Great wine, it's said, is grown in the vineyard, not made in the cellar. Wise words. Poor grapes, like bad ingredients in a recipe, tend to compromise the final product.
It's a tidy truth, but it's by no means gospel. When winemakers trot out that old chestnut, I think of the exceptions. Champagne is a prime example. Cool climates such as Champagne's yield miserably unripe grapes. It's hard to make good table wine that far north in France, yet it's precisely those tart, teeth-corroding grapes that form the basis for blissful bubbly - thanks to aggressive intervention in the cellar.
The still-wine world has its exceptions, too. Few winemakers know this better than the Venetians. Amarone, the prestige red of the Valpolicella area in the Veneto region, is a classic case of ingenuity over weather. Veneto's cool, humid climate tends to yield crisp, light red wines, not generally the stuff modern consumers consider sublime. Valpolicella, the pizza-and-pasta red based on such local varieties as corvina, rondinella and molinara, was the mainstay. It was typically picked early, before mould could set in. I doubt that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who own a $40-million villa in Valpolicella, drink much of it.
Amarone is turbocharged Valpolicella. Grapes are laid out to dry for three or four months after harvest. This reduces water concentration by about half and concentrates sugars prior to fermentation, yielding powerful, dense wines, typically with 15-per-cent alcohol. Though dry, amarone's flavours are similar to those of sweet port wine, often raisin- or prune-like, with complementary nuances of dark chocolate, tobacco and fig. The best also come balanced with zippy acidity and pair nicely with cheeses and hearty red-meat dishes.
Veneto's glories don't stop there. Ripasso, a sort of baby amarone, has become popular of late. It's made with grapes dried for a shorter period or by mixing leftover pomace from amarone back in with regular Valpolicella, providing an additional food source for the yeast. The technique adds texture and flavour and gooses up the alcohol content to yield a fuller wine.
Ingenuity notwithstanding, it's hard to make a great amarone or ripasso with inferior grapes. The best start with very ripe grapes from warmer growing seasons and well-drained hillside sites. So, yes, vineyard and weather are important. Even proud Venetians are humble enough to admit that.
Giacomo Montresor Amarone Della Valpolicella 2006 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $53.95
Velvety with a complex savoury character, it builds to a lively, crisp and spicy finish. This would be splendid with steak topped with blue cheese.
Zeni Vigne Alte Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2006 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $39.95
Rich flavours of chocolate, plum and subtle raisin find balance in fine, astringent tannins. Pair it with the cheese course.
Piovene Porto Godi Fra I Broli Merlot 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23.95
Concentrated, fruity and juicy, this merlot delivers a silky texture and heartwarming, 15.5-per-cent alcohol. It's a bargain. Try it with lamb chops.
Tedeschi Corasco 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95
Made with grapes dried for a brief period, this "baby ripasso" is medium-bodied, with a complex profile of strawberry, plum and herbs, lifted by crisp acidity on the finish. It would complement grilled veal chops.
San Raffaele Monte Tabor Pinot Grigio 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
A good, organic pinot grigio, with a silky middle, lemon and red-apple flavour and crisp, lengthy finish. A good white for shellfish.
Tenuta Sant'Antonio Monti Garbi Ripasso Valpolicella Superiore (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.95
Medium-bodied and very dry, this red leans to the herbal side, with notes of flowers and fennel. It would be nice for veal scallopini.
Zeni Marogne Ripasso Valpolicella Superiore 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $17.95
There's a green, herbaceous tingle here that's not what I generally look for in ripasso. But it's a fine red for grilled sausages.
Monte del Fra Bardolino 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 84 PRICE: $11.95
Bardolino is Veneto's cheap-and-cheerful red. This one's lean, with a chalky, almost metallic edge and an interesting floral-spice finish. Pair it with pizza.
Godo Bianco 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 83 PRICE: $14.95
A touch too sweet for my liking, this white, based on garganega and sauvignon blanc, tastes more like a simple offering from California, not Veneto. Sip it well-chilled on its own.