Some of the Veneto’s most renowned red and sweet wines have one basic process in common – appassimento. Decanter looks at what the technique entails and how it shapes the structure and flavour of the wines it produces.
What is appassimento?
Appassimento is the Italian term used for the process of drying grapes off the vine – i.e. it does not apply to vine-dried grapes (grapes dried while hanging on the vine). The process is almost as old as winemaking itself, with records going back as far as ancient Greece.
Grapes that undergo appassimento are harvested fresh and then allowed to dry before being vinified. The grapes are usually picked by hand so that only the best, healthiest fruit can be selected, and then carefully placed in small crates to avoid any damage or crushing.
There are places, such as the Sicilian island of Pantelleria or Santorini, in Greece, where grapes are dried under the sun. This allows the process to happen quickly, developing distinct and intense caramelised aromas.
In the Veneto, on the other hand, the grapes are dried in big, naturally ventilated warehouses, called fruttai. The bunches are laid out horizontally on wooden or plastic boxes and allowed to rest during the winter months and, because the process happens slower, the grapes have a chance to develop a more complex array of aromas and flavours.
Drying the grapes causes them to lose water and, consequently, sugar and flavour compounds are concentrated. Acidity is also concentrated but not at the same rate as other compounds (the total acidity in grapes undergoing a 40% dehydration rises not by 40% but by around 25%) significantly changing the structural balance of the resulting wines. Resveratrol and glycerin levels increase, lending balance, richness and a unique ‘glossy’ texture to the wines.
Noble rot (Botrytis Cinerea) may develop on the grapes during dehydration, further concentrating sugar and developing a specific set of aromas and flavours. While this is not desired by most producers, many use the effects of botrytis to add further complexity to their wines.
The duration of the drying process is a function of the grape variety, the intended wine style and the specific microclimatic conditions under which the process happened. In the Veneto, the drying of Garganega for white Recioto or Corvina, Corvinone or Rondinella for a red Recioto or Amarone will need three to four months, (even up to six months for Recioto). Ideal conditions include good aeration and mild temperatures, allowing for a gradual and clean dehydration.
Scroll down to see our suggestion for 15 appassimento wines from Veneto to try
Appellation: Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG
Grape varieties: 45–95% Corvina, 5–50% Rondinella, and up to 50% Corvinone in the place of Corvina. It may also contain up to 15% of any red variety authorised in the province of Verona.
Characteristics: maximum 12gr/L residual sugar; minimum 14% abv.
Amarone is a result of the fermentation of the grapes which have undergone appassimento. As their sugar content was significantly concentrated, the potential alcohol is also greater often reaching 15-17%. At this point though the alcohol level kills off the yeast and therefore the wine is not fermented to complete dryness, with some sugars (up to 12 gr/L) left in both the wine and the pomace (the residue from the grapes, including skins and pips).
Due to the alcohol level and the long period of fermentation there is an intense extraction of both flavours and tannins, giving Amarone its distinct, powerful character. The luscious, bitter (amaro) aftertaste explains its name.
Appellations: Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG, Recioto di Soave DOC, Recioto di Gambellara DOC
Grape varieties: Valpolicella DOC – same as Amarone above. Soave DOC – at least 70% Garganega and a maximum of 30% Trebbiano di Soave. Gambellara DOC must be 100% Garganega.
Characteristics: minimum 46 gr/L residual sugar; minimum 12% abv.
As Amarone, Recioto is made by fermenting raisined grapes, dried in fruttai over the autumn and winter months. However, fermentation stops well before the sugars have been converted to alcohol, resulting in an intensely sweet, less alcoholic wine. Fermentation can stop naturally, but the arrest is normally induced by the winemakers, usually by cooling the must, thus suppressing the yeast’s action, and then filtering it.
Appellations: Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Ripasso DOC (including a Superiore version)
Grape varieties: same as Amarone above.
Characteristics: dry; alcohol levels usual between 13.5% and 14.5% abv.
Once dismissed as the ‘poor man’s Amarone’, Valpolicella Ripasso has seen an amazing comeback and is now extremely popular among consumers and sommeliers alike. The reason for its new-found popularity is its versatility and an alluring combination of the Valpolicella Classico’s vibrancy and Amarone’s intensity.
Ripasso is made through an induced second fermentation (a ‘second pass’) of a dry, basic Valpolicella Classico wine. The pomace of an Amarone is added to this base wine and the second fermentation kicks off, adding alcohol, flavour and tannins. A Ripasso therefore has some of the deep Amarone-like characteristics – hence being sometimes called a ‘baby Amarone’ – while retaining the nerve of a Valpolicella.
Some producers also produce Ripasso using the refermented must of Recioto, which creates a very soft, velvety and intense wine.