The Wonders of Italian Passitos

I’m currently running an Italian wine course that tours the country over six weeks.  Sourcing the wines for the course is a fun task, but for some wines an extremely tricky one.  For things like Chianti and Barolo you’re fairly spoiled for choice in the London market, leaving me a different problem of which example to go for.  However, trying to find some of the rarer wines I wanted for the course (that are classic styles within their own regions of Italy, but don’t travel much), was considerably harder.  The toughest job of all was getting the passitos I needed, which are wines made from grapes that are dried prior to fermentation.  Some passitos are still dried outdoors (traditionally on straw mats) but most are dried in lofts of old wine buildings, for anything from a few days to about six months.  The wines are then made in the usual way, but typically they aren’t vinified right through to dryness.  Most passitos are subsequently aged and reduced in barrels for months or years before bottling.  This results in a concentrated and naturally sweet wine with a particular raisined quality that has great depth and nuttiness.  Passitos in one form or another have always been made in all the Mediterranean wine producing countries, but it’s in Italy that the tradition is strongest, with examples up and down the country in varying styles, degrees of sweetness and colour.

Anyway, I decided somewhat optimistically that as well as needing a Vin Santo for the Central Italy session (a classic passito from Tuscany), that for the evening on the Islands I would need a bottle of Malvasia delle Lipari, a passito from the Aeolian (a.k.a. Lipari) islands off the north coast of Sicily.  The islands are volcanic soil, which, perhaps counter-intuitively, so often produces great white wine in hot places (Assyrtiko from Santorini, Malvasia from Lanzarote, various white vines from Madeira…).  In fact, Stromboli, one of the Lipari islands, is one of only three active volcanoes in Europe, the other two also being in the South of Italy – Etna in Sicily and Vesuvio close to Naples.  Most of the minuscule output of Malvasia delle Lipari comes from the main three islands, Salina, Lipari and Vulcano, but the grapes for the passito can come from any of the seven islands.  Unlike most passitos which are dried indoors for months, the Malvasia grapes are dried basking outdoors in the sun, just for a few days, which is much faster and more intense process.  The result is a rich wine with a very distinctive orange citrus flavour and lip smacking crisp acidity.

Well, in what is just about the largest wine market in the world (London) I managed to find precisely one example of Malvasia delle Lipari, from the independent merchant The Winery in Maida Vale, West London.  So I took a trip down there to have a look.  It’s a small but perfectly formed emporium, selling interesting wines from small producers around the world that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.  They’ve got a great Italian selection, an even more impressive German Riesling selection (the subject of another upcoming post) and plenty of stuff from all the classic regions of France.

Having had an amiable and productive chat with the manager, I came away with as many eclectic bottles as I could carry (being on the tube), including the elusive Malvasia delle Lipari.  To be precise it was a bottle of 2004 Passito di Salina from the producer Mimmo Paone.   They can call it a Passito di Salina as the grapes are all from that particular island, as opposed to being sourced from across the seven islands.  As the late summer climate is still so hot in the Lipari islands, the grapes are dried just for two days, but its enough to have a significant raisining effect.  As expected, the wine was rich and complex, with the characteristic raisined taste and a slight marmalade character typical of the wines from the islands.  Long and complex it was a great wine and I’m really glad to have shown such an unusual example in my tour of Italy.

A vinsantaia, with barrels of Vin Santo ageing in the corner and Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes hanging up to dry

The other classic style I needed for the course was a Vin Santo. There are many different interpretations of Vin Santo across Italy, but the most famous and celebrated ones are from Tuscany. The wines are made from the ubiquitous central Italian duo of Malvasia (again) and Trebbiano, though up to 30% of other varieties are allowed to be added to the blend.  The grapes are hung up to dry in a vinsantaia, which is the loft of an old wine building in Tuscany.  This indoor drying is a much slower process than out in the hot sun of the Aeolian islands, with the grapes being dried typically for at least three months and up to six. After fermentation the wine has to age for a minimum of three years in small barrels before bottling, resulting in a reduced, rich, nutty, long and complex wine.  There are several different appellations for Vin Santo in Tuscany, all of which are usually very good at worst and often wonderful.

The Vin Santo I got was from Vinoteca, the excellent wine shop and eaterie in Farringdon.  (I also got a bottle of Cirò there, which too was hard to find.  The write up of both Vinoteca and the Cirò can be found here). It was a bottle of 2004 Vin Santo del Chianti (with grapes restricted to the Chianti zone) from the producer Falchini.  Along with the Trebbiano and Malvasia it also included some Vernaccia in the blend (another Tuscan variety, most famously encountered in the dry white wine Vernaccia di San Gimignano).  The grapes were dried for about five months prior to fermentation, following which the wine was aged for five years in barrels before bottling.  It was a rich and classic wine, intense and very long, with flavours of dried fruit, honey and spices, but with a superb cleansing acidity cutting right through it.  Superb just on its own, or if you’re Tuscan, with a Biscotti dipped in it!  Delicious.

So let’s hear it Italian passitos!  We’ve talked about just two here, but they’re found all over Italy from the sweet red, dry red and sweet white Reciotos of the North East down to the sweet white Moscato di Pantelleria from the Sicilian island that’s only 70 miles from Tunisia.  They’re nearly all interesting and certainly worth exploring.

Finally, let’s also hear it for independent wine merchants.  Browsing a selection that’s chosen for its quality, diversity and support of small producers is so much more fun than choosing from a list that’s been restricted to suppliers with a large enough output to satisfy a national chain.  So go to your local independent merchant, have a chat to the manager and try a few random wines.  You’ll pick up something interesting and they deserve our support.

Directory
Mimmo Paone Malvasia delle Lipari Passito de Salina 2004 – £22.99 from The Winery
Falchini Vin Santo del Chianti 2004 – £16.25
(half bottle) from Vinoteca

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  1. Pingback: Riesling Trocken | Hugo's Reserve

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