We’re still in lockdown. It’s cold. There’s snow on the ground. Let’s go to southern Italy and talk about wine.
About two years ago, I was introduced by a friend to a wine, currently available at Waitrose for under £10 (sometimes well under £10), that has become one of our favourite weekday wines. It’s made by a firm called Terre di Faiano which is based in Chianti but they have vineyards in Southern Italy and Sicily.
The grape is Primitivo, the same grape as Zinfadel in the USA, and it’s from Puglia. It’s extraordinarily full-bodied, creamy smooth, and unlike almost any other Italian wine I’ve tasted.
For two years I’ve puzzled over how this wine comes to be so good and only discovered the answer when Waitrose put another wine on the shelf alongside it. This is also by Terre di Faiano but the grape is Nero d’Avola and it’s from Sicily. And the giveaway is that on the label it mentions appassimento. The penny dropped. Perhaps the Primitivo is made the same way, I wondered, and a look at Waitrose’ website shows that it is.
What is appassimento? It means ‘dried up’ or ‘tired out’. The basic principles of winemaking are pretty standard: once ripe, the grapes are pressed, the juice is put into some sort of container and left to ferment, then bottled, sometimes after spending some months or years in oak casks. But if the wine is made by the appassimento method the grapes are left to dry before starting the whole process. They used to be left out in the sun on a bed of straw, which is why it’s called in English ‘straw wine’. The purpose is to increase the sugar content of the grapes and reduce the water content. The resulting wines are more alcoholic or sweet or both, a deeper red and packed with flavour.
They’ve been making wine like this since the Ancient World. Hesiod (he’s the one who was roughly contemporary with Homer but less grand, more personal) described it in around 700 BCE and it’s been used in Sicily and Puglia for centuries. But the most famous wine to use it is in northern Italy, just north of Verona, where the local wines tend to be thin and bitter. Amarone della Valpolicella is made this way. It gives a red wine of extraordinary power, nearer to a port than to an ordinary Valpolicella, which can be thin and bitter. Just to complete the northern Italian story, they even keep the lees left after draining off the fermented Amarone and pour ordinary Valpolicella wine on top. There follows a second fermentation and you get another beefy wine that’s called Ripasso (‘re-passed’ in English) though less full-bodied, and much cheaper, than Amarone. Finally, the winemakers may deliberately leave enough sugar unfermented to make it sweet. It’s called Recioto and the Italians drink it at the end of the meal.
I’ve had other wines from Puglia made by the appassimento method and I’ve found them too much. The heaviness is overdone, the flavours too ‘jammy’. The Terre di Faiano from Sicily is a bit that way, to my taste, although it gets great customer reviews. It’s made with the Nero d’Avola grape which has no trouble making dark, robust wine without the need to dry the grapes. But somehow, with the Primitivo from Puglia the winemakers seem to have hit the spot. I plan to get a good supply in before this article goes to press!