Last week we delved into the matter of the shriveled grapes, riddled with botrytis, that grow along the Garonne river south of Bordeaux.
But not all shrinkage comes from infection. Nor does winemaking with shriveled grapes always yield sweet whites of the kind found in Sauternes.
In our opinion, the best “raisin” or “straw” wines, as they are called, are not sweet whites from France but thick, earthy reds from an Italian region known as “the Valley of the Wine Cellars.”
More on that in a moment. But first... How much can you tell about a wine from its bottle?
This week, we revisit resident wine expert Julien Miquel’s video on the most important wine bottle shapes… why the British are to blame for the most common styles… how to guess a wine you’ll like from its bottle… and a look at some unusual regional shapes and colors…
You can make wine from actual raisins – store-bought raisins. Chop ‘em up, soak ‘em in water with sugar and yeast, and after several days you will get wine.
(During prohibition, grape growers sold raisin bricks with instructions to dissolve in water and halt fermentation by adding baking soda.)
But generally the term “raisin wine” refers to wines made from actual wine grapes that the winemaker has picked then dried over the course of several months.
Why ruin a perfectly good grape? For the same reason that the sweet winemakers in Sauternes/Barsac, and across the river in Cadillac, allow their botrytis to infect their grapes – as the grape shrivels, sugars, nutrients, and flavors concentrate to yield rich, opulent wines.
Not every “raisin wine” is sweet, however. The winemakers outside of Verona, in Valpolicella (“the Valley of Wine Cellars”), pick their corvina grapes late (allowing them to get nicely engorged), then dry them out on bamboo mats in hillside barns for three to four months before gently pressing and fermenting them to produce the thick, earthy wine known as Amarone.
In Italian, they call the style appassimento. The Italians, however, did not invent it. They got it from the Greeks via Venetian traders in the Middle Ages. By that point the Greeks had had a few thousand years to perfect the practice.
The ancient Greek writer Hesiod describes raisin wines being made as early as 800 BC. Nearly 900 years later, the practice was still in vogue, as evidenced in the writings of the Roman Pliny the Elder:
[The wine] is made by drying grapes in the sun, and then placing them for seven days in a closed place upon hurdles, some seven feet from the ground, care being taken to protect them at night from the dews. On the eighth day they are trodden out. This method, it is said, produces a liquor of exquisite bouquet and flavor. – Pliny the Elder 1st Century AD
Other historical figures said to have enjoyed the style’s “exquisite bouquet and flavor” include Richard the Lion Heart, who likely encountered it on his way to the Holy Land during the 12th century crusades.
The Knights Templar made a “straw wine” (another name for raisin wine referring to the straw mats on which the grapes are sometimes laid to dry) while ruling Cyprus. Called Commandaria, it became all the rage in the late Middle Ages and is still produced today (Cypriots claim Commandaria is the oldest continuous appellation in the world).
Still, the flagship of the style right now, is, without a doubt, Amarone.
It’s not an easy or reliable style of winemaking. If the fall weather is too wet, the grapes will rot instead of desiccate, destroying the entire vintage. After fermentation, the wine must still sit two years (or four in the case of a riserva) before release.
Yet, Amarone is one of our favorites for precisely that reason. Like a hard-bitten high desert malbec, it is a wine born in the balance of viability and ruin. The pay off is that rare connection to the earth and all things that pass through it... new growth, decay, life, and death...
Until next week,
The Wine Explorer