Vin Santo

The following nice wine-story has been sent to us by our friend Mrs Gina Gigli from Markleeville, California, author of the book Poco Pane, Poco Vino.

Today, all of the toscano wineries producing precious Vin Santo follow parallel methods, with slight variations. The wine ferments and matures in exalted solitude in airy attics rather than keeping other wines company in crowded cellars. The general practice is to harvest very mature grapes; dry the clusters on mats in well-aired rooms; press the grapes and pour the juice into caratelli – small oak barrels. Then the bung-holes are sealed with cement, and the barrels are left undisturbed in the attic for an incredible four to eight years, with no peeking allowed! As I find the beauty in the Chianti district of Tuscany to be extraordinary, sketching wine cellars and vineyards is one of my most favored pastimes. On our last trip to Italy to visit Ruggero’s family, our vinous explorations concentrated on the mystique of Vin Santo. Enjoying the ensuing treasure hunt, we became especially fascinated by the history of the Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi family, whose noble name has also been woven into the texture of Florentine history with members having served as politicians, bankers, soldiers, explorers, poets and musicians. In the middle of the 19th century, the properties of the Frescobaldi were united through marriage with those of the Degli Albizi family. Marchese Vittorio Degli Albizi used his viticultural knowledge to improve the family vineyards and also modified the Tuscan flask so that it could be hermetically sealed, thereby making it possible to export Chianti wine. Marchese Leonardo Frescobaldi, in his brown suit and polished old leather shoes indicative of his modest and unassuming demeanor, met us at Castello Nipozzano and gave us an extensive tour of that hillside estate. Then he took us to the even higher-on-the-hill vineyards of his Pomino properties. The Frescobaldi commissioned me to create three etching editions for them; one of the sangiovese grapevine, another of the pinot bianco grapevine and one of the vinsanteria – wine attic – all at their Pomino estate. The immense attic, lined with row upon row of caratelli, was crowned with a mattone e legno – brick and beam – ceiling. Open windows framed views of terraced vineyards bordered by cultivated forests, olive groves and fields of grain. The Marchese told us that the Frescobaldi style of making Vin Santo revolves around the practice of picking very mature grapes, as late into October as possible. The white grapes traditionally used are trebbiano, malvasia, pinot bianco, pinot grigio and in recent years, chardonnay. After the grape clusters have spent approximately 40 days spread out on cane mats, they are pressed and the mosto is poured into the caratelli without completely filling the barrels. A little madre – mother – or long-aged wine that has decreased in quantity and increased in alcohol is added. The bungs are sealed airtight before Christmas. The barrels, nested in their aerie, experience the cold of winter and the heat of summer. The interior liquid responds by alternately slumbering and awakening or being dormant and then fermenting. When we were there in the summer, I put my ear next to a barrel and heard the soft sound of bubbling fermentation. After four years or more, when fermentation stops and the alcohol is 15 to 18 percent, the barrel is broached in hope that an ambrosial wine will be drawn out. The yeasts that feed on the mosto will have expired from over-nourishment. If no sugar is left, the wine is dry, but if there is residual sugar, the wine is sweet. Dry Vin Santo may be served as an aperitivo, but if it achieves the hoped-for sweetness, it becomes a perfect digestivo, accompanied by biscotti –cookies to-dip-in-the-wine. With Vin Santo, there always is the excitement of uncertainty. The wine maker might encounter a wine to treasure or a vinegar to trash. Or, upon broaching the barrel after so long a time, a layer of sediment might indicate evaporated liquid, the only evidence of what might have been.