Italian dessert wine

You know Prosecco for sure, you know Chianti and Primitivo or Brunello di Montalcino among Italian productions, but how many Italian dessert wines do you know? Italy it’s all about wine, and dessert wine is, of course, a big thing just as red wine, white wine, and sparkling wine.

Dessert wines are so-called because they are a good match with dessert and sweets, according to the traditional method of pairing sweet dishes with sweet wines. This doesn’t imply, though, that they are sweet wines nor that they can’t be paired with savory food (for example with cheese).

How is Italian dessert wine made?

Just like red wine and white wine have their own production processes, dessert wine is made following some precise directions and using just some specific types of grapes.

Passito dessert wines

The grapes of the suitable varieties are withered before the pressing. There are two ways to wither the grapes:

  • harvesting them later than maturation time, which is the moment when acidity and sugar inside the grapes are well balanced. In Italy, this is called Vendemmia tardiva (late harvesting).
  • separating them from the plant and letting them wither on the vine (even for a long time as for the Ice wines) or bringing them to a dedicated room, where they may be laid on a grate or hanged from the roof.
grapes drying to product italian dessert wine
Grapes drying with sunlight

Grapes are left there dry for some time, and when the desired weight reduction (loss of water inside every grape) is reached, they are taken to the pressing phase.

The grapes varieties for this process must be selected: they need to have thick skin because this helps to preserve the grapes from molds (the only exception are botrytized wines), and a high level of acidity to balance the predominance of sugar that remains in the grapes after withering.

Depending on the interpretations, the withered wines can go through a period of aging in bottle, in small wooden barrels (Barrique) or very small wooden barrels (Caratelli), and are commonly lasting many years.

Barrique and Caratelli italian dessert wine
Barriques and Caratelli size comparison

Reinforced dessert wines

These wines are produced by mixing a base wine with an alcoholic mixture that allows the preservation of the wine for a long time (the first reinforced wines were created to be transported on a long sea journey without ) and modifies the aromatic profile of the wine, making it perfect as meditation wine and to the most difficult food pairings).

The main Italian dessert wines

After consulting last year (2018) statistics of Italian dessert wine sales and consumption, we can say that the most famous 5 ones are:

  • Moscato d’Asti DOCG: slightly fizzy and with low alcoholicity, this wine is obtained by blocking the fermentation in order to keep it sweet.
  • Passito from Pantelleria DOC: this withered wine can be produced only on the island of Pantelleria, where the grapes (100% Zibibbo) are left drying on grates and then pressed. It is perfect to pair with small pastries.
  • Vin Santo from Tuscany: other famous withered wine, produced with white grapes (mainly Trebbiano and Malvasia). The classic pairing is with Cantucci biscuits from Tuscany.
  • Ramandolo DOCG: produced just in the small area of Ramandolo with Verduzzo grapes, a native vine. Pair it with small pastries, old cheese and the classic cake from Friuli, the Gubana.
  • Recioto from Valpolicella: this red Italian dessert wine can only be produced in the region of Verona, the Valpolicella. Try it with chocolate and you won’t be disappointed.