|This article originally appeared in
|Liquid sweetness: How to end a meal
|By Eric J. Lyman
|With most Italian meals, dessert is barely an afterthought. It’s as if so
much time and attention goes into preparing (and eating) some of the
world’s best-known antipasti, pasta dishes, and meat courses that
little is left for what is usually an underachieving fourth act. But if that’s
a shortcoming, Italian dessert wines more than make up for it.
I can count Italy’s really good dessert options on one hand: cannoli,
gelato, pannacotta, tiramisu, and zabaione (whose Italian roots are
questionable). But no country in the world produces so many different
kinds of dessert wines from as many distinct grapes and using such
a variety of methods as Italy does.
During wine production, fermentation occurs when sugar reacts with
yeast to create alcohol. If there’s extra sugar when the fermentation
ends, that makes the wine sweet. Sounds simple enough. But there
are many means to get to that end.
The most popular method in Italy is called recioto — “raisining,” more
or less — which involves drying the grapes indoors after they’re picked,
as a way to increase the sugar content. Other methods include letting
the grapes dry while still on the vines; allowing mold to shrivel the
grapes before they are picked; halting the fermentation process early
enough to leave a large dose of residual sugar; or adding a distilled
spirit as a partial substitute for fermentation.
The best example of the recioto method is Vin Santo, the classic
Tuscan dessert wine that I wrote about in my November “Pane al Vino” column (in addition to Tuscany, Trentino and, more
recently, Friuli also produce some high quality Vin Santo).
But the same general method is also used to produce other classic Italian dessert beverages, most notably Friuli’s Picolet,
which in the 18th century was the favorite wine for the sweet-toothed Hapsburg royals. Picolet is a small and hard-to-grow grape
that can produce a honey-like wine with a bouquet of apricots and peaches — something definitely worth seeking out.
In fact, any Italian wine with the word passito on the label is also made with the recioto method. I’ve had good ones from
Calabria, Campagna, Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Puglia, Sardinia, and Sicily.
The country’s best-selling sweet wine is Moscato d’Asti, the surprisingly good fizzy wine from Piedmont. But good Moscato is
produced elsewhere: Valle d’Aosta, Alto Adige, and even in several regions in the south just introducing themselves onto the
Moscato scene (I’ve tasted especially delicious Moscato from Sicily). The spritzy wine is low in alcohol (as low as six percent)
with a pleasing taste reminiscent of sorbet. Piedmont also produces a sweet and fizzy red called Brachetto d’Aqui, which has
evolved into a natural match for the rich dark chocolate produced in that area.
The production of non-fizzy Moscato (but not Brachetto, as far as I know) is on the rise and also of very good quality — but fizzy
and non- are very different wines. Sometimes the fizzy version will carry the word frizzante or vivace on the label, but the best way
to tell the difference between the two is usually the bottle type. The bubbly wine needs thicker glass and a more substantial top
to withstand the pressure from the bubbles.
Marsala is the great dessert wine from Sicily. The name bears evidence of the island’s Arabic influence: It derives from the
Arabic phrase Marsah-al-Allah, or “Port of God.” Marsala can be made from white or red grapes (though the red Marsala is hard
to find) and it comes in three grades. Fine is the basic Marsala mostly used for cooking, superiore is aged two to four years in
barrels and has a nutty carmel-like flavor, and the vergine or solera is a wonderfully complex and balanced wine aged four to ten
Most Italian sweet wines, though, are decidedly local in origin and availability. And for some reason they often come from areas
normally known for pretty feeble non-sweet wines.
Among whites, Frascati from near Rome, Orvieto from Umbria, and Venice’s Soave are all known as generally watery and
uninteresting table wines. But Frascati’s Cannellino, Orvieto Dolce, and Recioto di Soave are small-scale production treats with
varying degrees of a smoky and melon-like flavor that makes them ideal ways to finish a meal.
And among reds, Venice’s usually lame Valpolicella, the higher quality Sagrantino di Montefalco from Umbria, and Puglia’s
Primitivo di Manduria are all available in the form of intense reds that recall vintage port. The Recioto della Valpolicella,
especially, features strong fruit aromas and head-spinning intensity. Anghelu Ruju from Sardinia — an area best known for
producing sometimes-uneven wines from the Cannonau grape — is similar but less robust.
But the same part of me that loves the underdog is also attracted to dessert wines with long traditions that have fallen out of
favor — mostly because production difficulties, not quality. The three best examples are Liguria’s Sciacchetra, Sardinia’s
Moscato di Sorso, and Greco di Bianco from Calabria.
Sciacchetra from Cinque Terre is a recioto-style wine with the flavor of dried fruit and a touch of nutmeg. Production levels are so
low that it’s very tough to find outside the Genoa area. I know of only one major producer: Walter de Batté.
Moscato di Sorso is almost as rare as Big Foot. I’ve only seen a handful of bottles in my lifetime and I’ve never tasted it. But old-
timers on the island wax poetic about the wine’s delicate and balanced sweetness and longevity.
But the Greco di Bianco may be my favorite dessert wine of all. My 1907 World Encyclopedia of Wine identified this as one of
Europe’s great sweet wines — on a par with Sauternes (France), Trockenberenaüslese (Germany), and Tokji (Hungary).
Nowadays, there are only handful of producers — and every couple of years some grower of the delicate and temperamental
Greco grape sadly pulls up his vines to join the growing ranks of Cabernet Sauvignon producers. The frozen fruit is selected by
experienced workers wearing thick gloves who pick under the moonlight of the first cold night in November. Smaller grapes are
picked first and bruised fruit is discarded. The result is a sublime and citrusy nectar that makes you close your eyes in wonder.
Eric J. Lyman's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Write to him with comments, suggestions, and column
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