Genuinely sweet wines thanks to the sun-dried grapes

A recent column explained how overripe fresh grapes produce a high-grade, high-sugar must which, when fermented, makes high-alcohol wine, either dry or sweetish, depending on the conditions of fermentation. But no matter how sweet the must is, it can never produce genuinely sweet wine. In order to get grapes with an extremely high sugar content which will produce must of such a high grade that, when fermentation stops, the wine contains a lot of unfermented sugar and really tastes sweet, there is only one method: Evaporate some of the water in the grapes so that the juice becomes concentrated. According to Dioscurides in Concerning Materia Medica, sweet wines were produced in antiquity either from sun-dried grapes or by exposing grapes to the sun on the vine. These two techniques are aimed at concentrating the grape juice. In the sun-drying yard When the grapes are spread out, they begin to lose water. The more they shrink and dry out, the more concentrated the juice becomes. The sun-drying yard was usually in the vineyard, as in Homer’s description of Odysseus pausing to admire the garden of King Alcinous on the island of the Phaeacians: There is a fruitful vineyard, in one part of which is a warm patch of level ground, where some of the grapes are lying in the sun. (1) The honey-sweet wine which Alcinous and the chieftains of the island drank came from sun-dried grapes. Hesiod describes the sun-drying technique with one difference. In Akra, Boeotia, the grapes were not sun-dried in the vineyard but taken home to spread in the sun, as was done later on the Aegean Islands, where grapes were laid out on terraces and sunny verandas. In his Works and Days, Hesiod writes: When Orion and Sirius come to the center of the sky and rosy-fingered Io sees Arcturus, then cut all the grapes and take them home. Expose them to the sun for 10 days and 10 nights, shade them on the fifth, and on the sixth, put the gift of Dionysus, full of charms, into the jars. Ten days and nights According to Hesiod, the grapes should lie in the sun for 10 days and nights. The method described by Dioscurides, where the grapes roast on the vine, seems to be a later technique, first mentioned by Palladius, a Latin agricultural writer, probably from the fourth century BC. Palladius describes what he says is a Greek technique: They break the grape stems, let the grapes dry out on the vine and then hang them in the shade. (2) In Geoponika, a work written in the Byzantine era, there are two interesting accounts regarding this. One is by Florentine, and refers to the production of raisins: The ancients say a lot about making raisins, but I prefer to treat raisins as follows: Once you twist the stems of ripe grapes, leave them to dry on the vine and when you have cut them off, hang them in a shady place till they dry out. Then put them in jars into which you have placed sun-dried vine leaves. (3) Santorini and Cyprus The other technique is described by Didymus, who explains in great detail how to treat vines so as to get sweet wine: In Bithynia, some people make sweet wine as follows: Thirty days before the harvest, they break the grape stems and remove all the leaves so that the sun dries out the liquid and makes the wine sweet, just as it is when we boil the must. They break the stems to cut the grapes off from the liquid and nutrients that feed the plant. When they have removed the leaves and the grapes begin to dry, some people harvest them and spread them out in the sun until they completely turn dry. Then they take the warm grapes to the wine press where they leave them for the rest of the day and overnight, and trample them at dawn. (4) There are later accounts of the same process. Robert Sauger, who lived on the Aegean islands in the late 17th century, writes: The Santorinians give their wine exceptional flavor by breaking the grape stems when the fruit starts to ripen. A few days later, under the hot sun, the grapes partially dry out and produce a wine that neither Cientat nor Saint Laurent can touch. (5) Giovanni Mariti, a member of the Florence agricultural academy, who arrived on Cyprus in 1760, writes: When the grapes are almost ripe, some Cypriot vine-growers, who are the best and most skillful, remove the leaves from the boughs that bear grapes. When the grapes are completely ripe, they take the branches with bunches of grapes on them and break them close to the old wood, not far from the point where they will be pruned. When they have cut the grapes, they take them home and spread them out on a paved floor, but they don’t pile them up. They place the bunches side by side and leave them there until the floor shows signs of mold. Then they lift the grapes up with spades and take them to a room they call the lenos. (6) So we can conclude that on both Cyprus and Santorini they used the Byzantine era technique of breaking the grape stems or whole vine branches so as to speed up the process of drying the grapes on the vines. Then they trampled the grapes or left them in the sun so the juice became even more concentrated. From these grapes, which produced a powerful must, they made sweet Commandaria wine on one island, and equally sweet Vin Santo on the other. As for Malvasia de Lipari, considered to be the most authentic surviving Malvasia, it is still made from grapes that are spread out in the sun for 8-10 days. On the basis of the principles described in the previous article and the details provided today, I believe I am justified in claiming that the sweet Byzantine wine from Monemvasia was made from grapes in which the juice had become concentrated, either by direct exposure to the sun or by being roasted while on the vine, as the vine-grower decided. I shall return to this subject in subsequent columns. 1) The Odyssey, Penguin Classics, revised translation by D.C.H. Rieu. 2) Palladius, II.19 3) Geoponika, 2.V 4) Op cit. 2.VII

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