Somewhere along the line, sweet wine has gotten a bad rap. Hazy memories of high school hangovers spawned by overindulging in Boone’s Farm, Lambrusco on Ice, Asti Spumante, and the dreaded Blue Nun, are just a few of the culprit of numerous prayers at the porcelain altar and unplanned sexual encounters. Those hazy memories will come right back to you if you’ve ever been offered a sweet wine. But there’s no reason to cringe. Excellent semi-dry to sweet wines are being crafted without the extra sugar added to traditionally cheaply made wines. Sweet wine is back, in fact, it never really left us.
There are several styles of sweeter wines that are making a resurgence in today’s epicurean culture: Moscato, Lambrusco and Riesling are just a few on the rise due to their unparalleled appeal with spicy foods and Asian cuisine. These wines mostly fall into the “off-dry” to “semi-sweet” category and are usually the result of lower acid and higher alcohol from sweeter varietals, ripened for a longer time in a warmer climate, or stopping the fermentation by reducing the temperature in the fermentation tanks prematurely. That sweetness is often the result of residual sugar which is the natural grape sugars that are left over after fermentation stops. The results are quite often well received, and are regaining popularity in the United States. But there is another category of sweet wines known as dessert wine…those cute little libations your grandmother used to drink after dinner with her almond cookies and crocheted doilies. Well Grandma, move over. I’m sitting next to you!
Dessert wine has enjoyed a long history referenced in poetry and song by Greek poet Hesiod in “The Work of Days” where the process for making straw wine, called Cypriot Manna, was described almost 3000 years ago. Italy is still the frontrunner for Passito wines, which are wines that are harvested and partially dried on straw mats or hung from the rafters of well ventilated, airy rooms called fruttaio for about three to six months where the grapes will shrivel and the highly concentrated sugars of the now dried raisins are then gently pressed and fermented. Some of the best known Passito wines are from the Veneto region of Northern Italy, which is well known for its Amarone della Valpolicella made from Corvina and Rondinella grapes using this traditional appassimento technique. Although Amarone della Valpolicella is dried and pressed, the result is a red, dry and intense, displaying flavors of black cherry, ripe strawberry and raisins. Its sweet version is known as Recioto della Valpolicella which is fermented Amarone with residual sugars remaining at the end of the fermentation process. This luscious, tannic red dessert wine is rich and complex with flavors of blackberry, black currant and chocolate covered raisins. Only 2% of Amarone is made into Recioto, thus making it well sought after. It’s the perfect end to any meal and one of the few dessert wines that goes well with chocolate. Pair it with chocolate-filled Bocconottti, or Panna Cotta for a memorable ending, or with hard, sharp cheeses like Pecorino, Gorgonzola, or Asiago to get your cocktail party started.
The Veneto region is also known for Recioto di Soave, made from the Garganega, which is a dry, white grape variety that when it goes through the appassimento process will turn this wine into a brilliant yellow color and has aromas of apricot and pineapple with hints of eucalyptus, honey and sweet almonds. Only the ripest grapes are selected for this wine, some even showing signs of Botrytis or Noble Rot (which is probably the only time the word “Rot” has appeal). It pairs well with blue cheeses and fatty meats like foie gras, as well as with salty and spicy foods. At the end of your meal, Recioto di Soave is a treat on its own or with sweet cream desserts like a delicious cannoli or Tiramisu.
Another mouthwatering passito wine is from the South of Italy, where the hot, dry climate is ideal to grow and dry grapes with high sugar levels. Pantelleria is a small Sicilian island close to Tunisia and is known for its sweet passito, made from Zibibbo grapes. Pantelleria Passito can also be made from Malvasia and/or Moscato grapes. This golden treat tastes like apricots and raisins with a touch of almonds and honey. Pair it with a almond paste Sfogiatelle, deep fried Zeppole filled with custard or honey and butter or an Authentic O&H Danish Almond Kringle (From Racine, Wisconsin but available at Trader Joe’s), and you not only have an amazing treat, but also a little change left in your pocket.
No discourse about Italian passito wine would be complete without covering Vin Santo del Chianti, the most famous dessert wine from Tuscany in Central Italy. Vin Santo is generally made using Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia (both white grapes), but can also include Sangiovese to create a rosato-style red dessert wine called Occhio di Pernice, which translates into “Eye of the Partridge” for the color of the Red-Legged Partridge’s eye. There are many theories of how Vin Santo got its name, but one is that it was considered the “Holy Wine” used in Catholic Mass. Another theory dates back to Renaissance times where the strong, sweet wine was marketed to Rome from Santorini in the Adriatic Sea. Casks and Barriques of Vin (wine) would come into Italy bearing the stamp “Santo” (short for Santorini). Thus the name Vin Santo. Toffee, almond and fig dominate the flavors associated with this wine. It is nutty with notes of raisins, honey and cream. It is important to know that not all Vin Santo is sweet (some can be bone dry like a Fino Sherry). It is also produced throughout Italy in differents styles. But despite its diversity, it is Italy’s traditional “Welcome”. A pairing of the dolce, bright orange liquid paired with an almond biscotti which is usually dipped into the Vin Santo to soften the hard, sliced biscuit screams “Benvenuto”!
Not all sweet Italian wines are dried on mats or in air-filled rooms hanging from the rafters. Many sweet wines of Italy and the rest of the world are the result of harvesting late in the season when the grapes start to shrivel and concentrate the sugars in the grape while still on the vine. This method is known as vendemmia tardiva and is prevalent in Lazio, Gradoli and the Elba Island utilizing Aleatico white grapes, in Puglia using the Italian version of Zinfandel (Primitivo), in in Emilia Romagna with the white Albana grape, in Lombardy using Moscato di Scanzo, and also in Lombardy, near Milan, in Valtellina Sfursat made from the prized Nebbiolo grape. Most of these late-harvest wines are infected with botrytis cinerea which is a fungus that attacks the shriveled grapes and causes a the already condensed, raisinated grapes to develop a grey, furry mold, that given the right conditions of being allowed to dry out on the vine will create a liquid gold that is reminiscent of honey and buttered corn. If words like rot, fungus, and mold bother you, break out your Italian and call it muffa nobile. There are small amounts of Ice wine produced in Italy’s northern region of Trentino-Alto Adige on the Swiss/Austrian border. This is achieved by the same process of late harvest wine without the muffa nobile. As the temperature drops, the grapes freeze on the vine and are then pressed creating a wine sweet wine showing white peach, and tree fruit flavors.
The last wine on your sweet Italian tour is Marsala, a fortified wine from the town in Sicily bearing the same name. This misunderstood wine has been shoved to the back shelf of the pantry and used as cooking wine for centuries. There is a new generation of Italian winemakers who are taking Marsala back to its days of grandeur with increased quality standards to rival some of the finest Ports, Sherries and Madeiras of Spain and Portugal. Fortified wine is made by adding distilled wine spirits, which basically cooks the must and adds it to the southern Italian grape varieties which include a blend of white grapes Catarratto, Trebbiano, Inzolia, and Grillo, or red grapes like Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese and Pignatello. During the days of long haul shipping on the rough mediterranean seas, the addition of brandies and grape spirits, helped to preserve these fortified wines on long voyages, was essential, resulting in stewed stone fruit, brown sugar and sweet tobacco flavors. There are hints of leather, molasses and saline that make this a delight to drink with pork or poultry dishes, or to warm the heart with a sweet zabaglione dessert.
Italy is a virtual cornucopia of wine varieties and sweet dessert wines prevail in every region in the country. So this holiday season, put aside your notion that you don’t like sweet wine and save room for dessert. Food, friends and family accompanied by wine…that’s called living “La Dolce Vita”.
Susan Spinello is the Certifiable Sommelier. She has be working and playing with wine and spirits ever since learning how to manipulate a corkscrew. What captures her passions most are the stories behind the bottle: From the growers to the show-ers, she sees wine as a never ending story.
In 2015, after more than 30 years of studying the nuances of wine profiles and perfecting the art of pairing those profiles with haute cuisine Ms. Spinello embarked on a 10 week intensive at the International Culinary Center in New York City where she earned the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers Certification just one day after receiving a perfect score on the level one certification. Immediately following, she became the exclusive wine and beverage expert and monthly contributor for Left Magazine.
When she isn’t studying, swirling, sipping, and savoring, Susan also shoots and rides. In additional to being a working Sommelier, she’s also a professional photographer and avid equestrian.
Everything she has achieved in her life has led her to the wine locker. As wine gets better with age, Susan gets better with wine. Follow her at www.CertifiableSomm.com, on Facebook at “The Certifiable Somm”, and on Instagram @certifiable_somm.