The Allure of Italy’s Sun-Kissed Passito Wines

       

I’m a big fan of passito wines as any reader of past postings on this website probably knows. Deliciously sweet, they are a grand way to end a special meal or simply to sip by itself when one is in a monkish, contemplative mood. They’re hard to produce so they tend to be expensive, but once tasted, you’ll find it’s a small price to pay.

By way of background, passito is an Italian word for sweet, dessert-style wines made by a drying process called appassimento. This involves drying recently-harvested grapes in the sunshine on straw mats on valley slopes or, more typically, in airy rooms or barns, in order to concentrate the grapes’ flavors and sweetness prior to vinification. This drying process causes the grapes to lose water, shrivel and 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. Some passito wines are aged in stainless steel tanks or cement vats while others spend some time in oak barrels to develop additional flavors and complexity in addition to some time spent resting in the bottle prior to release.

The basic appassimento process is also used to make rich, boldly-flavored dry red wines such as Amarone and Sforzato. Although both sweet and dry wines are made with partially-dried grapes, the difference is that for dry wines the fermentation ends when there is no more sugar left to convert into alcohol, i.e., it is fermented “dry.” With passito wines the fermentation process is pre-maturely halted by the winemaker when it achieves a desired level of sweetness, i.e., it retains some residual sugar.

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

It’s a daunting and time-consuming process but one that pays big dividends in the form of lusciously sweet and concentrated wines that make for a special treat at holiday celebrations or as a way to end any dinner or formal gathering. Passito wines are also a luxurious treat when served by itself, without food or company.

Because of their 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 years after release.

Reviewed below are four passito wines, two produced from red varieties and two from white varieties. Two are from the Umbria region and one each from Calabria and Sicily. Prices for some of the passito wines are not indicated because they are not readily available in the U.S. Their local scarcity provides additional incentive for that next trip to Italy so you can sock away some bottles of these hard-to-find wines in your luggage on the return trip.

Tenute Lunelli, Montefalco Sagrantino Passito DOCG 2012
The Lunelli family hails for the Trentino region in northern Italy where they own and operate Cantine Ferrari which produces some of Italy’s finest sparkling wines.
In 2001 they purchased Tenuta Castelbuono, a 75-acre winery close to the town of Montefalco in central Umbria. They quickly set about revamping the existing operation so as to realize its full potential. This included planting new vines, implementing an organically-farmed vineyard operation, undertaking an extensive clonal selection project as well as building a new, modern winery. Their first wine from this estate was produced in 2003.

The Sagrantino variety reigns supreme in this part of Italy. This native variety produces big, intense and full-bodied wines chock-full of tannins and acidity that are capable of very long ageing. Sagrantino is both the name of a grape variety as well as the name of the wine produced from that variety.

T2012 Lunelli Montefalco Sagrantino Passito wineenuta Lunelli offers up a small portfolio of Sagrantino wines that includes a highly-regarded Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG, two Montefalco Rosso DOC Sagrantino blends and a Montefalco Sagrantino Passito DOCG.

The Passito is made entirely of Sagrantino grapes harvested by hand in late October from the estate’s vineyards. After partial drying via the appassimento process the grapes are gently pressed and fermented in wooden vats for 15 to 20 days, then aged for 24 months in large oak casks followed by a minimum of 24 months in bottle prior to release. It carries 12 percent alcohol.

The 2012 Passito has an impenetrable purple-black color and tantalizing aromas of ripe dark cherries, black currants and cassis. The intoxicating aromas coalesce into waves of rich, tongue-coating, concentrated dark fruit and coffee flavors with a streak of acidity providing structure and support. Fine tannins give lift to the deliciously sweet, almost Port-like finish.

This rich, dark wine would be an excellent companion for dark fruit pastries, dried fruits and nuts, mature cheeses and anything with dark chocolate.

Antonelli, Montefalco Sagrantino Passito DOCG 2008 (about $38 for 375ml)
This is another passito from Umbria made with Sagrantino grapes and as such shares some of the same aroma and flavor profile as the Tenuta Lunelli Passito reviewed above. However, there are some nuances that distinguish the two so they’re the same but different.

Antonelli’s Sagrantino Passito is made from hand-selected Sagrantino grapes with the finest bunches selected for the appassimento process. The selected bunches are laid in single layers in special crates where they are left to dry.

After two months the semi-dried grapes undergo fermentation on the grape skins for about 10 days after 2008 Antonelli, Montefalco Sagrantino Passito which the wine is aged in large oak barrels for 12 months. The wine is further aged in glass-lined cement vats for 18 months, then bottled where it spends an additional 12 months resting prior to release for sale. It has 14 percent alcohol.

This red sweet dessert wine fairly bursts with ripe cherry and jammy dark fruit aromas interlaced with notes of spices and citrus peel. It has prominent dried fruit flavors along with some fig and prune accented with touch of balsamic and aromatic herbs. It has a pleasurable rich and velvety mouth feel with the salient sweetness balanced by vibrant acidity and soft tannins. It adds a very pleasant and civilized touch to the end of a grand meal but it’s always a pleasure to drink by itself or just share with a small group of appreciative friends.

Pellegrino, Pantelleria Passito Liquoroso 2016 (about $30 for 375 ml)
Founded in 1880 on the western coast of Sicily, Cantine Pellegrino today is one of the largest producers of Marsala wines. In 1992 the Pellegrino family purchased property on Pantelleria, a small island located off the southwestern coast of Sicily, for purposes of enhancing their wine portfolio with the addition of some sweet wines for which this island is famous.

This small and rugged, volcanic outcrop of an island is a difficult place to farm. It’s hot and dry and buffeted by fierce winds emanating from the North African coast that can ravage vineyards and other plantings (For a tourist's perspective of Pantelleria, see The Island Where Tourists Go to Play (and Hide)).

To protect the vineyards from the strong winds the vines are bush-trained so they are low to the ground and are also planted in small holes dug into the soil as an added measure of protection. The holes are also designed as catchments to collect water from what meager showers occur and to retain nightly moisture.

So, growing grapes here requires a lot of time and energy - but it’s worth the effort. Passito di Pantelleria wines were granted DOC status in 1971 and are generally regarded as one of Italy's finest sweet wines. Passito di Pantelleria is produced from the indigenous Zibibbio grape, also known as Moscato d’Alessandria, a member of the large Muscat grape family.

The Zibibbio grapes for Pellegrino’s Passito are picked in stages starting in mid-to-late August with their coastal, sea-level vineyards. The hand-selected grapes are partially dried in Pantelleria’s robust sunlight until the grapes from the inland, higher-elevation vineyards are harvested in late September. As the late-harvested grapes are pressed and fermented the previously-harvested, now partially-dried grapes are added to the fermenting juice. The recently harvested berries provide the acidity while the partially-dried grapes supply the concentration and sugars.

The fermentation continues until it reaches the desired level of sweetness at which time some wine-rectified spirit is added to stop the fermentation and preserve the sweetness of the wine. The wine then spends 5 months ageing in stainless steel vats at controlled temperatures before bottling.

Because the passito wine has been fortified with an infusion of alcohol it is referred to as Passito Liquoroso (fortified) as indicated on the bottle label. The 2016 Pellegrino Passito clocks in with 15 percent alcohol.

It is ginger-orange in color and has intriguing dried fruit and apricot aromas. Served slightly chilled, it’s round and sweet in the mouth with rich dried apricot and raisin flavors and hints of orange peel. A streak of spirited acidity adds balance while a note of caramelized ginger gives lift to the long, lush finish.

Ippolito, “Gemma del Sole” Passito Bianco IGT 2008 (about $33 for 500 ml)
Founded in 1845, the Azienda Ippolito winery is the oldest in the Calabria region. Located in and around the town of Ciro Marina on the edge of the Ionian Sea, the 250-acre estate produces a number of red and white wines made from traditional varieties such as Gaglioppo, Calabrese and Greco Bianco, among others.  

Ippolito’s 2008 “Gemma del Sole” (which means “gem of the sun”) is made entirely of Greco Bianco grapes that have been hand-selected from the estate’s seaside 2012 Ippolito, “Gemma del Sole” Passito Bianco IGT vineyards and laid on mats to dry in the sun for about 40 days. The semi-dried grapes are then softly pressed, undergo a slow fermentation and then the wine is aged in French oak barrels for 12 months.

The Gemma del Sole has exuberant dried apricot, fig and some citrus fragrances that just flutter out of the glass. Golden in color and viscous, it is richly textured with dried apricot, sweet peach and honey flavors. It is full-bodied with a delicate sweetness and balanced with a lively acidity that keeps the wine’s natural sweetness in check. It’s rich, festive and generous. The wine has 14.5 percent alcohol and is best served slightly chilled.

This sweet dessert wine would make an excellent companion for some of southern Italy’s famous desserts such as cannoli, pignoli cookies and marzipan, for example. It also pairs well with aged cheeses. However, my favorite is to serve it with fresh fruit. For a truly ambrosial experience, splash some over a bowl of fresh strawberries or sliced peaches.

 

©Richard Marcis
September 1, 2018

For reviews of other passito wines see For a Sweet End to a Grand Meal

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