Ontario Hones Appassimento Wine

Style of winemaking draws on Italian tradition with a Canadian twist

by Peter Mitham
Debbie Inglis of Brock University has led a five-year project studying appassimento-style wines, which are made from dried grapes. Her slide above shows techniques used to dry the grapes.
Vineland, Ontario—Ontario researchers are exploring a variety of methods for enhancing local wineries’ production of appassimento-style wines.

Ontario’s climate is more humid than that of northern Italy, where appassimento wines have enjoyed popularity since ancient times. The wines are defined by the fact grapes are dried post-harvest, which reduces the water content and results in wines of intense flavor and body.

The allure of the wines captivated Len Crispino during a three-year stint in Milan as Ontario’s chief trade representative to Italy. With his wife Marisa, he purchased 40 acres in 2000 with a view to launching Foreign Affair Winery, which opened in 2008. The venture was a way to continue enjoying a wine they had grown to love in Italy, but with a local interpretation that would offer something unique to the marketplace.

“We loved our experience in Italy and we wanted to see if this could be done in Canada,” Crispino said. “We don’t have the same varieties—we don’t use Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara. We have very different climatic conditions, so this is about innovation. It’s about asking ourselves the questions, ‘Can we do this style of wine, utilizing some of the principles, by utilizing our own vinifera varietals that we grow here in Ontario, given the different climatic conditions?’”

So far the answer has been a resounding yes.

Since producing its first lot of appassimento-style wine in 2004, Foreign Affair has grown to 11,000 cases of wine annually—one of at least nine wineries in the province now making the wines. A gathering of industry members convened in early 2010 to discuss the wines and attracted 30 participants—and interest continues to increase with at least a half-dozen wineries developing variations on the theme.

While a small amount of appassimento-style wine is also made in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, where growing conditions are typically warmer and drier than in Eastern Canada, Ontario wineries have embraced the method both as a means of diversifying their offerings as well as concentrating flavors in cool-climate wines.

This originally attracted allegations that the method was meant to mask deficiencies in the grapes.

“A lot of people are looking at this method as a kind of panacea. We don’t see it as a panacea,” Crispino said. “We think that’s going to simply add value to the industry.…It’s now led to the production of a new product for the Canadian marketplace, which gives the consumers a lot more choice.”

Various techniques
Drying of grapes—often a Bordeaux variety such as Cabernet Franc or Merlot—is performed at temperatures of up to 85°-95° F (30°-35° C) in a variety of spaces, from old tobacco kilns and barns to chambers designed expressly for the purpose. Greenhouses have even been tested, eliciting mixed results.

“It’s not simply duplicating something that’s being done somewhere else,” Crispino said. “This is a Canadian wine, it’s not an Italian wine.”

His own method follows a 68-step protocol and has been applied to produce Canada’s first white ripasso-style wine and its first appassimento-style rosé.

“We had to learn the hard way in terms of experimenting ourselves and trying things out. But we would certainly welcome more research to be done,” Crispino told Wines & Vines.

And a five-year project led by Debbie Inglis, director of the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, is doing exactly that.

The gathering of industry participants in 2010 highlighted the diversity of opinions regarding how appassimento-style wines should be made, and CCOVI took the lead in tackling one of the thornier questions: how to dry local grapes to produce a wine typical of the style.

“There were a number of people that thought their method was the best, but we weren’t really sure,” said Jamie Slingerland, director of viticulture at Pillitteri Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, who attended the 2010 meeting. “CCOVI comes along saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to provide something to the wine industry so that there’s not this whole hodge-podge.…Let’s put some science behind it.”

Pillitteri believed in the endeavor enough to pledge a block of some of its best Cabernet Franc to research, amounting to 1.18 tons (1.3 tonnes) of fruit per year.

Research study
Launched in 2010, the project focuses, according to CCOVI, “on the composition and sensory characteristics of wines produced using traditional and climate-controlled methods for varietals grown in the Ontario climate.” The research, backed with a slice of $2.86 million CAD in provincial funding for projects related to climate change, aims to provide comprehensive information on the various drying methods, their effect on wine quality, and reduce the guesswork for winemakers considering adopting the style.

Brix levels of 26° and 28° were targeted, and as the research enters its final year, Slingerland said the results are proving helpful.

Pillitteri, for example, seldom sought to achieve 26° Brix in its grapes prior to participating in the CCOVI project.

“The true criteria for appassimento drying has been to 26° Brix,” he said. “We’ve brought them out at 24.5°, 25° at the highest. And so what we did was upscaled the value, or the quality of the grapes, but we didn’t go to the full appassimento criteria that they’re using today.”

That’s changed, with grapes now being harvested at 24.5° Brix at the tail end of the season, and dried to 26° Brix.

“If they stay on the vine another 10 days, they desiccate by up to 1.5° Brix. Now we’re picking grapes at 24.5°, and when we throw the grapes into any other drying method it’s easy to make the 26° Brix.”

Appassimento-style wines remain a small part of Pillitteri’s overall production, half of which is ice wine. About 3% of the 454 tons (500 tonnes) of red grapes it receives in any given year are now allocated to appassimento production.

As appassimento production grows across Ontario, and wineries decide whether to air dry, kiln-dry, or use greenhouses—a method Slingerland deems too labor intensive—standards will have to be developed.

The future
Slingerland expects the research at CCOVI to support the development of regulations defining how the wines are made, and what can be said about them on the labels.

“It’s very important that a bottle of wine, when it’s sold to the consumer, states not just that it’s an appassimento, but the method of drying should be apparent,” he said.

Crispino agrees.

“I think that that’s only fair, so if we do it in a particular method, a traditional method, then that’s what we should say: ‘We do it in an appassimento method.’ And if somebody decides to do it in a kiln, then they should call it ‘kiln-dried,’” he said. “It’s matter of being truthful and honest to the consumer.”

Ontario’s industry has high hopes for the wines, and producers such as Crispino have placed their livelihoods on the line with ventures that are laying a foundation for a viable style for the province.

“Something small like this,” Slingerland said, “I think it’s going to give opportunities for developing reputations.”

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