There are many different ways of making sweet wine: you can pick the grapes frozen, as they do in Germany and Canada for Eiswein; you can stop the fermentation by adding distilled alcohol, as they do in Port, or by using yeasts that can’t cope with all the sugar in the grapes, as happens all over the world; you can pick the grapes later than normal, when they are super-mature; you can wait for noble rot (a form of Botrytis cinerea) to shrivel the grapes, as they do in Sauternes… Or you can pick the grapes late and then shrivel (dry) them indoors, as they do in several parts of Italy, France and Spain.
These wines are often known as straw wines, because one of the ways of drying the grapes is to lay them on straw mats; the alternative is to hang the bunches on strings across the room, so that the space looks like an indoor pergola. Either way, you need warmth and good ventilation to prevent mould forming and ruining the fruit. The process is known as appassimento in Italian, which means withering.
The tradition that goes back thousands of years: appassimento wines are treasured and often served to honoured guests. In Tuscany, the style is called Vin Santo, literally “holy wine”, though it’s not consecrated; the term is also used elsewhere, but they’re often just called [grape variety] passito, like the Albana Passito we stock. (Appassimento is the process, passito is the result.)
The wines, perhaps unexpectedly, are not always sweet when they’re bottled. They’re aged in barrels and the yeasts, which remain in the barrel and revive when the weather warms up each spring, can eventually use up all the residual sugar, leaving a nutty, concentrated, dry wine.
Whether dry or sweet though, these are what the Italians call vini da meditazione (meditation wines), wines for sipping as you chat and nibble; they’re great with nuts, dried fruit and cheese. In Tuscany the classic accompaniment is cantuccini, the hard almond biscuits that are also sometimes served with coffee, which you dip gently in the wine to soften them and absorb the flavour. It’s a great mid-afternoon tradition, like dunking biscuits in your afternoon cuppa but alcoholic.
They can be very alcoholic, in fact – anywhere between 13˚ and 18˚, depending how much residual sugar has been converted into alcohol. 18˚ is much the same as a typical Port, but passito wines are much gentler on the digestion – and less headachy – than fortified wines because the alcohol is natural, not distilled. And speaking of distillates, if you like a night-cap but spirits don’t suit you, a good passito makes an excellent alternative.
They say meditation is good for your mental and physical health: vino da meditazione is even better!