When Was The Last Time You Made a Fruit Syrup with Just 1 Ingredient?

October  4, 2016

Mosto cotto, vincotto, saba, and sapa are just some of the names you could otherwise call cooked grape must—the pressed grapes destined for winemaking. You could even describe it as grape syrup, but it's so much more than that.

Photo by Emiko Davies

This age-old condiment is made, in some form, in various regions throughout northern and southern Italy, bringing together two ancient traditions: winemaking and not letting anything go to waste.

The grapes (red or white, depending which region you are in) are squeezed of all their juice, which is boiled slowly, sometimes for hours, until the liquid reduces to about a third of its original volume and is the consistency of thick syrup. It's strained again, bottled, and kept for months—even years. Like its relative, wine, the syrup gets better with age.

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Mosto cotto's flavor is sweet, but can be also pleasantly tangy, slightly tannic (like a dry red wine), and reminiscent of dried fruit. Some compare it to thick, syrupy aged balsamic vinegar, but it's more mellow than that. In Preserving Italy, Domenica Marchetti describes mosto cotto as having "notes of prune, raisin, fig, cherries, and spice."

The top two are made with grapes, while bottom one is made with prickly pears. Photo by Emiko Davies

And it's not only made of grapes. In southern Italy, particularly in Puglia and Sardinia, a similar condiment is made from the gluts of other late summer or early autumn foraged fruit, namely figs and prickly pears.

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Top Comment:
“My dad's from Campania and one of his favourite sweet things (he doesn't like desserts) is dough rings poached in syrupy grape must. Like the crisp, savoury, fennel-flavoured ring biscuits that are eaten with a glass of wine, he and my aunts call them taralle.”
— Jo

In many Italian regions, this thick, dark syrup (or golden or red syrup, if made with prickly pears) is used in place of sugar—which wasn't always easy to come by or affordable—or honey in desserts. Traditional Sardinian biscuits called tilicas are made with long strips of pastry, encasing a filling made from thickened prickly pear sapa. In Puglia, they make cartellate, deep-fried pastry smothered in syrupy vincotto. From Tuscany to Sardegna dark-hued, rustic, country cakes are made from mosto cotto or sapa. During the wine harvest season, the syrup is also often made into pudding by simply cooking the freshly made mosto cotto with some flour, semolina, and ground almonds or starch, pouring this into little molds and refrigerating until set.

Grapes ready for pressing. Photo by Emiko Davies

Pellegrino Artusi includes a recipe for sapa in his 1891 cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well and describes it as nothing more than a “grape syrup," made with white wine grapes that are pressed and slightly fermented, before being boiled until thick and syrupy. He notes it's loved by children in the winter, when you can drizzle the sapa over freshly fallen snow, like an improvised sorbet.

While, traditionally, sapa and mosto cotto were a product of thriftiness and poverty, today, ironically, the elegant, dark bottles are expensive to buy. However, it's also very easy to make at home.

Looks like jam has some competition. Photo by Emiko Davies

Mosto cotto couldn't be simpler: squeeze the fresh fruit (a food mill or juicer is extremely useful for this), pour the juice through a fine mesh sieve or muslin cloth to remove the seeds and skin, and boil it very gently and slowly until it reduces and thickens. As it cools, the mosto cotto will thicken further, so be careful not reduce it too far. Bottle the syrup and keep for as long as you can before using it (some age it for 24 months), although it will be hard to resist.

Drizzle it over fresh ricotta, ice cream, or yogurt. Eat it on freshly baked bread or toast. Spoon it over grilled stone fruits and use it as a syrupy topping for simple cakes.

Try it: ricotta, poached pears, and mosto cotto. Photo by Emiko Davies

But it's not only fantastic on sweets. Because of the complexity of its flavors, mosto cotto is also wonderful in sauces, marinades, or dressings for savory dishes. Add it to a cheese platter (it's particularly good with strong or aged cheeses), to be dipped into and mopped up. Use it in marinades or sauces, where it can add depth to a roast leg of lamb. Substitute it for balsamic vinegar (like in this salad with grilled pear, arugula, and goat cheese) or as a replacement honey in your next honey mustard dressing.

You can even make a refreshing tonic with it by mixing a spoonful of sapa in water (imagine what you could do with cocktails). Don't forget the ice!

Emiko, a.k.a. Emiko Davies, is a food writer and cookbook author living in Tuscany, where she writes about (and eats!) regional Italian foods. You can read more of her writing on her blog.

What would you drizzle/dip/slather mosto cotto on? Tell us in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jo
  • Janice Resnick
    Janice Resnick
  • amandainmd
  • Emiko
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


Jo March 3, 2021
My dad's from Campania and one of his favourite sweet things (he doesn't like desserts) is dough rings poached in syrupy grape must. Like the crisp, savoury, fennel-flavoured ring biscuits that are eaten with a glass of wine, he and my aunts call them taralle.
Janice R. October 10, 2020
Pease consider amending your website to include complete instructions with respect to processing and storage.
amandainmd October 5, 2016
I don't think of figs as being especially juicy (maybe that is simply the difference of buying them at a store in the mid-atlantic vs. off a tree in italy or california). Is there an adaptation to make this syrup with figs?
Emiko October 6, 2016
Yes I think you might be right (the figs here are definitely juicy and jammy!). But yes there is a link right here in the article for the fig syrup (or fig honey) -- if you click on the word "fig" above (in the paragraph under the second photo), you'll get to that post. I've adapted the recipe so you can make it with dried figs.
amandainmd October 6, 2016
Thank you! I missed the link. Would you suggest that I use dried figs that are premium or the mediocre fresh figs I get in DC? ...I think I just answered my own question.
Emiko October 6, 2016
haha yes I'd recommend trying with dried figs -- actually I think with dried figs you get that wonderful deep flavour that usually comes with ageing the syrup without having to age!