Milan, 7 February 2021
One of the things which my wife and I agree went up during our first Covid lockdown last spring was our consumption of wine. Those long evenings when we couldn’t go out anywhere tended to encourage larger suppers accompanied by copious servings of wine, servings which were repeated when we had finished eating and had settled down for our evening’s entertainment – old TV series which we found on YouTube. When we got out of lockdown, our wine consumption went back down to normal. But when we went into our second lockdown, the wine consumption went up again. What to do, we have to pass the time as pleasantly as possible.
We get our wines from the two or three local mini-markets which are close at hand. I make a bee-line for the sections devoted to red wines from the south of Italy – Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, some Calabria, some Basilicata. I always prefer red wines – white wines give me stomach burns – and I find that that red wines from the south of the country have more depth and body to them than the better-known reds from northern Italy; they are considerably cheaper, too. My wife is quite happy to follow me in my choices, although from time to time she’ll splash out and get herself a bottle of white wine. One day, I will write a post about southern Italian red wines, but today I want to write about something quite different.
A few weeks ago, as I was scouring the shelves of one of the mini-markets, looking for a wine we hadn’t tried, I came across this:
“This” is a bottle of red wine from Puglia, with a classification of Indicazione Geografica Tipica, i.e., pretty good but not up there among the stars. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But what caught my attention was the phrase on the label da uve leggermente appassite: “from grapes that have been slightly dried”. I vaguely knew about the “passito” method of making wine, which meant that the grapes have been dried out before being crushed and pressed. After polishing off the bottle with my wife (more on this later), I decided to do a bit of research on the “passito” method (which for the most part consisted of reading a bunch of Wikipedia articles). I can now happily share my newfound knowledge with those of my readers who, like me, are not super experts on wine (those who are super experts had better just skip to the end).
The first thing I discovered is that “appassimento” (the procedure of drying grapes and making them “passiti”) is actually one of three procedures which are used in grape-growing regions with the primary purpose of concentrating the sugars in the grapes. And the reason for concentrating the sugars is to be able to make strong, sweet wines, usually drunk with desserts (hence often being called “dessert wines” in English).
“Appassimento” is the most obvious, and therefore the oldest, of these three procedures: there is evidence of sweet wines being made this way already 6,000 years ago in Cyprus. There are various ways of carrying out “appassimento”. One is simply to leave the grapes on the vine longer than you normally would, so that they overripen and have higher than normal sugar levels; they also tend to lose water and shrivel, which also increases sugar concentrations. Canny wine-makers can play with the amount of “appassimento” they allow. They can have just a bit of “appassimento” (which is probably how the Puglia wine I mentioned earlier was made).
Or they can go the whole hog and choose extreme “appassimento”.
Of course, the longer wine-makers wait, the greater the risk that something will go wrong (bad weather, mould, etc.). But the more interesting can be the flavours so generated. A variant to this approach is to leave the grape bunches on the vine but twist their stem, to “strangle” them as it were. If I understood correctly, this hastens the “appassimento” process, so that you can avoid the risks but enjoy the advantages – having your cake and eating it.
You can also harvest the grapes at the normal time but then let them dry in the sun.
Or, if you’re not too sure of the weather, you can do it inside.
Wines made this way are called straw wines (vin de paille in the original French), because the grape bunches were originally laid down on straw to dry out.
As readers can imagine, all this works better in places with lots of sun, which is no doubt one of the reasons why Cyprus holds the prize for the earliest use of the procedure.
Let me at this point throw in some examples of sweet wines made this way. Since my investigations were started with an Italian wine, I’ll give Italy pride of place, while recognizing that all of the southern European countries, as well as the New World wine-making countries, make this kind of wine. Even in Italy, there are numerous such wines, so I’ll just mention a couple, chosen for the completely banal reason that they are from lovely places. Thus, we have the various Vinsanti from Tuscany.
And then we have Malvasia delle Lipari passito, made in the small islands of Lipari and Eolie off the coast of Sicily.
In the second procedure used to concentrate sugars in grapes, you allow your grapes to be attacked by a fungus, the Botrytis cinerea. The fungus shrivels the grapes and increases sugar concentrations, thus allowing wine-makers to make a sweet wine. For rendering this useful service, the fungus has been named the “noble rot”.
For the noble rot to work properly, you need specific humidity conditions at specific times of the day at specific times of the year, so there are only a few places in the world where you can use this procedure. And you have to be damned careful that the fungus doesn’t run riot in your vineyards, otherwise you get another form of the fungus, “grey rot”, which completely ruins your harvest. It seems that Hungarian winemakers were the earliest to figure out how to harness Botrytis cinerea to make sweet wines, having done so by the 16th Century.
You really have to ask yourself how anyone – Hungarian or otherwise – figured this procedure out. My assumption is that when one year some wine makers found themselves with a harvest of grapes on their hands which had been attacked by the fungus, rather than just throw the grapes away they decided to go ahead and make wine anyway, reasoning that even a bad wine was better than none at all, and were pleasantly surprised by the result.
As examples of what are, sensibly enough, called botrytised wines, I’ll mention Tokaji from Hungary, because that seems to be the granddaddy of this kind of wine.
And I’ll mention Sauternes from the Bordeaux region of France, perhaps the most famous of the botrytised wines.
The third and final procedure is used to make so-called ice wines. Here, you leave the grapes on the vines until January/February. The precise time you pick the grapes crucially depends on the outside temperature: picking must take place the first time the temperature drops to -7°C, which normally means picking the grapes at night, picking them quickly, and pressing them immediately.
What is happening is that the water in the grapes is turned to ice but not the sugars. When you press the grapes, the iced water stays with the must, and the resulting grape juice has very high levels of sugars. The procedure is a relative newbie: it was only discovered at the very end of the 18th Century, in Germany.
As an example of an ice wine, I’ll mention Canadian ice wines.
This may seem a surprising choice, but it allows me to slip in a mention of what is probably the greatest environmental disaster staring us in the face: climate change. Because of climate change, it is getting more and more difficult to make ice wine reliably in the northernmost wine-growing regions of Europe where the procedure was first developed, because it is becoming rarer and rarer for the temperatures there to drop sufficiently low. But because temperatures still drop reliably every year to -7°C in Canada, its wine regions, particularly those in Ontario, have stepped into the breach and have become the world’s major producers of ice wine.
Readers will no doubt have noticed that all the examples I have given so far are of white wines, and indeed most of the wines made in these three ways are white, using grape varieties like muscat, malvasia, and riesling. But – as my discovery in the mini-market shows – some red wines are also made this way. Since, as I pointed out earlier, I’m more of a fan of red wines than white wines, I want to finish this post by fighting for the red corner, and will do so by mentioning three red wines, all from northern Italy, and all passito wines.
Two come from the Valpolicella region, which lies north of Verona and east of Lake Garda – in this photo, you can see the lake in the distance.
The first of the two red passito wines from here is Recioto della Valpolicella. This, like most passito wines, is a sweet wine, and indeed this photo suggests its use as a dessert wine.
Perhaps at this point I should reveal that I’m not a great fan of sweet wines. I don’t deny that they can be very tasty, but I feel that somehow – and I’m sure this is just a ridiculous prejudice – sweet wines are not serious. This prejudice of mine is most extreme when it comes to red wines; I’ve signaled this already in an earlier post about sparkling Italian red wines, most of which are sweet. To my mind, for red wines to be serious they must be dry. So it comes as a relief for me to able to introduce the second wine from Valpolicella, the Amarone della Valpolicella.
This is a dry wine. Its name signals this, Amarone being derived from the Italian word “amaro”, which means bitter or sour. The wine is not really bitter or sour; it probably refers to the fact that this wine originally came from batches of Recioto della Valpolicella where the fermentation hadn’t stopped and so the sugars had all been turned into alcohol: so from sweet to sour.
Which leads me naturally to my final red passito wine, another dry wine, the Sfursat. This comes from the Valtellina valley in upper Lombardy, upstream of Lake Como (and of the hike along the Sentiero del Viandante which my wife and I did last year).
Let me throw in here a photo of grapes drying in readiness to become sfursat.
And here is a photo of a bottle of sfursat, which gives me an excuse to have a photo of that inescapable part of the wine world, a wine cellar.
At this point, I have to make another revelation. Neither my wife nor I have ever tried any of these three wines. But now we have an excuse to try some different wines during lockdown! (we’ll have to accept to fork out considerably more cash than we are used to, though, but hey! no pain, no gain).
And what about the Puglia wine that started this whole post? As I poured it into our glass wines I was half afraid that it would be sweet, but no, it turned out to be a dry wine, which was a relief. As we sipped it, we felt that the intense and bright red colour of the wine, characterized by delicate purplish hues, was the perfect expression of its complex and fruity bouquet. Balsamic notes of blackberries, spirited cherries and plum jam were smartly dressed by elegant sweet spicy scents. It was warm, round, and with a good balance of tannins … OK, I confess, I just copied all that last bit from the label on the back. As I commented in a post written years ago, I’m always impressed by the bullshit wine merchants come up with. My wife and I, we just went mmm, yummy! And the next day, I bought another couple of bottles.