Anyone looking to satisfy their sweet tooth with a dessert wine may be familiar with late-harvest, botrytis-affected or ice wines. Another category to consider is straw wine, or wines made with grapes dried on straw mats.
As the fruit dries, its natural sugar concentrates. Since they’re no longer on the vine, the grapes also retain their acidity, so the resulting wines keep their balance as they develop flavor.
However, several types of wine are made by this method, and not all of them are sweet—or known as straw wine. Here is a breakdown of the various types of straw-dried wines, as well as what to expect from a true straw wine.
What is Straw Wine?
To make straw wine, white wine grapes are placed on straw mats for 60 to 90 days. There are records of straw wine made by ancient Greek farmers as well as those in what’s now Austria, who coined the term strohwein. It’s likely the practice gained popularity because the resulting high levels of sugar made the wine easier to preserve, and also because drinkers from those eras enjoyed the flavor.
“Straw wine is made from grapes that are dried off of the vine, as opposed to a late-harvest wine where you leave the grapes to develop on the vine,” says Andrea Mullineux, co-owner/winemaker of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines in the Franschhoek and Swartland regions of South Africa. “When they’re cut off the vine, it halts the ripening process, so you’re no longer losing acidity as the grapes become sweeter. You’re concentrating the sugar, but also concentrating the acidity.”
The straw allows air to travel around the grapes, which prevents rot. It also keeps the fruit clean if placed in a field or barn, which is how the grapes were traditionally dried. Many wineries now use straw-lined plastic or wood racks that are easier to sanitize.
“The straw is there to help with ventilation,” says Ray Walsh, owner of Capitello Wines in Eugene, Oregon. “If you think of a fruit bowl, moisture gets trapped at the bottom, and that fruit starts to mold first.”
Today, straw wine is also made in France, Austria, Italy, Greece, South Africa, New Zealand and the U.S.
Grapes Used in Straw Wine
Producers have flexibility with grapes to use for straw wine.
“I chose Sauvignon Blanc to begin with because Sauvignon Blanc already has a nice acidity profile,” says Walsh. “That’s something that’s important with any dessert wine. You’ve got to have that nice brightness to balance with the sweetness of the wine. I would think any white varietal that has good acidity is going to be good.”
“We make it only with Chenin Blanc,” says Mullineux. “Chenin in South Africa naturally has thicker skin. It tends to be suited to our environment in maintaining the highest natural acidity levels as well.”
In Austria, it’s often made with Muscat and Zweigelt, while in France it can be made from Chardonnay, Savagnin and Poulsard in the Jura, Marsanne in the Northern Rhône and Riesling in Alsace.
Flavors of Straw Wine
“It’s important to taste the sun with straw wine,” says Mullineux. Unlike the glacial quality in ice wines, she says, straw wine has a warmer flavor that may be slightly caramelized. It’s more likely to resemble orange marmalade than fresh oranges.
According to Walsh, straw wine should not have the dried fruit flavors sometimes associated with grapes left on the vine for an extended period.
“If you think about a late-harvest Riesling, there are some lovely wines, but I can sometimes detect a raisiny flavor in them,” he says. “With straw wine, you get this vibrant concentration of the fruit without that dried prune, dried raisin quality.”
Straw wine will be notably sweet. Those made at Mullineux & Leeu can range between 280 to 700 grams per liter of residual sugar. But there should be plenty of acid to provide balance.
Straw Wine Versus Other Dessert Wines
Unlike botrytis-affected wines, where rot is key, it’s essential to have mold- and mildew-free grapes to make straw wine.
“One of the keys to straw wine is you’re working with healthy grapes to begin with,” says Mullineux. “If you have some rot in the vineyard and you lay it down with the grapes, it’s going to get worse.”
Grapes for straw wine are often harvested before those destined for dry wines to preserve their acidity. So, there’s no opportunity for them to freeze or raisin.
“If done right, you shouldn’t get any raisining of the skins, just dehydration of the berries,” says Walsh. “True straw wine is about a very, very slow dehydration, so the skins never dry out. They stay moist while the liquid is evaporating from the grapes.”
One similarity between straw wine and other dessert wines is a higher price point. Walsh says that’s because straw wine essentially requires three harvests.
“You’re harvesting the fruit in the vineyard,” he says. “You’re then reharvesting by picking it up cluster by cluster to lay it on racks lined with straw. After 90 days, you’re then harvesting it again by picking it up and examining it for mold or fruit-fly damage.”
It’s only after this lengthy process that the grapes are vinified.
Other Sweet Wines Made on Straw
The Greeks may have been among the earliest to dry grapes on straw mats and use them for wine. Today, the most common examples are vin liastos, made in the PDO Monemvassia-Malvaisa, and Vinsanto, produced only in Santorini. Vinsanto can be made from sun-dried or late-harvest grapes, which means that some may not be true straw wines.
Vin de paille is the French term from wines made with grapes dried on straw mats. In Jura, it’s common to use Savagnin, Chardonnay and Poulsard for this sweet wine. In the Rhône, Marsanne and Roussanne are the main vin de paille grapes. The process used is very similar to that of straw wine.
Are Any Dry Wines Made on Straw?
Amarone della Valpolicella is an Italian red wine that’s made with grapes placed on straw mats or hung in the rafters of barns before vinification. However, Amarone is dry, not sweet.
Alessandro Pasqua, vice president Americas and co-owner of Pasqua Vigneti é Cantine in Verona, says the grapes for Amarone are dried on straw for 60 to 90 days to concentrates their flavors. That yields a more flavorful and full-bodied wine than would typically be available from native varieties like Corvina.
A long fermentation and aging period ensures most of the sugar is consumed and helps to balanced and integrate the various flavors in the wine. What remains is a rich, dry red wine with red fruit flavors.
“For us and many of my colleagues, the goal with Amarone is to make a serious wine that’s comparable with the Napa Cabs or the super Tuscans,” says Pasqua. “They want to achieve something similar to what our colleagues in France produce, that balances the sugar and the fruit notes and the body together with a nice acidity and an elegance.”
Closely related to Amarone della Valpolicella is Recieto della Valpolicella, which also typically features dried Corvina grapes. However, its fruit is dehydrated in a fruttaio, or room designed for the purpose, not on straw. The resulting wine is sweet.
Two other sweet Italian wines, Recioto di Soave and Recioto di Gambellara, are also made in fruttaios. Sicily and the surrounding islands also produce wines from sun-dried grapes, like Malvasia delle Lipari, where grapes are dried on reed mats.