Passito Profundity

I recently published a short piece in Wine Enthusiast (Feb 2015) on Sagrantino Passito, Montefalco’s wonderful dessert wine. With only 300 words in a front-of-book story, however, I was somewhat limited in what I could cover, which was especially hard considering the great conversations I had with several area winemakers. In fact, my original draft was more than double the allotted length.

As such, I figured I would use this space to cover some of the broader topics I was not able to fit into the WE piece.

It’s well-documented how Sagrantino was not vinified as a dry wine until the 1970s, but it is rarely discussed what this shift in focus to Sagrantino Secco actually did to the style of the passito wine. Perticaia’s Alessandro Meniconi posited that it must have been drier than it is today, if only for the reason that it was primarily imbibed with savory meals. Meniconi told me that, despite the common story that passito was reserved for sacraments and special events and celebrations, it was also typically brought out when company came to visit, or even for important family meals, where it was paired with lamb or beef. (The alternate beverage of the time, vino della casa, was an everyday wine that wasn’t of particular note.)

pouring passito

Top 2 images via Michela Simoncini

All that said, it’s a reasonable assumption that passito was vinified to a drier taste than it is currently, where it is typically imbibed after dinner, with (or as) dessert. After all, Amarone, the classic passito wine of Veneto − though sweeter than many − is considered a dry table wine.

This is, of course, merely speculation.

(I should also note that my phone connection with Meniconi was not particularly good, so I hope I correctly conveyed his opinions/sentiments. If not, mi dispiace Alessandro!)

Speaking of Amarone, Filippo Antonelli, winemaker of Antonelli San Marco, shared some fascinating insight about the winemaking process of passito − in particular some comparisons to Amarone.

“For the most complex flavor development, it’s important to keep the temperature cool, which maximizes drying time,” he told me. “Compared to the Corvina grapes in Valpolicella [used for Amarone], for example, Sagrantino berries are much smaller, and have higher potential alcohol levels, so it might take us only 4-6 weeks to get to the right concentration of sugar, as opposed to several months there.”

Though many wineries are still drying grapes on old-fashioned graticci (trellises, or racks), in special open-air rooms made for passito, others have developed facilities to better control the environment. When in Montefalco, I visited Terre de la Custodia’s special fruit chamber, a temperature and humidity-controlled room that perfectly replicates the ideal-late harvest conditions for making passito wine, every year, regardless of Mother Nature’s plans. In addition, this room keeps out pests and bacteria that can sometimes cause havoc.

antonelli passito grapes

Grapes drying on graticci at Antonelli San Marco

terre de la custodia grapes

Grapes drying at Terre de la Custodia

“Normally passito can have off smells when the drying is not perfect,” TdlC sommelier Daniele Sevoli said. “This is true for any passito wine: Vin Santo, Passito di Pantelleria, they all can have this off smell. But we never have to deal with that, because we always have a perfect, controlled drying of the grape.”

Is this “fruit chamber” a brilliant modern winemaking technique, or does it take away some of the romance of winemaking? The differences in vintages? The variety of terroir? Perhaps a bit of both, really, although it’s hard to blame a winery, when considering the cost of vinifying passito year after year.

I was a little concerned to see Merlot – headed for some dry blend − basking in the fruit chamber at TdlC. Amarone is what it is, and has its devotees, but I’m not sure I love the idea of Montefalco going down that same path for wines other than passito. Then again, as with everything else, surely the market will decide whether they like or dislike this technique, and perhaps there’s room for this new idea alongside the traditional styles.