Italian wines to drink through to the tiramisu

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      Taste Italian wines with me this week: classics, old-timers, rarities, and surprises.

      Chances are you haven't popped the cork on this one for a very long time-I wasn't even sure it was still listed: Lambrusco di Modena Amabile Vino Frizzante Rosso. (Just say Lambrusco.) Here is a seriously fun wine, oxymoron acknowledged. Lambrusco is a red-wine grape cultivated all over Italy, and the variety has some 60 subvarieties, four of them crowned with DOC status, though this isn't one.

      That's all right; it's also cheap like borscht, at $10.50-and about the same colour. Frizzante means it's slightly effervescent; it's semisweet (although the Italians prefer theirs dry at home); and despite the fact that it's two letters away, it bears no relation to the North American grape Vitis labrusca. At a modest eight percent alcohol, it's an all-nighter and, for what it is, the right stuff. Like with the takeout prawns and broccoli from Hon's Wun-Tun House. And it would make a terrific Jell-O.

      Orvieto is a well-trod DOC area of Umbria that accounts for the majority of the region's wines. The town of the same name sits on a hilltop, with vineyards all around it; the customary Classico zone is at its centre. White wines from half a dozen grape varieties are blended into a dry table wine, but there is also a sweet version that we rarely see here. Melini Orvieto Classico Secco 2006 is one of those rarities, if only for the price: there are few wines so pleasant for $9.99 in our system. Steely and flinty, it softens pleasantly as it travels back over the tongue; the fruit is fresh, if short, the finish clean and medium. Very good with anchovy crostata or any sort of pizza.

      DeAngelis Rosso Piceno 2006 ($14.77) is a Sangiovese-Montepulciano blend, self-described as a "perfect wine for grilled sausages", so we had some of those, the hot variety, and thought it would also do good duty with a fall or winter peposo, that simple meat stew with an incredible amount of black pepper in it. It's a wine that has huge cherry flavours. Like certain Gamays or even Pinot Noirs it likes a little bit of a chill, so just leave it out on the porch for half an hour. Fresh, fruity, and gentle on the tongue, this is a winning wine with all kinds of hearty pasta dishes.

      From a producer called Accordini, here are two higher-end dinner companions that have recently arrived in town and are available at specialty and government stores. Ripasso is a process whereby certain Valpolicella wines can acquire more richness and weight. The wine is fermented in the customary manner, then placed in casks containing the lees (spent yeast) from an earlier batch of Amarone, a concentrated wine made from passito sweet wines. After a couple of weeks, more colour, more tannins, and more intense flavours develop. Accordini Ripasso Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2004 (29.99) is one such wine. It offers elegant richness, as well as robust and complex flavours, and is one of the most meat-friendly wines you'll taste this season. Along with the Amarone, below, it's well worth seeking out for fall stews and classy casseroles.

      The topper this time is the same label's Amarone Della Valpolicella Le Bessole Classico 2003 ($59.99), a wine you can curl up with after dinner and through the rest of the evening. This one is tar-dark, intensely perfumed, ultra mellow, soft and rich and velvety, with a bittersweet-chocolate edge. No wonder Stuart Woods's quasi-legal Stone Barrington likes to drink it in all the novels. I'm not sure 60 bucks is right, but I found only a few cheaper models in the government system-and a whole lot of more expensive ones, up to $475! The recioto process uses semi-dried grapes to impart a sweet-plum or cherry edge, although this Amarone della Valpolicella is a drier version, due to the fact that it's allowed to ferment fully.

      That's the before and during; here comes the after: Pellegrino Passito di Pantelleria ($22.99 for the 375 millilitre bottle). Passito refers both to the production method and the wine that results from it: fresh-picked grapes are laid on reed mats or hung in bunches under the eaves, so that the grapes can partially dry. Much of the grapes' water dries away, concentrating the sugar and the flavours. If you like your sweet wines-late harvest, icewines, et cetera-this is definitely your cup of grape juice. It has a rich, apricot-amber colour and a hearty 15 percent alcohol, and is well supported by the residual sugar and astonishing honey aromas. This is a rich and totally luscious wine that will put the finishing touch on pound cake, panna cotta, or tiramisu.

      Finally, there was a bottle of Okanagan Spirits' Cuvée de Merlot and Gamay Noir grappa in the freezer, and it was the evening's elegant chaser: state-of-the-art grappa, in no way harsh or oily, full of fruit and with a lovely bite. If you've declined grappas in the past because of their gut-wrenching flame-out, try this one to see how it can be done softer, kinder, and gentler. Am I starting to sound like a politician here?

      A call to the distillery in Vernon revealed that there's none left for sale except there, and then only a few bottles remain, in the $50 range. But there are lots of other eaux de vie, grappas, fruit brandies, and even a brand-new line of liqueurs coming soon. Stay tuned to this frequency.