Three of the Best Italian Dessert Wines
From Passito di Pantelleria to an icewine from the Aosta Valley, there’s an Italian dessert wine for every occasion
There is no better way to understand Italy’s complexity than through its wine. The fresh breeze of the sea, the crisp cold mountain air, the penetrating scent of Mediterranean scrubland, the tart sweetness of forest fruits, all make their way into the bottle, creating a huge range of bouquets and flavours that reflects the scenery and quirks of the Italian terroir.
But while this gustatory gamut has long delighted dry wine aficionados from around the world, few people realise that local character emerges just as forcefully in dessert wines, a somewhat overlooked Italian production.
Just take a moscato from Friuli—pale straw in colour, lightly sweet in the mouth, with plenty of acidity to cut through the sweetness—and the same wine made in southern Sardinia—a golden triumph of Baroque-like richness, its honeyed sweetness almost solid in the mouth. The first speaks of cold winters and cool summers, of verdant hills and thick woods; the second is sunshine in a bottle.
Add wine culture and vinification processes to geography and you end up with an infinite variety of dessert wines. Straw wines from the Centre and South, late harvest wines from the North and the Islands, and then noble rot, icewines—there’s an Italian dessert wine to suit every cheese, every pudding and every mood.
To help you choose, we have picked three of the very best, and suggested three more which are also worth trying.
Chaudelune, literally warm moon, is a bit of a misnomer for this wine from the Alpine glaciers, made by the Cave du Vin Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle in the coldest months of the year.
The Cave’s terraced vineyards are the highest in Europe, reaching up to an altitude of 1200m in a valley on the first slopes of the Mont Blanc massif, in Valle d’Aosta. The hardy Prié variety, which grows here among larch and fir, has a late bud burst but ripens quickly, so it is usually picked well before the first snows wrap the valley into a cold white blanket.
Except for the grapes that go into Chaudelune. Those are harvested after the temperature drops below freezing point, usually at the beginning of December. While the water in the grapes freezes, the sugar does not, allowing the Cave to produce a concentrated, very sweet wine.
Unlike the icewines made with the same process in central Europe, however, Chaudelune is fermented in small oak barrels (and later aged in bottle). The result is a golden wine with the fresh scent of aromatic herbs and a velvety apricot flavour. It is perfect with aged cheese, blue cheese, or all by itself at the end of a meal. See www.caveduvinblanc.com for more information.
Also from the North of Italy, try: Picolit, once one of the most popular dessert wines in European courts, but later hampered by small yields, and now at risk of disappearing. It is gently sweet with a scent that recalls acacia blossoms and flavours of apricot and peach (see www.federdocfvg.it for more information).
The name itself is enough to make you want to try Vin Santo. It means Holy Wine and there are several theories as to how it arose. One story has it that, in the Middle Ages, a Franciscan friar used altar wine to save people from the Black Death. Believing it to be miraculous, the Tuscan populace quickly named it Vin Santo.
Another story wants the name to come from none other than Cardinal Bessarion, a Greek scholar who tried (in vain) to reconcile the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. At the ecumenical Council of Florence, he tried a glass of sweet wine and declared it to be Xantos—meaning presumably that it reminded him of the Greek wine from Xantos. Whatever he really wanted to say, however, got lost in translation, as the Florentines mistook his word for Santo, and the wine became known as Holy.
Be as it may, Vin Santo is certainly fit for saints, or at the very least kings—saints being, hopefully, far beyond the temptations of the palate. Usually made from Trebbiano and Malvasia varieties, it can be incredibly sweet or dry. Grapes are picked and left to dry on rush mats (or hung from the rafters) for a few months before being pressed—the sugar in the grapes concentrates as they slowly turn into raisins. The juice is then fermented and aged for up to ten years in small cigar-shaped barrels that are not completely full. The wine is thus exposed to air, acquiring character and colour.
When ready, Vin Santo is rich golden and viscous, with a scent of apricots and a smooth taste of caramel and nuts. The nutty notes are what make the sweeter Vin Santo perfect with cantuccini—these Tuscan almond biscuits are dunked in the wine, which they soak up beautifully.
But the best, most complex Vin Santo should be savoured by itself to enjoy the miraculous taste that makes it worthy of its name (see www.consorziovinonobile.it for more information one one of Tuscany’s best Vin Santo, that of the Montepulciano area.
Also from central Italy, try: Maximo, a golden wine made by Umani Ronchi in Le Marche from Sauvignon Blanc grapes affected by noble rot. Scents of honey, apricot and peach prime the palate for delicately sweet flavours of honey and candied fruit, perfectly balanced by a refreshing acidity (for more details, see www.umanironchi.net).
Passito di Pantelleria
It is a miracle that this wine still survives. Pantelleria is a tiny island, and wind-beaten—the Arabs, who once ruled this lump of rock between Italy and Africa, called it daughter of the wind. Picking the grapes in the blowing gales is hard work, and young islanders tend to go elsewhere to find their fortunes anyway. Production has been slowly decreasing in recent years but there is yet hope for the future, in the form of investment from big Sicilian winemakers, and the recent creation of a consortium to save local vineyards.
Let’s root for it, because losing this treasure of Italian oenology would be a real shame. The origins of the Passito are wrapped in the mist of time, but legend has it that the goddess Tanit won Apollo’s love by serving him a cup of the Pantelleria wine—no mean feat, considering that the Olympian god was used to nectar and ambrosia.
Perhaps inspired by the story, one of the world’s greatest womanisers, Giacomo Casanova, used to offer a glass of passito to the ladies he intended to seduce. But then Passito, made with the aromatic Zibibbo grapes, is good enough to win hearts.
The grapes are picked early, often in August, placed to dry on straw mats under the blazing sun for a few weeks, and turned every day to prevent rotting. They are then pressed, often together with newly harvested grapes, and fermented for a long time. Some winemakers also add raisins at a later stage for a more intense flavour.
This makes a velvety wine with deep amber colour and intense scents of dried figs, apricot and date. In the mouth, it is warm and round, honeyed and intensely sweet. Great with rich Sicilian desserts but even better on its own (for more see: www.consorziopantelleria.it in Italian only).
Also from the South of Italy, try: Angialis, a straw yellow wine made from Nasco and Malvasia grapes by Cantine Argiolas in Sardinia. In this case, the grapes are left to over-ripen on the vine and harvested late. Full of Mediterranean scents, Angialis is gently sweet with a long finish (www.cantine-argiolas.it).