Time-honored passum wines in Santorini and Crete

Polybius, a Greek historian of the second century BC who lived for 17 years in Rome, confirms that passum wine was made from raisins. In his «Histories» (VI, 11a, 4) he says that in his time women in Rome were strictly forbidden to drink wine, so when they were thirsty they drank passum. Keeping in mind what Polybius says along with the recipe for Magon, described in an earlier column, we have confirmation that «first-rate passum» was a basically a very good must that had not been fermented, but produced no more than 1-2 percent alcohol. It was drunk diluted with cool water, as was sweet wine. The above applied when just enough fresh grape must was added to the raisins to cover them. If more must was added, the end product was enriched with the sugar and other constituents from the raisins, but was less dense and so could ferment. The wine it produced was sweet, but not as sweet as first-rate passum. The density of the enriched must and sweetness of the wine was related to the amount of raisins and the must made from fresh grapes. The fewer the raisins and the greater the quantity of must, the less sweet the wine and the more alcohol it contained. The raisins obviously acted as a sweetening agent, increasing the level of sugar in the must and producing sweet wine. The same occurred when some highly concentrated juice from dried grapes was added to a must made from fresh grapes. Using these techniques meant that the difficult task of sun-drying the entire grape harvest could be avoided; only some of the grapes had to be sun-dried. There was one serious drawback, however. It required a lot of experience to make wine that would not spoil, given that in those days there was no way of measuring the density of the must and the wine’s sugar content, as there is now. For those who would like to make sweet wine, I will describe the latter of the two techniques, which is recognized by current European Union legislation. Leave the grapes out in the sun to dry until they have lost about half their weight, then put them through the press. The juice should measure about 25 on the Baume scale, i.e. a sugar content of about 500 grams per liter. This syrupy juice is added to must made from overripe grapes. The higher the mixture is on the Baume scale, the sweeter the wine will be. For example, if the mixture is 17.5 Baume, the wine will have about 80 grams of sugar and will be high in alcohol, more than 16.5 percent. But if the mixture is 20 Baume, then the wine will be twice as sweet and have less alcohol. The second passum Continuing with Magon’s recipes for making passum wines, Columella describes how to make «second-rate passum.» («De Re Rustica,» XII, 39.2 Belles Lettres, Paris 1988). To the pulp of the grapes which were pressed to make first-rate passum, «add must from other grapes that have been left in the sun for only three days, mix, and put though the press. Put this second passum into clay jars without delay, so that it does not become too bitter, and 20 days later when it has fermented, clarify it by pouring it into other jars and immediately put in their stoppers, which you must plaster over and cover with leather.» Magon, an experienced winemaker from Carthage, advises treating the passum with techniques (clarification, decanting and immediate stoppering) which indicate that the second rate passum spoiled easily in comparison with the first rate passum, which was stable, being rendered resistant to yeast and bacteria by its high sugar content. Interestingly, Magon advises leaving the must just a short time with the pulp so that it did not become too bitter. Steeped in Vinsanto A modern Magon, Giorgos Venetsanos, takes up the description of how to make Vinsanto in a new book now in print: «After trampling the semi-dried grapes and straining their juice, steep the pulp to extract the great proportion of sugar it still contains. While the pulp is still in the press, spread it out and close the press’s drainage outlet. Then pour the must made from fresh grapes over the pulp. «This extracts their sugar and enriches the must, and when it ferments produces a wine with more or less sweetness, depending on how long the grapes were in the sun and the amount of must used to sprinkle the pulp. «Steep the pulp for 24 hours, then open the drainage outlet to drain off the must. After two or three hours, when the must has completely drained off, press the pulp again twice, because the grapes which were as dry as raisins will be swollen and ready to press. «When this must has drained off, put the pulp into the press and collect the rest of the must with the first lot. The wine that is produced after fermentation is quite dry, because the must started fermenting with the pulp and was in contact with it for 24 hours.» No, Venetsanos hasn’t read Columella. He is simply describing the way the second-rate Vinsanto mezzo wine is still made on Santorini – and adding his comments as an oenologist. It should be added that this method is not officially recognized by EU legislation, which prohibits making wine from pulp. The similarity between this description and Magon’s method of making second-rate passum is revealing, because it shows beyond doubt that techniques have survived on Santorini for making first- and second-rate passum and sweet wine from sun-dried grapes for which Crete was renowned in Roman times. And in those days Thera, or Santorini, did things the way they did on Crete, as in the days of Venetian rule. This gives rise to the question of what relation there was between sweet Cretan wines in those two periods: Quite simply, Malvasia was a sweet wine made from grapes half-dried in the sun, a passum wine, as was its contemporary, Vinsanto. But the Malvasia of Crete disappeared at the end of the 17th century, while Vinsanto continues to be made by the ancient passum method.

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