Since pre-Roman times many European wine regions have produced wines with partially-dried grapes, traditionally called straw wines. These are wines that are made from grapes that have been allowed to raisin in the sun to concentrate their sugars and flavours, producing a full-bodied rich style. As far back as the 9th century BC the Greek poet Hesiod described a Cypriot straw wine in his poem Works and Days.
In recent times our preference has shifted towards dryer styles of wine but happily the tradition of making wines from dried grapes is still alive. And although many of these wines do not have global attention and only survive through a dedicated local market, there is an increasing demand for Italian wines made with raisined grapes in a dry to off-dry style. You may have heard of Amarone and Ripasso but wines made with semi-dried grapes are produced up and down the Italian Peninsula from the Veneto to Puglia and Tuscany to Sicily.
So with the launch of our Italian wine Sale today, and running until 18th March, there is no better time to explore these exciting and increasingly popular styles of wine.
The generic Italian term for wines made from dried grapes is passito (raisin) and the method is rasinate (to dry). The wines are made in styles from dry to unctuously sweet. There are regional and local names for these wines including Appassimento, Passimento, Ripasso, Amarone, Van Santo etc but they are all made in a similar process.
The grapes are picked in perfect condition and are traditionally laid out on straw mats. In the hot southern regions of Italy these mats may be placed in fields under the sun to begin to turn to raisins. In the cooler climate of Northern Italy the bunches of grapes may be placed in the rafters of a stone shed or on bamboo racks in a barn to dry. In modern wineries this process is usually carried out in climate controlled drying rooms (fruttaio), allowing a more stable and predictable drying process.
Whichever method is used, water will evaporate through the skin of the grape. The grape sugar, as well as aroma and flavour compounds are retained inside the skin. Depending on the final wine being produced the grape can lose up to half of its weight through this water loss. These raisined grapes are then either used by themselves to make full-bodied and rich wines, or added to a young wine during the winemaking process to lend body and texture to the wine.
The increased sugar concentration can result in two broad categories of wine:
- If most/all of the sugar is allowed to be converted to alcohol you will end up with a high-alcohol wine that is dry to off-dry.
- If the fermentation is stopped before all the sugar is converted to alcohol you will have a sweet wine that is lower in alcohol but with a high concentration of natural grape sugar.
Amarone comes from the Valpolicella region of northern Italy and is the most recognisable wine in this style. It is made using only raisined grapes that have lost up to 45% of their water weight after about 120 days of drying.
In Italian Amarone means ‘the great bitter’ but that is only to distinguish it from the sweet Recioto wines of Valpolicella. Amarone is typically rich and full-bodied with concentrated flavours of mocha and ripe dark berry fruits. They will usually be high in alcohol as most of the concentrated sugars will be fermented to a dry or off-dry style. The drying process will help moderate tannin and acidity to give the best examples a delicious silky mouth feel with every element of the wine being in perfect balance. The best Amarone houses will age their wines for up to five years to ensure there is perfect harmony in the wine.
Musella are one of the top Amarone producers and grow their grapes biodynamically. This wine shows freshness and less of a ripe, syrupy quality-than some of its peers, with a fine balance between juicy currant and tangy black cherry fruit and notes of tar, chocolate shavings and spice box. The high alcohol (15.5%) is not noticeable due to the perfectly balanced acidity and tannins. A fantastic introduction to the joys of top Amarone.
Amarone Food Match:
This rich and full-bodied wine needs a robust dish to match. Try it with slow cooked lamb shanks and red wine jus served on a bed of garlic sweet potato mash.
As Amarone is made with 100% dried grapes it is an expensive wine to produce. Enter Ripasso-style wines.
Ripasso is a protected term that can only be used in the Valpolicella region of northern Italy. It is produced when the leftover grape skins from Amarone production are macerated (steeped) in a new wine. This ‘repassing’ of the grapes imparts some of the rich body and texture found in an Amarone but at a more affordable price.
Coming from one of the finest wineries in northern Italy Rizzardi Pojega is a fine and elegant Ripasso. Dry and generous this wine is the essence of that dark chocolate/wild cherry character that defines a good Ripasso.
Ripasso Food Match:
The dry and full style of this wine would pair wonderfully with rich game stews. Try it with a venison and Mediterranean herb stew served on a bed of root vegetables.
Governo is the Tuscan equivalent to Valpolicella’s Ripasso wines and offer much of the same structure and depth of flavour. Semi-dried passito Sangiovese grapes are added to the new vintage wine. This starts a long slow second fermentation in large oak barrels. The resulting wine is soft and round with a touch of residual grape sugar, soft tannins. The typical Sangiovese acidity gives this a nice freshness on the long fine finish.
Governo Food Match:
The acidity and ripe fruits of this wine would pair well with tomato based dishes. An aubergine and sun-dried tomato bake with shaved parmesan would be an Italian sensation for the taste buds.
The northern Italian regions don’t have a monopoly on producing top quality passito wines. In the warm sunny south conditions are ideal to fully ripen grapes and then dry them through the long summer.
This customer favourite will be recognisable to many of our customers. Coming from the hot southern Italian Puglia region this wine is made from partially-dried Negroamaro and Primitivo grapes. A full-bodied, off-dry wine with intense aromas of crushed blackberry and cherry with notes of vanilla and cinnamon spice that follows through to the palate along with hints of sweet mocha/chocolate. With its supple soft tannins and refreshing acidity this is a deliciously more-ish and decadent wine.
The sweet and rich fruits of this wine and soft tannins would be delicious pairing for a spiced tomato flatbread or pizza with mozzerella and salami.
The Italian Wine Sale runs in store and online until Monday 18th March. So drop down to your local O’Briens shop where you will find over 90 Italian wines with at least 20% off.
Please note: All prices correct at time of publication. For the most up to date prices please contact your local store or online www.obrienswine.ie. Enjoy alcohol responsibly.