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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Amarone is one of Italy's iconic wines and a dozen family producers of the pricey, opulent red have banded together to ensure it stays that way.
The Amarone Families are dismayed that their fabled wine is becoming almost mass-produced, which they say has resulted in a drop in price and quality.
"It used to be something that very few people made. And it was made in small amounts," Sandro Boscaini, the president of the Amarone group and head of the Masi wine family, explained during a recent visit to New York.
"Now almost half the grapes grown in the Valpolicella region are being used to produce Amarone," he added, referring to the northern area of Italy.
Nine million bottles of Amarone were made in 2006. By 2008 the number had reached 15 million bottles.
Amarone, like Champagne or Port, is a process wine, and the process has been around for centuries in the Veneto region just east of Lake Garda, according to Mary Ewing-Mulligan, author of "Italian Wine for Dummies".
Traditionally, a few winemakers pluck the finest bunches of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes and put them on straw or bamboo mats in a loft. The bunches are left to air dry for between 120 days and 130 days until they shrivel and lose up to 40 percent of their weight.
The grapes, jammed with flavors and sugar, are then crushed, fermented and barrel- and bottle-aged to produce Amarone wines layered with complexity, elegance and finesse.
The labor-intensive process adds to the wine's cost and there is also a risk that a wet or humid autumn can cause the grapes to rot, rather than dry.
"For all the work, for all the time, the risk, I think we present it for a very fair price," Boscaini said.
U.S. retail prices begin at about $50 a bottle, while older vintages sold at auction routinely fetch more than $100.
Boscaini argues that using less than the best grapes, machine-harvesting, heated buildings, and even oak chips instead of oak barrels can result in an inferior wine.
"We formed this group to protect the quality," he said.
The group of 12 families has vowed to limit their total production to no more than 2 million bottles annually. They will also put a hologram badge on their bottles with the letter "A" so consumer will know they are getting authentic Amarone.
If the harvest is poor, the families have agreed not to make any Amarone.
"Amarone has always been, for the traditional family producer, a flagship wine, a symbol of grace and elegance," Boscaini said. "We are doing these things to make sure it stays that way."
Reporting by Leslie Gevirtz; Editing by Patricia Reaney