No sooner had our host poured the last golden drops of the Frescobaldi vin santo into our glasses, than she’d pulled out a bottle of 2008 Maculan Torcalato. This too is a passito wine, made from dried grapes, and a vino da meditazione, but it comes from the northeastern part of Italy, specifically from the area around the village of Breganze, 50 miles northwest of Venice.
The rolling volcanic hills of the Veneto are renowned for the many styles of passito wines (Amarone is a famous dry version). Torcolato, however, remains little known outside the region, and for most of its history this dessert wine remained a local specialty. As the wines were never meant for export, little attention was paid to quality, and the wines were often oxidized and, one could say, an acquired taste.
One man who sought to change that was Fausto Maculan, who in 1970 set his sights on transforming their family’s Torcolato into something more than just palatable. Young and armed with an enology degree, this third generation winemaker set about rehabilitating this old-fashioned wine.
Torcolato means twisted and comes from the tradition of leaving the grapes on the branches, which are then twisted together and hung from rafters in special drying houses. The Maculan wine is a blend of 85% Vespaiola, 10% Tocai and 5% Garganega grape varieties, which are harvested late in the season, usually in October. As the grapes dry and the water evaporates, the sugar and flavors in the must become more concentrated. By January the grapes have been transformed into raisins and are ready to be pressed. Fermentation is on the skins, after which the wine is aged in small French oak barrels for a year, followed by six months in bottle before being released.
We sipped this wine on its own, and it was a remarkable, luscious mix of apricot tart, honey, and cinnamon.
End of Part II (no, we didn’t stop there)
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‘Tis the season for Thanksgiving wine lists when experts recommend their best bets for what to pair with the meal’s myriad, complicated flavors: turkey, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce. Favorites include Beaujolais crus, Rieslings, and Pinot Noirs, all wonderful choices, but that is where the lists usually end. So what to serve with the pumpkin pie? Give your holiday that extra special touch by serving a dessert wine that’s been specially chosen for the holiday’s signature desserts?
Pumpkin pie is by far my all-time favorite and even when I don’t think I have any room left I will find a way for a slice of this. Pumpkin pie is creamy, not to mention the dollop of whipped cream on top, and wonderfully rich with autumnal spices like cinnamon, cloves and allspice. What’s needed is a wine that blends with the spices and isn’t too over-the-top sweet.
- Blandy’s Five Year Old Verdelho, $25. Madeira is a great choice due to its signature high acidity that cuts through all that richness. A drier style such as Verdelho with it’s nutty, dried fruit flavors would work well. These wines tend to be less sweet than the Malmseys or Boals, but still have a fair amount of residual sugar. In the world of fortified wines this is relatively light bodied with notes of dried fruits (raisins, punes and figs) and toffee, caramel and candied ginger. Its acidity not only cuts through the rich creaminess but also has the surprising effect of refreshing the palate, which, at this point in the meal, comes as a welcome relief. Its burnt orange color, too, couldn’t be better coordinated. And if you don’t manage to finish the bottle, no worries, due to the intentional oxidation and heating during the aging process, these will keep for next year’s celebration, or the one after that or the one after that. Blandy’makes wines that are readily available here in the U.S.
- Falchini Podere Casale I Vin Santo del Chianti, $25. This wine is made from Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes that have been dried and aged in oak and cherry casks for many years. It is softer and more viscous than the Madeira but still has a bright acidity to keep it from being cloying. Flavors of candied orange, caramel, cloves and almonds work perfectly with the sweet spices of the pumpkin pie.
With its rich nutty sweetness pecan pie calls for something that can stand up to its intensity.
- Lustau Pedro Ximenez “San Emilio” Sherry, $29. Lusciously sweet, with silky, rich flavors of raisins, dried figs, dates, molasses and walnuts, this wine gets its concentration from Pedro Ximenez grapes that have been dried out in the sun for 4 to 10 days. The flavors are further concentrated by aging in the solera system that allows for controlled oxidation in barrels. If you wanted to forego pie altogether and just sip your dessert this would be the wine to have.
- Graham’s 20-year-old Tawny Port, $55. Rich and smooth, with notes of roasted walnuts, dried fruits and butterscotch, a 20-year tawny is the pinnacle of this style. The age indicated on the bottle is the average amount of time the wines have spent in wood casks. Extended wood aging slowly turns the wine a pale amber or brown, and its flavors develop from bright red fruit to concentrated dried fruit and caramel. Twenty years is the peak of a tawny’s evolution, when the tannins soften and the flavors come together to create a complex yet harmonious wine. Once opened these can be kept for about a month or two in the refrigerator (recorked of course).
There are many wines that pair well with apple pie, but if you want to keep things all American (or how about at least all North American?) than two choices come easily to mind.
- Inniskillin Vidal Icewine Niagara Pearl 2008, $54 for a half bottle (375 ml). Made from frozen grapes, icewine was originally a specialty of Germany and Austria, where it’s known as eiswein, but has turned out to be a popular wine to make in the cold climates of Canada and northern New York and Michigan. The grapes are picked while frozen on the vine, thus removing most of the water and concentrating the sugar and flavors of the grape. Some of Inniskillin’s icewines are oak aged, but his one is not, retaining the grapes fresh fruit flavors. This golden wine is silky sweet but with a refreshing amount of acidity and tastes of apricots, pears and honey.
- Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Late Harvest Finger Lakes 2012, $30. More time on the vine translates into a sweeter, richer wine with deeper, more concentrated flavors. The Riesling grape is famous for retaining its acidity, which is critical for dessert wines, keeping them wine fresh and lively. Hermann J. Wiemer is a well-known producer from the Finger Lakes region of New York, and the wine’s flavors of ripe apple, pear and honey pair perfectly with that quintessential American dessert—apple pie.
So, a blog about sweet and fortified wines, possibly the most under appreciated and least popular styles of wine in the country. I may be vying for the fewest-readers-of-a-blog-in-history award, but I hope not. Because within these categories are some of the finest, most complex wines made, many with the potential to age for decades (Madeiras and some Sauternes can last for more than a century). They are often painstakingly difficult to make, requiring enormous investment of effort, time and care on the part of the winemaker.
With nearly every wine-producing country in the world making a sweet or fortified wine, each with its own distinctive grape or winemaking method, the list of wines is long: off-dry Chenin Blancs from the Loire Valley, fortified port-like Banyuls from the south of France, luscious dessert wines from Tokaji, Hungary, long-lived Madeiras from Portugal, late-harvest Rieslings from Germany and botrytised dessert wines from Sauternes in Bordeaux. That’s just a small sample. It seems a shame then to let these wonderful wines go unappreciated. There is a time and a place for every style of wine and that holds true for sweet and fortified wines as well. My aim here is to explore the possibilities and shine a spotlight on these delicious, finely crafted, artisanal wines. I hope you’ll find ways to incorporate them into your life and seek out this section on the wine list the next time you go to a restaurant. Mostly, I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.