The man paying the bill gave me the honour of choosing the wine. The list was extensive, and appallingly expensive. I eventually settled for Rosemount Show Reserve Chardonnay and Masi Amarone, 1997. The Show Chardonnay was its usual competent self, but the Amarone attracted great admiration. One colleague expressed disbelief that this should be Italian, referring as justification to the straw-encased tourist traps that were familiar as candleholders in chic student flats in the seventies.
The Greeks called Italy Oenotria - the land of wine. It was (and I think still is) the biggest wine producer in the world. In my opinion it is one of the greatest. The complicated quality system of DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) has proved a bit constraining, though. Today many of the superstar wines such as Solaia and Sassiciai, the so called super-Tuscans, are Vino da Tavola (table wine, the most basic legal category). So is a lot of the most awful stuff, however, so be careful!
The wine we had at the restaurant is from Valpolicella, to the north of Verona (although Oz Clarke says it is from Veneto, the area around Venice). Val pol i cella is 'the valley of many cellars' (actually a series of valleys), and produces light, easy-drinking wines. It is made from a cocktail of local grapes, especially Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. The better (Classico) ones come from the uplands, and the ordinary Valpol comes from the valley floors. Unusually for a classic red wine, the younger the better is the general rule, and the good ones give a great burst of alcoholic cherries on the palate. A lot of it is aged in oak, and often disimproves as a result, but good older Valpol is smoky and leathery as well as tasting of cherries. 1997 was a very good year.
Reciota della Valpolicella is sweet, and makes a wonderful change to Muscat de Beaume de Venise, Sauternes or Barsac. Amarone della Valpolicella is made from the best of grapes, which are left on racks to dry. The concentrated juice resulting makes a huge wine, bitter (amaro) but with a range of flavours - chocolate, plums, woodsmoke, cherry - and what the aforementioned Oz calls "a penetrating, bruised sourness which pervades the wine and shocks you with its forthrightness". This is seriously good wine. It costs a lot more than basic Valpol but it's well worth it.
Good producers are Allegrini, Bertani, Masi, Quintarelli, La Ragose, Tedeschi and Tramanal. And Findlater's have Tomaso Busola Valpolicella Classico 1994 and Amarone 1994 that they swear are excellent but I haven't tried yet. I'm looking forward to it, though.