream and raspberry coulis.
Singing with ripe cherry flavors, the Campofiorin was brilliant with the vegetables as well as the ravioli, the wine’s sweet spice notes ideal with the saltiness of Parmesan cheese. The Amarone, rich with plum and dried fig flavors, was magical with cheese and bread dipped in Calabrese fig balsamic vinegar, and it was a perfect match with lamb simply cooked in olive oil.
We saved a few sips for the finale, and Amarone’s long finish carried well into dessert.
Mario Mangone’s Portobello Mushrooms in Olive Oil
Prep time: 35 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
4 large portobello mushrooms
4 tablespoons Calabrese Arbequina olive oil (or any other extra virgin Arbequina olive oil)
Salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese for serving
Wash the mushrooms and pat dry with a paper towel. Trim the stem and the edges all around the mushroom.
In a large bowl, marinate the whole mushrooms in olive oil for 30 minutes.
Transfer the mushrooms to a cutting board and cut them into half-inch-thick strips.
Heat a wok to medium heat on a stovetop. Add mushrooms and the remaining oil from the marinade.
Saute for 5 minutes, making sure not to overcook.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with slivers of Parmesan cheese.
Note: You can follow the above recipe for sautéed red and yellow bell peppers strips by using four peppers cut into half-inch strips. For sautéed fennel strips, cut four bulbs of fennel into half-inch trips.
Main image: Bottles of Campofiorin from Masi Agricola. Credit: Copyright 2016 courtesy of Masi Agricola Archives