Wine is a uniquely traditional and geographically distinct product, ranging in style depending on the region. To create these distinct styles, winemakers use an array of unique production methods and processes to create different flavors, aromas, hues, and other characteristics. One such process, called the appassimento method, is most commonly employed in northeast Italy and is an important signature feature in some of the region’s most legendary red and dessert wines.
What Does Appassimento Mean?
The word appassimento is Italian for “passionate.” This wine style may take its name from the concentrated, intense aromas and structures that come from this method, or it may refer to the dedicated, laborious efforts it takes to produce wines of this style.
It is theorized it was first employed in the region during Roman rule in the first century B.C. as a method of preserving grapes at harvest for future winemaking and allowing winemakers a means to concentrate flavors and sugars, creating a more intensely aromatic and sweeter wine called Recioto. Recent adaptations from the early to mid-1900s have employed the process to also create bold, complex dry reds such as Amarone della Valpolicella.
How Does the Appassimento Method Work?
Today, the appassimento method is still employed both in its traditional manner and with newer innovations, though the basic methods remain the same. Certain varieties of red wine grapes are harvested and laid on mats or hung up to dry over the autumn months. During this time, the clusters will lose about 30 percent of their water content, making the berries nearly raisinated and packed with flavor and sugar.
Traditionally, grape clusters were strung upside down from the ceilings of barns or homes, while a more modern winemaking approach may lay the clusters on mats made of straw or bamboo to rest in lofts or in specially-designed dry storage rooms to achieve the same raisinated quality. In order to avoid spoilage or rot, air circulation is key, which is why the special drying rooms for the grapes (fruittai in Italian), require good ventilation and are often on the upper stories of buildings or equipped with ventilating equipment.
The process is so key to the region’s stylistically unique wines that it is regulated by the governing body of wine in the style’s most prominent region, the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella, or the Wine Board of Valpolicella. The regulations established require that producers employing the appassimento method dry their grapes until December 1 before winemaking can begin.
Where to Find Apassimento Wines
Wines traditionally made in this style are often found in the Veneto region of Italy, though the appassimento process has recently made its way to U.S. winemaking regions as well.
The most ancient expression of this style is the sweet, intense Italian dessert red wine called Recioto della Valpolicella made with corvina grapes as the base with other grapes such as covinone, rondinella, and molinara mixed in. The most popular use of appassimento is the Valpolicella region’s flagship product, Amarone della Valpolicella.
Amarone, as it is often known in short, is an intense, aromatic dry red wine made from the same base grapes as Recioto. Legend has it that the style emerged in the 1930s as a “mistake” wherein a winemaker let a Recioto wine ferment too long and process out all the natural sugars resulting in this somewhat high alcohol yet complex dry wine. The word Amarone literally translates to “big, bitter one,” and refers to the intense tannic and alcoholic structure of the finished wine. The surrounding community was quick to appreciate and adopt this style, and it was officially marketed broadly as Amarone by the mid-1950s.
Officially, the wine was established as an accepted and classified regional product in 1990 when the DOCG of Amarone della Valpolicella was established. Several rules and regulations surround the production of Amarone to include minimum alcohol levels and aging tiers.
A product often associated with the appassimento process is Ripasso della Valpolicella or sometimes called Valpolicella Ripasso. This dry red wine employs the discarded processed grapes, called pomace, that remains after the production of Amarone. These processed grapes still contain tons of flavor, tannin, and character and are mixed with fresh, undried grapes to create the base for a “younger sibling” to Amarone. Ripasso della Valpolicella (or “second pass of Valpolicella”), integrates some of the intense, raisined fruit flavors of Amarone into a more accessible, fruit-driven, medium-bodied dry red wine at a lower price point.
Other countries have similar historical styles of winemaking that are integral to their winemaking history. Often called "straw wine" to refer to the straw mats on which the grapes are dried, this process is used in several wine-producing countries to include Greece, Austria, Germany, Spain, France, and more. Traditionally used as a means to produce sweet wines, more countries are beginning to employ the process to create dry wines as well.
Appassimento in the United States
Domestically, several wineries in the United States have begun to employ the appassimento or straw wine process in their wine production. Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia and Raffaldini Vineyards in North Carolina both employ the appassimento process to produce certain wines of distinct character. Tablas Creek, Sine Qua Non, and Stony Hill wineries in California are several enterprising winemakers employing this style in recent years. Finger Lakes wineries in New York have incorporated the process to produce a unique and distinct style reminiscent of the ancient Recioto wines of Italy.