The end of summer generally signals the commencement of the wine making season around the world. In Australia this usually begins in early to mid February with the harvesting of white grapes (namely Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay), followed by Merlot and Shiraz reds in late February to early March and concludes with the king of red grapes Cabernet Sauvignon from late March through April.
The exact timing of each harvest is dependent on weather conditions and the ripeness of the fruit, with every winemaker seeking to harvest their crop at the peak of their grape’s wine making potential. Although today, much science goes on behind the scenes when making wine, there is still a great deal of hand-crafting, blending and personal experience on the part of the winemaker to get the best from the year’s harvest, as well as a tiny sprinkling of magic or some might say … good fortune.
Although, Little Hill Farm is not a vineyard, we do have a number of grape vines on the property both winemaking varieties such as sauvignon blanc, merlot and shiraz as well as, some seedless table grapes. What to do with the winemaking grapes when you are not a wine maker … you turn them into heavenly grape jams and the godly nectar known as vino cotto (an Italian sweet, sticky syrup that is full of flavour and aroma and can be substituted for vanilla extract in most cake recipes.
Vino cotto (sometimes written vincotto) is Italian for cooked wine but technically this isn’t true. Real vino cotto is not made from wine but instead comes from cooking down the ‘unfermented must’ which is the first stage of the wine making process – it is the crushed grapes and their liquid. When making vino cotto, it is extremely important that you use ‘must’ which is less than 24 hours old. The moment grapes are crushed and the juices exposed to air they begin the fermentation process which leads to wine or alternatively vinegar. The younger the ‘must’ the better the vino cotto produced.
Many people reduce fermented wines with a handful of aromatics rather than ‘must’, calling it vino cotto but in my opinion, the end result is not vino cotto but instead a variant of a mulled wine.
In Australia grape jams are not common, I suspect it is because of the time required to remove the many tiny seeds which exist in all wine grape varieties but in Europe, it is a very common item and highly prized. Similarly, vino cotto is little known in Australia except amongst Italians and high-end culinary chefs but it is gradually becoming more common place and known due to the efforts of Australian culinary queen Maggie Beer.
Making both grape jams and vino cotto are relatively easy at home, requiring little culinary skill other than a basic knowledge of jam making and for the vino cotto, how to heat a liquid so it reduces in volume. The difficulty lies in the fact that they are time consuming and laborious.
This year we made Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz jams, as well as the Italian favourites of Grape and Mulberry and (next week) Grape and Fig. Traditionally the grape and mulberry jam would be made with white mulberries but having no access to white mulberries on the farm this year, I used regular black mulberries. The taste of each jam is unique because of the individual ingredients but they all have the one underlining flavour tone which is that of sweet, caramelised grapes – the flavour one associated with vino cotto.
While at it, I also made a few litres of vino cotto for personal use in the kitchen as a baking and dessert ingredient and to sip whilst sitting on the veranda’s of the farm with an Italian espresso and to dunk a home-made biscotti into the sweet nectar.
I used a mixture of merlot and shiraz grapes to make my vino cotto so it has a very deep, rich, full flavour but it can be made using any grapes. For example, my mum prefers muscat grapes as the base of her vino cotto because white grapes, generally produce a sweeter, lighter coloured end product but it truly use whatever grapes you can get hold of.
To make vino cotto at home, simply heat young grape ‘must’ on a stovetop at a low steady heat so it reduces to approximately 1/5 of the original volume. The pot you use must have a non-reactive surface such as stainless steel, enamel or glass and you must have patience. I litre of liquid will only produce approximately 200 to 225 millilitres of vino cotto.
If you have no access to ‘grape must’, you can make you own by de-stalk a few kilos of grapes, crushing them by hand and then straining the liquid and grape pulp through some muslin or cheese cloth, making sure to wring as much of the liquid from the solids as possible. The liquid collected is the fresh ‘grape must’ (not the solids).
You will know when the liquid has converted to vino cotto through the evaporation process because it will change colour dramatically and it will commence to create a thick foamy surface even though it has remained on the low heat setting throughout the entire evaporation process.
Remove the liquid from the heat, allow it to cool a little before storing it in clean, sterilised jar/s or bottle/s until needed. Vino cotto should be kept in a cool dark place and will store for at least 12 months if not 24 months.
For those wondering, vino cotto has no alcohol … it is simply concentrated, cooked grape nectar.
For me, the perfect pairing for vino cotto is figs (another item that appears around the same time as the grape harvest). The rich, sticky liquid with the caramelised coffee flavour (vino cotto) matches flawlessly the delicate, sweet flavour of fresh figs as well as dried ones when they are out of season.
Here is a recipe for a fig and vino cotto tart that will make your tastebuds sing with delight and have your guests stumped with … what is that flavour.