By Lorcan O'Brien | Wine Communications & Content Manager
Italian wines are extremely trendy at the moment, with Passito-style wines leading this popularity charge. Produced from the Veneto in the north, to Puglia in the heel and even the island of Sicily, this style of wine is proving to be Italy's signature style right now.
What is a Passito wine?
Passito is simply the Italian word for 'raisin' and Passito wines are wines made from grapes which are semi-dried prior to fermentation. This is an ancient method for producing wines and regions will often have their own protected terms, with Amarone and Ripasso wines from Valpolicella probably the most recognisable. Other names you may see on the shelves include Appassite, Appasimento, Governo and many of the Vin Santo sweet wines are made using semi-dried grapes.
How are Passito wines made?
Grapes destined for Passito wines need to be picked in perfect condition: if they are damaged or burst they can easily succumb to rot and spoil the whole bunch, so this is a meticulous and laborious manual process.
The grapes are traditionally laid out on straw mats to dry. In the hot southern regions of Italy these mats may be placed in fields under the intense sun. In the cooler climate of Northern Italy the bunches of grapes may be placed in the rafters of stone sheds or on bamboo racks in a barn to dry. In today's modern wineries this drying process is often carried out in climate controlled drying rooms (fruttaio) in plastic baskets, allowing a more stable and predictable drying process.
Over a period of weeks or months, the grapes begin to shrivel and raisin, losing pure water through the skins. As the grapes can lose up to 50% of their water content during this time, the sugars and flavour compounds left behind are highly concentrated. When these grapes are pressed and turned into wine, this richness and concentration of flavour is transferred to the wine.
What style of wine is Passito?
Because the sugar concentration of the grapes is significantly increased, these wines can be made from bone dry to unctuously sweet in style.
- 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 mouthfeel 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.
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.
Ripasso / Governo / Appassimento
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 lower alcohol level and a more affordable price.
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 offers 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 and 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.
Some of our customer favourites- Luna Argenta and Rinforzo are produced in the heat of Puglia to the far south of the Italian peninsula. The hot climate produces rich, ripe grapes, which are further intensified by slightly drying them in the hot Mediterranean sun.
Food Match: The sweet, rich fruits and soft tannins would be a delicious pairing for a spiced tomato flatbread or pizza with mozzarella and salami.
These are deliciously food-friendly and crowd-pleasing wines that are proving hugely trendy at the moment, so drop in to your local O'Briens where our friendly staff will happily help you pick out that perfect bottle for any occasion.
Please note: All prices correct at time of publication. For the most up to date prices please contact your local store or online. Enjoy alcohol responsibly.