Christmas is getting closer and Panettone, Torrone & Cantuccini here are already piling up under the tree, ready to make their triumphant entrance on the table on Christmas Day.
In Italy, every region (often every city!) has its own typical Christmas sweets, which must be paired with the right wine. And as you may already know, with something sweet, the perfect match is a sweet wine.
Dessert wines are a real treat and are meant to be enjoyed in small glasses, treasured like a glass of Scotch or Whiskey, indulging in the sweets you like the most to celebrate the Christmas holidays with your family.
Generally speaking, a sweet wine comes from extra-sweet grapes. To make a sweet wine, the fermentation is stopped either intentionally or naturally before the yeast converts all grape sugars into alcohol. There are several ways to stop fermentation, including super-cooling the wine or adding alcohol to it (and the latter ones are fortified wines). The result is a rich wine sweetened with natural grape sugars.
Italy offers a wide choice of sweet wines, obtained using different techniques.
Let’s meet 3 of the most popular ones!
THE SWEET SPARKLING: Moscato d’Asti
‘Moscato’ or ‘Muscat’ is one of the oldest grape varieties, which spread throughout the Mediterranean basin on the routes of Greek ships. From the city of Marseilles, it was brought to Liguria and then to Piedmont. Precisely in the lands of the current provinces of Asti, Cuneo, and Alessandria, it found a perfect habitat to adapt to.
Large pressurized steel tanks are filled with grape must (juice), and fermentation is started. When the wine has reached an alcohol content of around 5,5%, the temperature is lowered to stop fermentation and maintain a sugar residue, which is why this sparkling wine tastes sweet. This method allows the original aromas and flavors of the Moscato grapes to be retained and enhance its pleasant fruity fragrance.
THE PERFECT PAIRING: Panettone & Pandoro
Both were born as a regional specialty, Pandoro (originally from Verona) and Panettone (originally from Milano) are now traditional sweets all over the country, symbols of the Christmas festivities. Any family displays them on their Christmas tables, alongside the typical dessert of their town or region.
We love them both, but…we know very well that there are two 'factions' in Italy: Panettone lovers and Pandoro lovers. The former are ready to swear that the best Christmas cake is Panettone, because of its unique taste and fragrance of candied fruits, while the latter fight hard for the softness and butteriness of Pandoro.
Which one is your favorite? Whichever one you choose, open a bottle of Moscato d’Asti to pair with it.
We visited Gianni Doglia Winery during our Piemonte Grapetrotters tour in 2023!
THE SWEET WINES FROM DRIED GRAPES: Vin Santo
Vin Santo Toscano is produced from two of the most historical white grape varieties in Tuscany: Trebbiano and Malvasia. (More rarely from red grapes such as Sangiovese).
The grapes are harvested and left to dry in the Vinsantaia, a dry and ventilated place to prevent rot. Here they are placed on 'trellises' - mats made of thin canes - or hung with hooks. The grapes then begin to slowly dehydrate, increasing the sugar content of the must that will be extracted.
After 3-6 months of drying the grapes are pressed, and the must is then placed in "caratelli", small wooden barrels of about 100 liters, on the bottom of which rests the "madre", a pulp of yeast that has been handed down in some cases for countless years and which is responsible for the start of fermentation, as well as for the cellar's unique taste & flavor profile.
Here, the Vin Santo rests for at least two years, but the best producers, to offer an even more valuable product, decide to bottle it after eight to ten years.
THE PERFECT PAIRING: CANTUCCI (biscuits with almonds) & other cookies
Ricciarelli, amaretti, gingerbread cookies…whatever you’ll have on your table for Christmas, it will pair super well with a good bottle of Vin Santo.
But the best pairing will no doubt be CANTUCCI, also known by their original name of 'biscotti di Prato’. They are among Tuscany’s most-loved biscuits: sweet almond strands baked whole, then cut and baked until crisp and a beautiful golden hazelnut color. Connoisseurs have always wondered about the secrets of these special biscuits, and the bakery that guards the original recipe is shrouded in mystery and legend. As is often the case, nowadays each bakery has its version, each one special and unique. We are giving you our recipe to safeguard, you will find it at the bottom of the article.
Illustration by Lisa Brancatisano
THE SWEET WINES FROM LATE HARVEST GRAPES: Passito di Pantelleria
Pantelleria is a stunningly beautiful volcanic island off the southwest coast of Sicily. This island has developed a peculiar winemaking tradition and history. The particular and difficult climatic conditions of the island, with drought and dry, windy weather, make bush-trained vines suitable for producing higher-sugar grapes. These vines became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2014.
The Passito of Pantelleria is made from "Zibibbo" grapes, a very sweet and sugary grape, and the grapes are left to dry outdoors after harvest, benefiting from the sun and sea air, drying on racks, but also mats, crates or hanging. This drying method is called off-vine (it does not take place on the vine).
The grapes lose water, remaining exposed to the sun and air. Only certain climates allow such drying to take place, Pantelleria island is one of them. The result is a wine of incredible aroma and flavor and it is served in a small, long-stemmed goblet since due to its high sugar concentration, a small quantity must be tasted to appreciate it at its best.
THE PERFECT PAIRING: Torrone & Panforte
Sweet wines such as Passito (but also other late-harvest wines like the French Sauterne) are perfect to be paired with soft or hard nougats rich in dried fruits such as almonds and nuts.
The most popular in Italy for Christmas are TORRONE & PANFORTE.
‘Torrone’ is made of egg white, honey, and sugar and is filled with almonds, walnuts, peanuts, or roasted hazelnuts. The origin of Torrone is very old and is mixed up with history and legends. According to some sources, a very similar sweet, made with nuts and honey, already existed in ancient Greece where it was given to Olympic athletes to replenish their energy. Today, many different versions can be found in several Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries.
‘Panforte’ (strong bread), on the other hand, has a completely different history: this delicious cake is typical of the city of Siena; made with dried and candied fruit, honey, and various secret spices, topped with white icing sugar or a black spice mix.
The tradition of Panforte is very old, dating back to the Middle Ages when flavored breads, rich in spices and honey, were produced in the Sienese countryside. When Siena began trading with the East, Panforte was enriched with sugar and new, refined spices such as cloves, nutmeg, Ceylon cinnamon, and cardamom.
Initially, the ‘Pan Forte di Siena’ was only black (it is called Pan Pepato), the white version with icing sugar was invented by the apothecary Parenti in 1879 when Queen Margherita visited the Tuscan city. Refined sugar was added on top, candied fruit with a milder flavor was chosen, fewer spices were used and the white Panforte was renamed 'Panforte Margherita’.
THE FLAVOURED SWEET WINES: Barolo Chinato
Barolo Chinato is one of the finest aromatized wines and although it is prepared in the same way as classic ‘vermouth’, from which it derives as a concept, is not even remotely comparable.
Indeed, the starting point is Barolo DOCG wine, to which sugar and alcohol are added by a cold infusion of alcohol and spices, herbs, and officinal roots also used for vermouth. Among the most commonly used to produce Barolo Chinato is cinchona calisaya (a shrub), but rhubarb, cardamom, and dwarf gentians are also in the mix of herbs and spices that are in the infusion.
The only restriction for this special wine to be labeled as such is that it must be made exclusively from Barolo DOCG, 100% Nebbiolo, no blends are allowed.
THE PERFECT PAIRING: Chocolate
I know it’s Christmas & we’ve got plenty of Christmas sweets to taste but…many of us a chocolate lovers & won’t miss any chance to enjoy it.
No worries, we’ve got the right pairing for you, whether you have chocolate pralines, chocolate bars, mousse or cakes with intense taste & flavor of chocolate: they will all pair wonderfully with the bitter-sweet-spicy Barolo Chinato. Try it yourself!
Illustration by Lisa Brancatisano
CANTUCCINI DI PRATO (Biscotti)
1 kg or 4 cups of white cake flour 800 gr or 4 cups of white sugar 500 gr or one pound of almonds with skin (slightly roasted in the oven) 30 gr or 1 tsp baking yeast The peel of one lemon, grated A pinch of salt 6 eggs 6 egg yolks and 1 egg yolk to decorate
1. Throw together flour and sugar and add the 6 eggs and the 6 yolks.
2. Stir together and add the grated lemon peel, a pinch of salt, and the yeast.
3. Add the almonds and work them into the dough to form a uniform mass. All this is best done by hand. 4. Roll out dough into long sausages and put on paper on a baking tray. Pencil with egg yolk. 5. Introduce into a preheated oven at 180 degrees Celsius (350 Fahrenheit) for 15 minutes approx. 6. Take out and cool down for 5 minutes. Then cut into pieces, slightly tilted.
7. Reintroduce in the oven for 45 minutes at 110 degrees Celcius (230 Fahrenheit).
Article written by Ilaria Miele and Rebecca Gouttenoire