Passito Wines for a Sweet End to a Grand Meal


Passito is an Italian word for wines made by the appassimento process whereby grapes are partially dried on straw mats or pallets in airy rooms or barns in order to concentrate the grapes’ flavors and sweetness prior to vinification. As the grapes shrivel and lose water they become full of concentrated sugars and flavors. After anywhere from three to six months the semi-dried grapes are gently pressed and the juice fermented until it reaches the desired level of sweetness and alcohol. Most passito wines will spend some time in oak barrels to develop additional flavors and complexity in addition to time resting in the bottle prior to release for sale. Italian wines made in the passito style include both red and white wines.

It is a lost-in-time process that has changed little since ancient times. It was widely practiced in the Mediterranean-rim countries where the ancient Greeks, Romans and, yes, Arabs tended their vines and then dried the grapes in the luxuriant Mediterranean sun in order to preserve as well as enhance the wines. They were highly favored in ancient times because the concentration and high natural acidity of these sweet wines provided for a longer shelf life than did red or white wines that were fermented dry.

Today, the basic appassimento process is utilized by numerous producers throughout the length and breadth of Italy. The styles differ markedly from area to area. Different grape varieties, both red and white, may be used and dried in different ways and for different lengths of time depending on the quality of the harvest as well as what tradition or the local DOC/DOCG regulations or the producer’s own inclinations might dictate.

It’s a daunting and time-consuming process but one that pays dividends in the form of very rich, sweet and concentrated wines that provide an amazing coda to any dinner or formal gathering.

Because of their intense concentration, alcohol and high natural acidity, passito wines are also long-lived wines that will continue to evolve and gain additional complexity and depth of color for decades after release.

Presented below are four regional versions of Italian passito wines with several examples of each noted. As you will see, they typically don’t come cheap (unless otherwise indicated, prices are for 500 ml bottles) but are well worth the price if you want to give an extra fillip to that special dinner or convivial gathering.

Recioto della Valpolicella

Recioto della Valpolicella, or Recioto as it is generally known, is an intensely flavored, sweet red wine from the western part of Italy’s Veneto region. It is made from hand-selected grapes that are naturally dried prior to fermentation in the basic appassimento process. The red Recioto is usually made with Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes, the same grape varieties used to make the prized Amarone wines.

Glass of Allegrini Recioto with fruit plateRecioto wines will typically have an intense ruby-red color with a purple rim and intoxicating aromas of dried plums, figs and mocha. The wines should be full-bodied, rich and sweet with smooth tannins, and dried fruit flavors with perhaps a touch of spice from oak ageing.

It’s the perfect wine for sipping after a rich meal but it also pairs well with simple desserts such as shortbreads, almond cookies, crumb cakes and fruit tarts. It is best served at room temperature at least one hour after pulling the cork.

Here are some Recioto della Valpolicella wines to be on the lookout for, listed alphabetically by producer.

Allegrini, “Giovanni Allegrini”, Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 2009 (about $55)
From one of the Veneto’s most prominent producers, this wine is named after the winery’s founder, Giovanni Allegrini, who indicated that it was his favorite. Aged in small oak barrels (barriques) for 16 months, it has excellent concentration and complexity. This is a serious “meditation” wine for sipping alone or as a social lubricant for memorable convivial occasions.

Bertani, Recioto della Valpolicella “Valpantena” 2008 (about $34)
This Recioto is matured in cherry wood casks and is rich and velvety.

Giacomo Montresor, Recioto della Valpolicella 2008 (about $38)
Paolo and Giorgio Montresor lavish special attention on all their wines and this Recioto with its dark fruit flavors is no exception. It is generally available at most Total Wine and More locations in the U.S.

Tommaso Bussola, Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 2005 (about $46)
Even though this is the estate’s less expensive “second” Recioto bottling, it is a remarkable wine that has been well received by wine critics and consumers.

Recioto di Soave

Recioto di Soave is a sweet, white passito wine produced in the Soave region that lies just a few miles east of Verona in Italy’s Veneto region. Recioto di Soave is harder to find than is Recioto della Valpolicella because only a few Soave producers bother to produce it and when they do so, it is only in small quantities.

Recioto di Soave is made from Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave grapes, the principal grape varieties used to produce dry, white Soave wines. The grapes are partially dried for several months after harvest using the same basic appassimento process as do Recioto della Valpolicella wines. A few producers (such as Pieropan), utilize grapes that have been infected with botrytis, or noble rot, during the drying period just like the world-famous Sauternes and Hungary’s storied Tokaji Aszu dessert wines.

Recioto di Soave wines produced from grapes grown in Soave's historic zone were granted their own Recioto di Soave DOCG designation in 1998.

Recioto di Soave wines come in different styles depending on the quality of the fruit at harvest, how concentrated the grape sugars are at pressing and how long the wine spends ageing in oak, among other considerations. Typically, Recioto di Soave wines will be golden-yellow in color with complex aromas of dried and candied fruits and honey, although some will be more so than others. They are richly textured with notes of vanilla and perhaps a touch of brown sugar sweetness on the finish.

Recioto di Soave wines go well with cheeses, nuts, seasonal fruits as well as most pâtés and not-too-sweet desserts, like shortbreads, biscotti or crumb cakes. On its home turf, the classic pairing is with Pandoro di Verona, the local version of panettone. Ricioto di Soave should be served slightly chilled.

While Recioto di Soave wines are not easy to find they are worth the effort. Listed below are three Recioto di Soave wines generally available in the U.S., listed alphabetically by producer.

Gini, “Col Foscarin” Recioto di Soave 2007 (about $32)
The family-run Gini winery practices organic farming and adheres to biodynamic principals in the production of all their wines. The estate’s “Col Foscarin” Recioto is a pleasingly sweet wine, rich and complex - one of the best.

Pieropan, “Le Colombare” Recioto di Soave 2007 (about $45)
This exquisite dessert wine is made entirely of Garganega grapes grown on hillside vineyards in the Soave Classico zone. The wine is aged in oak casks for about 2 years and then spends an additional 6 months resting in the bottle. You know this wine something special when the Pieropan family indicates that it is their favorite wine.

Pra, “Recioto della Fontana” 2009 (about $37)
This wine is made entirely from Garganega grapes grown on the Pra family’s 50-acre estate near Monteforte d'Alpone in the heart of the Soave Classico zone. It has a luminous yellow color with intense, sweet white fruit flavors accented with a touch of honey.

Vin Santo

Vin Santo is a sweet wine produced in various parts of Italy, including Umbria, Veneto, Trentino and Tuscany. But Tuscany is Vin Santo’s traditional and sentimental home and is where most - and some of the best - Vin Santo originates.

Vin Santo (which means “Holy Wine”) has been around centuries with some references to Vin Santo dating back to the 14th century. Today it is an integral part of everyday life in Tuscany, widely available at cafes and winebars where it is often enjoyed with almond-flavored biscotti cookies, and is generously consumed at various festive gatherings and ceremonial functions.

Though most often thought of as a sweet dessert wine, Vin Santo can vary significantly in term of sweetness from very dry (secco) to sweet (amabile) to very sweet (dolce), all depending on how rigorous the fermentation is in converting the sugars to alcohol. Although most Vin Santo wines are golden amber in color, there is a version from Montepulciano labeled Occhio di Pernice (which translates as “eye of the partridge”) that is reddish-amber in color due to the fact that it is made primarily from red Sangiovese grapes as opposed to the more traditional white Malvasia and Trebbiano varieties.

The ageing protocols for the different versions of Vin Santo also vary widely. While Vin Santo from the Chianti Classico zone must age for at least 3 years, the Riserva version requires the wine to be aged for a minimum of 4 years although some producers age their wines much longer than the minimum requirement. The Occhio di Pernice rendition of Vin Santo from Montepulciano must age for a minimum of 8 years.

Vin Santo wines produced from grapes grown in the historic Chianti Classico zone are eligible for Chianti Classico DOC status, which was authorized by regulation in 1997.

As with other passito-style wines, the grapes are harvested and left to dry on straw mats which concentrates the grapes’ natural sugars. After anywhere from 3 to 4 months, the semi-dried grapes are gently pressed and the grape juice fermented. After the desired level of alcohol and sweetness is achieved, the fermentation is stopped and the wine is transferred to small wooden barrels called caratelli. The barrels are sealed and stored in rooms exposed to temperatures that vary from hot in the summer to cool in the winter. This ageing regimen results in some oxidation that imparts a golden amber color and “nutty” character to the wine and also increases its alcohol content to 14 to 16 percent.

It is a time-consuming and tedious process but the end result is a delicious, sweet wine that is an excellent accompaniment to not-too-sweet deserts as well as a great addition to any celebratory functions. Reflecting these considerations, Vin Santo wines tend to be expensive. Listed below are five sweet, dessert-style Vin Santo wines. Each producer’s output is quite small and so may be hard to find in the U.S but is, nonetheless, worth the effort.

Vin Santo wines are best served slightly chilled.

Avignonesi, Vin Santo di Montepulciano "Occhio di Pernice" 1998 (about $235 for 375 ml bottle)
This beautiful wine from one of Tuscany’s oldest wineries is made entirely of Sangiovese grapes that are slowly fermented in small barrels for at least 10 years with an additional year of bottle ageing. This amber-colored wine is thick and viscous with delicious dried fig, raisin and caramel flavors and a generous finish - a sublime and sensuous drinking experience. Outrageously expensive - but worth every cent!

Castellare di Castellina, “San Niccolo” Vin Santo del Chianti Classico 2006 (about $27)
This estate is located close to the town of Castellina in Chianti in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. This exquisite dessert wine is made from a combination of Malvasia Bianca and Trebbiano Toscano grapes that are fermented and aged in small oak barrels for 5 years with an additional 8 months resting in the bottle prior to release.

Isole e Olena, Vin Santo del Chianti Classico 2003 (about $47)
This is an extraordinary dessert wine from one of the top estates in the Chianti Classico zone.

Antinori, Vin Santo del Chianti Classico 2008 (about $31)
This rich wine is made principally from Trebbiano with a small percentage of Malvasia grapes, all of which are sourced from various Antinori estates in the Chianti Classico zone. The wines are separately aged in small barrels of various types of wood. After 3 years the wines are blended and bottled. It has a deep amber color and rich, ample nutty flavors.

Badia a Coltibuono, Vin Santo del Chianti Classico 2006 (about $35)
A well-crafted Vin Santo from one of Chianti Classico’s most historic and highly-regarded estates.

Melini, Vin Santo del Chianti Classico “Occhio di Pernice” 1996 (about $31)
The Occhio di Pernice designation indicates that this Vin Santo is made primarily from red grapes, in this case a blend of Sangiovese and Canaiolo Nero. This Vin Santo is exceptionally complex and exhibits an elegant interplay of date and dried apricot fruit flavors.

Passito di Pantelleria

Pantelleria is a tiny island located some distance southwest of Sicily. It is Italy’s southern-most point and actually is closer to the coast of Tunis in north Africa than it is to Sicily. Given its strategic location, the island has been fought over and colonized by practically every marauding Mediterranean empire over the past 4,000 years. Today the island is much quieter and, in a sense, more remote, known principally for its capers, grapevines and exclusive resort homes.

Pantelleria has long had a favorable reputation for producing sweet wines. Today, Passito di Pantelleria is probably the best known of several sweet wines produced on the island. Granted DOC status in 1971, Passito di Pantelleria is produced from the indigenous Zibibbio grape.

The method of production utilized by winemakers on the island has evolved over many centuries. Beginning in late summer, the grapes are hand-picked and then left to dry in the sun and wind on straw mats for 30 to 40 days in the traditional appassimento process. Later, usually in September, newly-harvested grapes are soft-pressed and fermented. The dried, raisiny grapes are then added to the fermenting grape juice in staged increments. After all the dried grapes have been added and fermentation is complete, the wine will typically age in steel tanks for at least 4 months and spend an additional 4 to 6 months resting in the bottle prior to release.

There are numerous variations of this process depending on how long the grapes are dried, the amount and timing of the dried grapes added to the mix and the duration of the fermentation process. 

Regardless of the nuances of the process, the end result is a deliciously sweet, amber-colored wine with a texture similar to that of maple syrup. It will typically have intense apricot, peach and raisin aromas that segue into sweet fig, honey and dried herb flavors and a long, pleasantly sweet finish.

Passito di Pantelleria is a great sipping wine that can be enjoyed by itself after dinner in place of dessert. But it also goes well with simple, not-too-sweet desserts such as almond cookies or cakes, dried fruit, pastries made with ricotta cheese as well as gianduia, a type of Italian hazelnut chocolate. It also goes well with strong, flavorful cheeses with pungent aromas such as Gorgonzola or Stilton.

It is a wonderfully sweet wine best served slightly chilled immediately after uncorking.

Listed below are four Passito di Pantelleria wines generally available in the U.S., listed alphabetically by producer.

Abraxas, Passito di Pantelleria 2006 (about $39)
This wine is marked with intense aromas of dried figs, apricots and dates with honey and raisin flavors and a touch of almonds on the finish.

Benanti, Passito di Pantelleria 2005 (about $48)
In true passito fashion, this elegant, golden-yellow bordering on amber wine is rich, full and sweet.

Cantine Colosi, Passito di Pantelleria 2006 (about $47)
This wine is golden yellow with amber highlights and enticing aromas of honey, apricot and citrus.

Donnafugata, “Ben Rye” Passito di Pantelleria 2010 (about $38)
Contrary to expectation, “Ben Rye” is not a person’s name; rather it is derived from an Arabic term meaning "son of the wind” and refers to the brisk North African winds that constantly sweep around the grapevines on Pantelleria. With a dark honey color, it is quite aromatic and deliciously sweet. First produced in 1989, it has received numerous wine awards and is a serial recipient of Gambero Rosso’s prestigious Tre Bicchieri  (“Three Glasses”) award.


©Richard Marcis
September 14, 2013

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