The itinerary through the Passerina, DOC Offida del Piceno, is about 35 km long.
It starts in Grottammare and goes by Ripatransone, one of the foremost winemaking municipalities in the area, with a wealth of cellars and the most stunning views all the way to Monte Conero.
It then makes its way through Cossignano, Offida and Acquaviva Picena, the winemaking heart of the province, before going back down to the sea at San Benedetto del Tronto.
The ancient Passerina cultivar, which is possibly related to the Trebbiano Toscano and, more likely, a mutation of the Biancame grape variety which is present in huge numbers on the Pesaro hills around Fano has a medium-sized, fairly loosely packed bunch.
It is slow to accumulate sugar, which is not accompanied by a proportional demolition of the acidity during the run-up to the traditional grape-harvesting time (very often in early October).
In other words, this is a cultivar of great acidity.
Of ancient Adriatic origin, the Passerina like other varieties in the same family probably owes its name to the small size of the grapes, and is now grown throughout almost all Central Italy.
It is particularly common in Ciociaria, Lazio, and in Abruzzo and the Ascoli area.
Its production and sensory characteristics make it very versatile.
When vinified as a dry white wine, the Passerina normally produces a straw-yellow colour with assertive greenish highlights, fruity, floral, spicy, citrus fragrances and a pleasantly acidulous taste, with a racy and dynamic body. In other words, a fresh white with a clearly defined personality.
But its high level of acidity and its great resistance to disease and to the adversities of the vineyard also enable it to be made into fascinating and fruity sparkling wines (if picked slightly early) with the Charmat method and, above all, superb “vino passito” (wine from partially dried grapes) and Vinsanto.
“Vinsanto” might lead some to think of Umbria and, especially, of Tuscan wine-making, but it has deep roots in Ascoli tradition.
This is especially true of the Ripatransone area, which is one of the most important wine-making municipalities of the entire province.
The name “Vinsanto” is used for a wine that was formerly used for celebrating the Eucharist, as a result of its excellent potential for ageing.
In order to make it, the grapes are usually harvested early and placed on rush mats to dry.
The duration of the raisining has an influence on the concentration of sugars so the longer it is, the sweeter the wine will be.
The barrels are normally sealed and placed in premises where temperatures may vary quite considerably unusual in wine-making to create the typical “rancio“, oxidised character of the wine.
The wine-making expert measures the sugar content of the grapes before they are crushed in order to have a rough idea of the wine’s characteristics, but it is the energy, or lack of it, in the yeast, the level of acidity and the ageing effects in the cask that determine the final outcome.
In Ascoli Vinsanto, the use of Passerina grapes is, to use the old term, “in purezza” (monovarietal meaning that no other grapes can be used) but the selection of the bunches needs to be made with great care.
Once picked, the bunches are subjected to natural passerillage, or raisining, on rush mats so they can dry out and become more concentrated.
In this area, passerillage lasts by tradition until 17 January, the feast day of Saint Anthony.
This is followed by crushing, pressing, and transferring the must to the first cask, which contains the “mother” a mixture of wines from previous vintages.
The “mother” ensures alcoholic fermantation, after which the Vinsanto rests for a year in the vats in which it fermented.
In the second year, the wine is traditionally placed in oak casks for ageing, in order to achieve oxidation (which is particularly sought after in this wine), and this continues for two years.
As from the fourth year, it is bottled, and continues to mature.
Vinsanto from Ripatransone and, in more general terms, that of other parts of the Ascoli area, does tend to achieve fairly high levels of alcohol content normally even more than 16% and long maturing in barrels gives it a high level of complexity.
The bouquet of a good Vinsanto di Ripatransone contains persuasive notes of dried fruits, zabaglione, plum jam, creme caramel, vanilla and chocolate, and oriental spices, while the taste is less predictable, for it depends on the sugar content in the wine, as well as on the level of oxidation and acidity.
But a well-balanced Vinsanto always has excellent potential for ageing, even up to 20 years and more.
One variety of grape many types of wine.
So much so that it can be enjoyed with dishes ranging from fish and charcuterie appetisers (sparkling wines) to fried foods (still wines) and desserts or dried fruits (Vinsanto).