Dessert wines get short shrift in this country, perhaps because sweet wines are often perceived as unserious. It’s a shame, because a good dessert wine makes for an elegant finish to an evening. But lower demand means lower prices, which is a boon to those of us man enough to drink sweet wines.
We recently opened a bottle of 2009 Ipsus Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, a charming maple syrup-colored wine from a tiny island between the coasts of Sicily and Tunisia. Although it’s part of Italy, the volcanic speck of Pantelleria is actually closer to the sands of Tunisia than the shores of Sicily. It seems fitting then, that the island’s most famous variety should be Moscato di Alexandria, called Zibibbo in Italy, an ancient variety thought to have originated in Egypt. (Note this variety is distinct from the more highly regarded Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains, also simply called Muscat Blanc.)
Wikipedia describes how the island acquired something approximating its current name in A.D. 700, when conquering Arabs called it “Bent El Riah,” meaning “Daughter of the Winds.” These winds have led to quite an unusual style of viticulture on Pantelleria; gobelet-trained vines are actually buried in holes to protect them from fierce gusts that sweep across the island, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. If you’re having trouble picturing these semi-subterranean vineyards, as I did, this photo will help.
The winds can’t hurt when Pantelleria winemakers wish to make passito wines, which are made from grapes dried to varying degrees. Partially raisining the fruit increases a wine’s sweetness and alcohol content (the Ipsus is 15% alcohol).
To be honest, I didn’t expect much from this wine. It cost only $10 at Trader Joe’s, detracting somewhat from its otherwise exotic pedigree. My snobbery was soundly refuted, however, when this wine became the hit of the party. It offered aromas of ripe yellow peaches and honeysuckle, and though it tasted quite sweet, the wine had enough acids to maintain balance. I really enjoyed the flavors of caramelized peaches and orange zest, and it worked beautifully with a hunk of gouda. The label claims the wine is “ideal with any kind of dessert,” but I think it would work much better with something like carrot cake, ginger snaps or crème brûlée than chocolate (ignore the brownies in the photo above).
In Wine, André Dominé notes that “The sweet Passito and fortified Liquoroso versions [of Moscato di Pantelleria] are now numbered amongst the best sweet wines in the country.” Find out what all the fuss is about and pick up a bottle for your next holiday party.
2009 Ipsus Moscato Passito di Pantelleria: Sweet but balanced, with flavors of caramelized peach, orange zest and honey. Chill well, and pair with cheeses and non-chocolate-based desserts. An excellent value.
Find It: I purchased this bottle for $10 at a Trader Joe’s in Downer’s Grove, Ill.