The most famous dessert wines all have their unique ways of developing their flavours, sweetness and concentration.
Concentrating the sugars and flavours in the grape is achieved largely by the climatic conditions of each region. In France, noble rot develops on the grapes in Sauturnes, helping to drain the grapes of water.
In Germany, ice wine is produced as the grapes freeze and the grape juice is gently extracted in the absence of the frozen water. In Italy though, the grapes are dried in the sun, they don’t have the conditions for rot nor the freezing temperatures of Germany, but they do have plenty of sunshine.
Off the coast of Sicily is the island of Pantelleria, which has made a name for itself producing sought after sweet wines. It’s known as Passito, which translates to sweet and indicates the wine was made using the Appassimento method. The method is pretty straightforward: grapes are picked and then dried, typically on straw mats, for a period of time before fermentation in order to dehydrate them and concentrate the flavours.
If you have explored the sweet wines of France, Germany, Spain and Portugal, then this is a region and style worth exploring next particularly given the relative good value compared to the top end in these other regions.
Ben Rye ($63), produced by Donnafugata, is an icon of the region. The additional time and resources required to produce unfortified examples of this style demand a higher selling price also tend to be more sought after.
Donnafugata pick their fruit from multiple plots over several weeks, this gives them the ability to begin drying the earlier picked fruit for three to four weeks before the final picks come in which are not dried at all before beginning fermentation. The dried fruit is gradually added to the freshly picked grapes to produce a wine of both depth and richness along with great freshness and lively acidity.
Since their first vintages in the early 1990s they have gradually added more and more dried fruit to the fermentation, almost doubling it in that time, getting the best of both worlds by building more layers and complexity in to the wine and yet the wine has lost none of its freshness. The 2017 is a darker colour to start with, denser texture, richer and a longer finish.
The layers of flavour build in the mouth from the floral aromatics to the dried fruits of apricot, orange and fig, then there are nutty undertones and caramel that come through at the back of the palate. The luscious, sweet flavours are carried on a fine line of fresh acidity that drags them long through the finish.
The term liquoroso on the label of a Passito di Pantelleria indicates that the wine was fortified during the fermentation process. Neutral spirit is added to the wine, halting the fermentation and resulting in residual sugar being leftover contributing sweetness. This is a much quicker process, resulting in a wine that doesn’t necessarily have the same level of complexity but they are typically half the price and are still glorious wines to drink that show all the characters you expect from the region.
Pellegrino ($35) make an excellent, consistent example. Aromatic, dried apricot, candied citrus, honey and caramel. Viscous texture, but with a lovely level of freshness coming through right across the palate.