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(John Wen)
(John Wen)

Why are Italy’s Amarone wines so high in alcohol? Add to ...

The question

Why are Amarone wines so high in alcohol? We had one last night that was 16 per cent.

The answer

That’s one way to think of Amarone. You could also think of it as having less water.

That’s the corollary, of course. Wine is almost entirely alcohol and water. More of one means less of the other. But with Amarone, intentional desiccation is the key to achieving intense, complex flavour as well as its high strength.

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In fermentation, yeast converts sugar into alcohol. Sweeter, riper grapes yield stronger wines. In the Valpolicella district of northern Italy, Amarone’s turf, cool weather means local corvina, molinara and rondinella grapes rarely achieve ripeness at harvest to achieve much above 13-per-cent alcohol. To create a showstopper red with fuller body and more intense flavours, producers set their best crop aside and lay the clusters out on trays in well-vented warehouses for about four months, after which time the fruit is crushed and fermented.

During those four months, the grapes lose between about 30 to 40 per cent of their water and also undergo biochemical changes that contribute new flavours. Higher sugar concentration in the semi-raisin berries also yields extra alcohol, which contributes more body.

There are many mind-bendingly strong wines out there today from around the world that scratch wine’s natural ceiling of about 17 per cent. (This does not include fortified wines such as port that have been artificially spiked with distilled spirit.) They’re mostly made with freshly crushed berries left to hang on the vine long into autumn in extremely sunny regions, such as the Barossa Valley in Australia and Paso Robles in central California. For some reason, Amarone is, I think, able to hide the jet-fuel strength particularly well. Until, at least, the morning after you drink too much of it.

The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol was recently named one of this season’s Top 10 cookbooks in the United States by Publishers Weekly. Published by HarperCollins.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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