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Drying: the ancient art of boosting a wine's flavour

Wine-grape farming is no holiday. Ripeness is key, and it takes assiduous pruning, often by hand, to coax vines into yielding sweet fruit before autumn weather steps on the brakes. Successful tomato gardeners, those other vine wranglers, can attest to the challenge.

But there's an ancient postharvest trick that can boost flavour even after nature and toil fall short of the mark. It involves grape drying. Rather than crushing them immediately, winemakers will lay out picked bunches on straw mats or plastic trays. Over weeks or months, some of the water evaporates, leaving behind berries that resemble raisins. The fruit tastes riper and sweeter, similar to otherwise bland tomatoes that are dried in the sun or oven to bring out their flavour.

Grape drying is employed around the world, mostly for sweet wines. Countries have different names for the technique, including passito in Italy, prosek in Croatia and vin de paille (literally "straw wine") in France. In a sense, Canadian icewine could be considered a cousin to the style because it's made with berries that have been left to shrivel on the vine till midwinter, though they're also pressed frozen to further separate water from the juice.

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Few dry wines are made in this way, mainly because there's so much fruit sugar in the fermenting tank that yeast can't consume it all. It's that "residual" sugar that imparts sweetness to most dessert wines.

One exception is Amarone, the dry, powerful raisin-like red of Italy's Veneto region. It's made with the same grape varieties used in crisp Valpolicella, mainly corvina, rondinella and molinara, which are dried for about three months. In a sense, Amarone was a solution to a challenge. Cheap and cheerful Valpolicella historically lacked the concentration to yield wines with wow factor. Producers in the region, envious of their counterparts in Tuscany and Piedmont, wanted to produce a red with cellar cred. So they ingeniously adopted the desiccation method from the dessert-wine world. That came almost naturally, since many of the same producers were already making a sweet passito wine called recioto.

The technique can also be used in a more subtle way than for Amarone or dessert wine – using grapes that have been allowed to dry just weeks rather than months. That's the secret to the surprising richness of the first wine at right, Sartori di Verona Marani Bianco. It's especially uncommon for a passito-based wine because it's a dry white. Like Amarone, it hails from Veneto, specifically the Soave district, an appellation more typically associated with lean, neutral whites that arguably share more in common with water than with, say, chardonnay. (Yes, I'm exaggerating.)

Soave is made from the garganega grape. So is the Sartori. But think of the latter as a turbocharged Soave, with enough stuffing to match the subtle sweetness of a pasta (or pizza) loaded with plenty of sun-dried tomatoes.

Sartori di Verona Marani Bianco 2009 (Italy)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.96

The nose suggests orange, flowers and honey, clues that this is not your ordinary Soave-style wine based on the lean garganega grape. Made from semi-dried grapes and partly barrel fermented for extra body, it's light-medium-bodied and slightly fleshy, with flavours of apple, orange and honey. Great for sautéed shellfish, chicken risotto or pasta/ pizza with sun-dried tomatoes. Available in Ontario.

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Hartford Court Four Hearts Vineyards Chardonnay 2009 (California)

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $47.95

A quality producer in the Russian River Valley, Hartford Court uses traditional methods for its chardonnays, including barrel fermentation and extended contact between the wine and spent yeast cells known as lees. You can taste the rich, tangy lees effect here. Full-bodied, it's imbued with peach, tropical fruit, vanilla and a whiff of smokiness. It's expensive, but not outrageous relative to the United States given that it sells for $40 (U.S.) at the California winery, not including 7.25-per-cent state sales tax. Available in Ontario.

Montes Purple Angel 2009 (Chile)

SCORE: 91 PRICE: $56.95

One of Chile's top carmenère-based wines (with 8-per-cent petit verdot thrown in), it's full-bodied and stacked with dark berries plus good support from smoke and lively acidity. Cellar this red for five to eight years or pair it now with grilled beef. Available in Ontario and for $55.50 in Que. for the 2008.

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Errazuriz Single Vineyard Max Reserva Estates Carmenère 2009 (Chile)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95

Velvety for a carmenère, it's full and chunky, with blueberry and dark chocolate taking herbs and minerals along for the ride. Good value. Grilled or roasted red meats would be good. $22.99 in B.C.

Ravenswood Vintners Blend Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (California)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.95

Better known for zinfandel, Ravenswood churns out oceans of wine under its Vintners Blend line, yet it manages to do an impressive job much of the time. Good varietal character here as well as substantial complexity, led by currant, vanilla, dry tannins and a hint of Bordeauxstyle graphite. Pair it with grilled steak or lamb. $17.99 in B.C., $14.65 in Sask., $18.08 in Man.

Quinta Da Nespereira Vineaticu 2008 (Portugal)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95

Smoke, herbs and minerals leap out from this full-bodied red from the Dao region. It's a blend of touriga nacional and tinta roriz, with fine tannins and a bitter character that may be jarring to fans of smoothness. I'd try it with herb-crusted leg of lamb. Available in Ontario.

Planalto Reserva Vinho Branco Seco 2010 (Portugal)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95

Light-bodied but baby-fat fleshy, this smooth white delivers ripe pear, lemon and herbs and finishes with zippy acidity for balance. Match it with simply prepared, meaty fish, such as grouper or halibut. Available in Ontario.

Yalumba Y Series Viognier 2011 (Australia)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95

Yalumba does the French viognier grape proud down in Australia. Textbook characters of candied orange, apricot and flowers come through nicely in this medium-full-bodied white, lifted by a dusting of white pepper. Try it with chicken vindaloo. $17.99 in B.C., $17.99 in N.S., $18.99 in Sask.

Cattail Creek Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (Niagara)

SCORE: 86 PRICE: $14.95

An offbeat sauvignon blanc, this is sweet enough almost to qualify as off-dry, yet there's good Sour Patch Kids-candy tartness to give it a virtually fizzy quality. Try it with aromatic dishes, such as lightly spicy Thai chicken curry. Available in Ontario.

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