Wine-The Sweeter Side

Lets explore how some sweet wines are made and take a look at some Australian producers that have been inspired by classic Italian styles.

Italy has a long tradition of making wines from dried grapes. The mostly dry autumns provide the perfect conditions and discourage noble rot. The traditional home of the Appassimento process is Veneto, where it forms the basis of wine styles such as Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG and Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG, but it is also used in other regions across Italy.

Both white and red grapes can be used and are picked at the perfect moment to ensure ripe flavours and sufficient acidity after drying. Only perfectly healthy grapes are chosen, then laid on straw mats in the sun (straw wines), hung from the rafters or placed on racks in a well-ventilated room called a Furtado.

This process concentrates the sugars in the grapes.

The drying process can take up to six months depending on the season, the variety and the style required. Most of the white Passito styles such as the amber coloured Tuscan speciality, Vin Santo (holy wine) or Passito di Pantelleria, are sweet, while the reds have differing degrees of residual sugar. In the case of dry wines such as Amarone della Valpolicella, they are full bodied, boast high levels of alcohol, and have rich, concentrated flavours.

Paolo Bea in Montefalco has a very impressive and specifically designed room for drying his Sagrantino grapes to perfection with wooden racks and windowed walls that move back to open the whole room and encourage airflow.

The grapes lose up to 60 per cent of their water through evaporation as they dry. After drying the grapes are brought into the winery for a long, cool, fermentation that can take some months.

For the sweeter styles like Recioto, the fermentation is stopped by chilling the wine when the alcohol level reaches around 12 per cent. This wine is also made in a sparkling version.

If the wine is allowed to ferment completely dry as in Amarone, it will often have 15 to 16 per cent alcohol. Another traditional production technique is Ripasso, where the new wine is passed over the lees of the Recioto and starts a short, second fermentation that leads to more flavour, tannin and alcohol.

How the Tuscan Vin Santo got its name is stuff of legend and speculation. It was often used in religious mass and the name was used for this style of wine all over Italy. One lovely tale is of a Franciscan friar from Siena who used altar wine to save people from the Black Death in the middle ages. The Tuscans believed it was a miracle and so it became known as holy wine. Truth or tall tale, when ready, Vin Santo is rich in flavour, light amber in colour and concentrated, with aromas of apricots, raisins, honey and nuts. Usually white grapes are used to produce the wine, though Sangiovese can be used to produce a rosé version. Traditionally made and stored in barrels for up to ten years, it is often used to celebrate weddings and special events and comes in styles from dry to very sweet.

Sicily is famous for Marsala, a fortified wine produced in both dry and sweet styles and often aged for one to five years. This wine is often recognised as a cooking wine and an ingredient of tiramisu, however the best examples of this wine may change your mind. There are some interesting and amazing varieties that are made from local grapes like Catarratto, Grillo and Inzolia.

Sparkling semi-sweet wines such as Moscato d’Asti DOCG have become extremely popular and there are many producers in Australia now making a version of this fragrant and gently fizzy dessert wine. The ripest and best Moscato Bianco grapes are picked at around 10 per cent potential alcohol, then chilled and filtered immediately after pressing and only fermented when required. This helps to maintain the lovely, delicate aromas and flavours, producing a wine with an alcohol level of around 5.5 per cent. While not a classic dessert wine, it works beautifully with fresh fruits.

Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG could be considered the red version of Moscato, with an aromatic nose full of rose petals and strawberries. Grown principally around Asti, Brachetto is generally sparkling, but is also found as a still wine.

Producing these wine styles is often quite labour intensive, but there are a few Australian producers making their own versions of classic Italian dessert styles.

Charles Melton in the Barossa produces a wine, Sotto di Ferro, that is based on the Italian Vin Santo Style (which can come in various levels of sweetness in Italy). Pedro Ximenez and Muscadelle bunches are carefully handpicked into small crates then taken to a drying shed, where the bunches are tied onto strings and suspended from the rafters. After around eight weeks they are dehydrated and the flavours concentrated. They are then basket pressed and fermented in small 60 litre old oak casks called caratelli for 18 months. The wine stays in barrel for four years before it is bottled – a truly laborious process that yields a sweet, slightly oxidized, liqueur style wine that is ideal for dipping biscotti or with dessert.

Chalmers Wines has always been at the forefront of Italian grape varieties in Australia and in addition to their dry wines, they also make Passito style wine using traditional techniques. The Aurora Passito is made from Malvasia Istriana and Picolit grapes picked early and allowed to dry to half the original weight before pressing and fermenting in stainless steel. Filtering the wine stops fermentation. It is then bottled and released after two years in bottle. This is a labour intensive process that yields a wine with fresh acidity and aromas and flavours of poached fruits, quince and honeysuckle. Pair it with passionfruit curd tart or poached quinces – add a splash of mascarpone and it’s a match made it heaven. Chalmers also made a Sagrantino Passito this year.

Di Lusso wines from Mudgee uses Aleatico and Picolit to produce sweet styles of wine as well as its ‘appassimento’, a Vin Santo style made from Semillion.

When the strong wine culture and unique winemaking processes of Italy are combined, the result is a myriad of Italian dessert wine styles to try and enjoy. From Passito and late harvest straw wines, to noble rot and even ice wines – there’s an Italian dessert wine to suit almost every occasion.

Imports: East End Cellars, Arquilla, Addley Clark, 121BC

From Australia: Chalmers Wines, Di Lusso, Charles Melton

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