Wine from Dried Grapes Just Might be Italy’s Secret Weapon
If your area is too warm to make Ice Wine, you can most likely make delightful sweet wines (or delightful and powerful dry wines) by drying the grapes. The idea behind the process is similar: removing water from the grapes in order to concentrate everything else.
Okay, I admit that wine from dried grapes is a huge category. Almost every winemaking country in the world has their own wines made from dried grapes. It is one of the oldest ways to concentrate grape must. But no winemaking land has quite the diversity – and the long history of them – as Italy.
In Italy, the process of drying grapes for making wine is, nationally, known as passito – and it is found in virtually every region, for red wines and for whites. Moreover, since it concentrates flavours and sugar, the process lends itself to the creation of both dry and sweet wines. It is most famous (for both styles) in the Veneto, where the drying is carried out on racks indoors and is called appassimento.
Not only is passito used for sweet and dry wines, there are different styles based on exposure to the air. When the wines are exposed to more air during the winemaking, the result is a more oxidative wine with aromas of nuts and dried fruit, such as the ancient Vin Santo of Tuscany. At its extreme, the style is called rancio, and is most often used for less aromatic grapes, such as the decidedly neutral Trebbiano Toscano, to provide them more interest and complexity. More aromatic varieties, such as the Moscatos (I wrote about Zibibbo, southern Italy’s native Moscato here recently), the Malvasias and Aleatico, are generally fruit-driven and less oxidative, since the grapes have such lovely fresh fruit flavours to begin with, and most producers want to keep them that way.
It is worth noting, however, that if you see the word passito (or also recioto, for that matter) printed on a wine, that wine is almost certainly going to be sweet. If it is a dry wine made with passito techniques, the wine label might include a derivative of appassimento or a description of the process, if it includes anything at all.
Dried Grapes for Wine
Drying can be done out in the sun and weather (most risky), under a roof (less risky), or in a building with good ventilation (least risky).
If you want to make a wine using dried grapes, you must decide when the drying should take place. They can be dried either while hanging on the vine or after they have been harvested. If you choose to leave them on the vine, then at some point you will want to prevent them from receiving any further nourishment or water from the vine while they are drying – otherwise, you will not be getting dried grapes, you will be getting “Late Harvest” or even botrytised grapes (such as those used for wines like France’s Sauternes, Hungary’s Tokay and Germany’s Trockenbeerenauslese – gorgeous wines, all, but not made from dried grapes, per se). To cut off the sap flow without removing the grapes from the vine, the bunches will be twisted and then left to hang. This interrupts the flow of water and nutrients but allows the grapes to benefit from continued exposure to the sun and wind.
In some ways, it is easier – and less risky – to dry the grapes after they have been harvested. Normally, this is done on racks inside a large, well ventilated room. In Valpolicella, this room is called a fruttaio, and it is an essential part of the process (and is also strictly regulated). Another possibility – and one of the oldest ways for undertaking passito – is to lay the grapes out on mats, historically straw, to dry under the sun. This tradition has been used in as many countries as have made wine from dried grapes, resulting in names like Strohwein in German, vin de paille in French. A third possibility is to hang the grape bunches on hooks to dry vertically, as is sometimes done in Soave, among other places. This tends to eliminate the trouble with rodents that used to plague the users of straw mats.
But Why Dry the Grapes?
Like most organic things, grapes are made up mostly of water. Allowing some of that water to evaporate concentrates the other components in the grape to varying degrees. The wine that results from this concentrated grape must will have more of everything – which is great, as long as you have healthy grapes! There will be more sugar, more acidity (if the drying process is done right), more flavour – and also more tannin, if the grapes are red. If you are making a dry wine, all that extra sugar will result in much higher levels of alcohol in the finished wine. If you are making a sweet wine, it will be sumptuous and decadent because of the magnified flavour intensity and residual sugar. No wonder these wines have always been popular.
The Downside of Drying
There are two main problems with the process: botrytis and volatile acidity.
Botrytis is the “noble rot” so necessary for some of the world’s most important sweet wines. It can significantly alter the flavour of the wine – or simply cause the grapes to become unusable, if it occurs at the wrong time. Most producers prefer not to use botrytised grapes for drying – and nearly none would want the botrytis to set in after the drying itself has begun, so the key is to prevent it from afflicting the grapes once the drying has been initiated.
Elevated levels of volatile acidity (think: vinegar) are virtually guaranteed when using passito to concentrate your must. A little volatile acidity is fine – and many people quite like it. But too much and your wine starts to smell like vinegar.
If the choice is made to leave the grapes on the vine, there is the chance that weather and animals that might ruin/consume the crop.
The best wines result from a careful, controlled, slow drying process. Under the heat of the southern sun, drying outside can be very fast, resulting in more maderisation and less delicate aromas.
And, though it may seem sacrilegious to say it, some wines simply do not benefit from the process, no matter what many producers of Primitivo, for example, would have you believe. But that is a discussion for another post that I am just itching to write.
Some of Italy’s Great Sweet Passito Wines to Look for
There are many wonderful wines from Italy made with passito – one of many points that draw me to this wonderful country. Some of the best sweet wines include:
Recioto della Valpolicella – the sweet version of Amarone della Valpolicella
Sagrantino Passito – the extraordinary, sweet version of Italy’s most tannic variety – I paired it with Black Forest Cake here!
Malvasia delle Lipari – an sublime expression of this aromatic grape from a volcanic island off Sicily
Recioto di Soave – 70-100% Garganega and very rare, but absolutely worth the effort of locating
Vin Santo – there is an extraordinary range of styles running the entire range of possibilities in this traditional Tuscan sweet wine. Often rancio in style, there is even a rosé made from Sangiovese called Occhio di Pernice.
Vino Santo – NOT from Tuscany, but from Trentino and made with indigenous Nosiola. Very challenging to track down, but a lovely, delicate wine.
Pairing Passito with Food – Together with #ItalianFWT
Passito, happily, is this month’s theme at the Italian Food Wine and Travel blogger group. I love sweet wines, I adore passito, and so I was all over this topic.
Pairing, obviously, depends greatly on the wine. But! Sweet wines, generally, are far more versatile than people tend to give them credit for – especially those wines that have great acidity.
Even though #ItalianFWT is kind of “all about the wine and food”, I’ve already done two videos with two very different passito wines, so I decided not to do another match for this month’s theme. Please DO check out the videos, however!
What has #ItalianFWT Written About Passito This Month
Check out some of the posts from other Italian Food Wine and Travel bloggers below!
Jennifer at Vino Travels will share “An Amarone Pairing with a Visit to Brunelli”
Jeff at Food Wine Click will share “Dip Your Biscotti in Montefalco Sagrantino Passito“
Linda at My Full Wine Glass will share “Passito and peaches –perfect late-summer fare (#ItalianFWT)”
Camilla Mann at Culinary Adventures with Cam will share “Polpette al Forno + Sartarelli Verdicchio Passito 2013”
Wendy Klik at A Day in the Life on the Farm will share “Appassimento Method explained in Layman Terms”
Cindy at Grape Experiences will share “Italian Night? Pair Appassimento from Abruzzo with Homemade Wild Mushroom Ravioli“
Nicole at Somm’s Table will share “The Sweet Side of ILatium Morini: Sette Dame Recioto di Soave Classico with an Old-Fashioned Strawberry Cake“
Gwendolyn at Wine Predator will share “Pasqua Puts a Little Love in Your Life Part 2: White and Red Appassimento“
Katarina at Grapevine Adventures will share “3 Different Italian Appassimento Wines That You Will Love”
Great Sweet Wines of the World Part 1
And don’t forget to check out Great Sweet Wines of the World Part 1: Eiswein, Germany’s Cold Gold