Everything You Need To Know About Passito, Italy's Raisin Wine

Everything you need to know about Italian raisin wine

From the vins de paille of France to Austrian Strohwein, wines made from dried grapes are a centuries-old tradition. Perhaps the best-known hail from northern Italy, in particular the Veneto, home of Amarone della Valpolicella. An exception to the rule of raisinated wines, which are mostly white and sweet, Amarone is red and as dry as its name implies (Amarone basically means "ultra bitter"). Even so, it boasts all the luscious intensity that the desiccation process, called appassimento, can impart. And that richness—in price as well as style—makes it, no less than its noteworthy dolce counterparts, a special treat at holiday celebrations.

That's especially true for anyone "who might be more comfortable with Napa reds" than Italian ones, Rachael Lowe, beverage director at Spiaggia in Chicago, says. "I describe [Amarone] as very extracted, almost preserved, with notes of fig jam, milk chocolate and coffee bean." Master sommelier Brett Zimmerman, owner of the Boulder Wine Merchant in Colorado, concurs, comparing the aroma to "chocolate-covered raisins," while on the palate "the acidity is moderate, the body always full, the alcohol always high. And a little volatility gives it a balsamic-y character."

Yet the primary varietal in the blend, Corvina, also lends the wine "a leafy characteristic and some herb notes that accent game really well," Zimmerman says. "Venison and elk are amazing; lamb is a great pairing." Eric Zollicoffer, beverage director of Atlanta's Sotto Sotto, likewise green-lights game—"and, of course, it goes really well with red meat; I often suggest it with our veal chop with sautéed mushrooms." Prime rib's a smash, too. The right bottle could even work with roast duck accompanied by fruit compote, according to Lowe, not to mention hard cheeses (you might also try aged blues).

Now for the sticky part: expense. As Brian Larky, founder of California importer Dalla Terra Winery Direct, points out, it takes "a lot of work to make wines from dried grapes—hence the limited yields and increased prices." So while price is no guarantee of quality in general, Zimmerman suggests you steer clear of Amarones that retail for much under $70. If you've got hundreds to burn, by all means, seek out legendary producers, such as Giuseppe Quintarelli and Romano dal Forno; for a more controlled splurge, our experts recommend Allegrini, Buglioni, Tommasi, Tommaso Bussola and Tenuta Sant'Antonio. They also agree that the most recent (and readily available) vintages, 2008 to 2011, are all showing well—unless, that is, you were to serve them too warm: Fifty-five to 65 degrees Fahrenheit in a Bordeaux glass is ideal.

If you're really strapped for cash, however, you might consider Ripasso, which as Larky explains is not a true vino passito but "a turbo-charged Valpolicella made by repassing the wine over the skins of drained-off Amarone" to give it what Zollicoffer calls "some of that Amarone character but at a cheaper price. It's also a little lighter and fruitier," which conveniently makes it even food friendlier than Amarone.

On to dessert. Larky describes Amarone's sweet (yet similarly pricy) progenitor, Recioto della Valpolicella, as "very cool, because it's not what most Americans are familiar with in dessert wine. First off, it's red, and second, it has tannins in addition to 130 grams per liter of sugar." The effect, Lowe explains, is "more like a Ruby Port, with extracted red-fruit flavors: brambly black currant, black raspberry. It pairs really well with chocolate," as well as hard or blue cheeses—but then again, Zimmerman notes, "you don't necessarily need to muddle its richness and complexity" with food; served cool in a small white-wine glass, it's plenty luxurious by itself. The same goes for its white counterpart, Recioto di Soave, though he says you can play its notes of apple, quince and pear off honey and nuts or "soft, decadent, slightly funky cheeses."

Outside of the Veneto, Tuscany's famed white vin santo warrants a nod: It's a surefire crowd-pleaser for what Zollicoffer calls its "weightiness, notes of honey and caramel, and a nutty flavor" indicative of oxidation. It's traditionally accompanied by cantuccini (aka biscotti), but "you could pair it with something involving caramel." Also notable is Passito di Pantelleria, an "amazing, cool white from the teeny little island" it's named for, Zimmerman says, with a more "pineapple-y, tropical" character than its northern cousins.

And these are just the biggies. Still, other types of vino passito are tough to track down stateside; however, should you ever come across a Sciacchetrà from Cinque Terre, you may as well celebrate like it's a holiday right then and there.