Appassimento is an Italian term that describes the drying of harvested grapes. Traditionally this was done on bamboo racks or straw mats. The process took anywhere from a few weeks up to several months to concentrate the sugars and flavours of the grapes. This process is used in making Amarone, Recioto and Sforzato.
The process goes all the way back to the Egyptians or Greeks. The fruit was dehydrated by either leaving them on the vine to dry naturally in the hot sun or by picking and laying the bunches out on straw mats or hanging from rafters.
These types of wines became popular because they provided higher levels of alcohol and sweetness, thus making them not only more stable and complex but appealing to the consumer.
Today, dried grape wines are made in many regions of the world. The most well-known are the Amarone and Recioto wines of Valpolicella in Veneto, Italy. However, dried-grape wines are also made throughout the rest of Italy and Mediterranean Europe, parts of the southern hemisphere, and even in cool climate regions such as Romania, Moldova, Switzerland, France, Austria, and Germany.
Canada is even now experimenting with these wines. Niagara’s Magnotta’s Enotrium is considered the first of its kind in Canada.
Today the appassimento process consists of harvesting ripe grapes and drying them for a period of several days or months in special rooms where airflow, humidity and temperature are controlled to varying degrees. The process does not ripen grapes like green bananas turning yellow and then brown in a bowl on your kitchen counter. Instead, the process concentrates what already exists in the grapes after they are removed from the vine. The grapes must be very healthy and fully ripe with adequate levels of acidity when harvested.
There are many different approaches to drying in Ontario. Some vintners use ventilated barns or open-air greenhouses while others use kilns.
The drying process will take anywhere from two weeks to over 140 days. Aside from concentrating sugars, acidity and tannins, the drying process will result in important microbiological changes in the grapes that can impart additional unique aromas and flavours adding greater complexity and intrigue to the final product. After the desired period of drying has elapsed, the winemaker will perform a final sorting to eliminate any unwanted fruit from entering the fermentation stage.
Anywhere from 30% to 50% of the original harvested juice yield will be lost using this process. Many of Ontario’s top appassimento-style wines are only made in select, high quality vintages. It is important to inquire as to what percentage of the wine has been dried and to take note of the alcohol percentage and residual sugar present. Knowing this will help you predict the final style of the wine and can help you match your taste preferences to the right product.
A second, less costly by-product of the appassimento process is ripasso wines. Unlike the appassimento wines where dried grapes make up part, or all of the final blend, ripasso wines use fresh, undried grapes to make the base wine which is then re-passed over the used skins leftover from the rarer and expensive appassimento process. This second contact with the skins may start a short re-fermentation adding a slight increase in alcohol to the base wine while adding extra complexity and flavour.
Ontario wineries producing wines using this process include Angel’s Gate, Big Head Winery, Burning Kiln Winery, Kew Vineyards, The Foreign Affair Winery and Rennie Vineyards.
The VQA of Ontario (VQAO) is currently reviewing the use of terms like appassimento and partial appassimento on labels of VQA wines. The VQAO is attempting to update the rules to ensure producers meet all the necessary legal limits for sugar, alcohol content and percentage of dried grapes so consumers will have clarity when buying wines.
As the Canadian wine industry continues to evolve, I believe the inclusion of the Appassimento style will enhance the industry moving forward. Expansion of Canadian viticulture and winemaking provides consumers with an even greater selection of fine wines offering excellent value.