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Vin Santo for the holidays

Vin Santo for the holidays

Years in the making, and worth the wait

Come holiday season, I dig out my beloved biscotti recipes: classic cantucci made with almonds, modern variations with cranberries and pistachio, fig and orange, ginger and chocolate. These treats get packed into cookie tins, topped with a bow, and given to my favorite friends. If they’ve been very, very good, some might also get a choice bottle of vin santo.

Vin santo is Italy’s most famous unfortified dessert wine, made since medieval times from dried grapes. Many legends surround its name, but the likeliest theory is that vin santo, or holy wine, was named after the tradition of pressing the dried grapes at Easter, during Holy Week.

If you’ve been to Tuscany, you’ve no doubt seen vin santo con biscotti on menus everywhere, alongside the tiramisu and panna cotta. Perhaps you’ve even tried it, dipping the biscotti in the wine, as instructed. But not all vin santo is created equal. Trattorie tend to serve the simple stuff, often just one step up from caramelized sugar water. That’s light years away from vin santo at its most sublime, when it can be the pole star of meditation wines: an amber nectar brimming with butterscotch, orange peel, dried fig, apricot jam, baking spice, and toasted almond. Most self-respecting vin santo producers I know would howl in protest at the thought of dipping anything into their holy wine. And they have a point.

Inside Avignonesi's vinsantaia

Inside Avignonesi's vinsantaia

The long haul

If you know anything about the time and labor involved in producing vin santo, you’ll feel their pain. Let’s take an extreme case: Avignonesi’s illustrious Vin Santo di Montepulciano.

It begins with a stringent selection of grapes at harvest. A second selection occurs as the bunches are laid onto cane mats for the appassimento or drying process, which concentrates the sugars. (Any rupture in the skins could result in unwanted mold.) These drying mats are stacked in a large airy room called the appassitoio, where windows are opened or closed to let in the fresh air or shut out the winter humidity. And there the grapes lay for five to six months, fastidiously monitored, the moldy renegades pitched, the healthy grapes withering into a semi-raisin state. By spring, they’ve lost 70 percent of their original volume.

These desiccated, supersweet bunches are then pressed whole along with their stems. The must is left for five weeks to settle, then goes into small, 50-liter Slavonian oak barrels called caratelli, along with 2 liters of madre (“the mother,” just like in sourdough). This is residue from earlier vintages, which contains native yeast capable of surviving high sugar/alcohol levels. The casks’ bunt holes are then sealed with red wax—and not opened again for 10 years.

Imagine putting a cake in the oven and having to wait a decade to see the results. Did it collapse? Did it burn around the edges? You can’t find out until you’re 10 years older.

During this time, three things are happening: fermentation, concentration, and oxidation. Fermentation occurs in fits and starts over the first three to four years, restarting and dying down as the seasons and temperatures fluctuate. Unlike regular wine barrels, caratelli are not stored in cool underground cellars, where temperatures remain stable. Rather, they’re kept in attics called vinsantaia, where the windows are open all year long. As temperatures rise and fall, the barrels expand and contract. With that, evaporation occurs, which makes the wine ever more concentrated. After 10 years, the liquid shrinks by half; the sealed barrels are never topped off. At the same time, oxygen sneaks in and performs a slo-mo oxidation of the wine. This brings about those lovely toffee, caramel, and cognac notes. At the end of 10 years, the caratelli are opened with great fanfare—always during a waning moon. The wine is bottled, then rests another year before hitting the market.

Add it up…and say wow. So much time for precious little wine. Avignonesi’s latest vintage, 1999, is their typical level of production: only 3,900 bottles of vin santo. It’s no wonder there’s a waiting list, despite the $200 price tag.

Caught your breath yet? At this juncture, I should say that Avignonesi’s Vin Santo di Montepulciano is truly an exceptional wine, as is its ruddy twin, Occhio di Pernice (“eye of a partridge”), a less common style made from sangiovese grapes rather than the usual white duo (trebbiano and malvasia; grechetto is also allowed). Rare and coveted, these are the very definition of cult wines. Both have gotten perfect 100-point scores from Wine Spectator in the past. I’ve tasted them over the years at Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri awards roadshow, and can attest to their magic. And I’ve learned to head straight to the Avignonesi table even before starting on the sparklers or whites, as those samples will be gone in a flash.           

A vin santo sampler

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Though none can match the exquisite richness and complexity of Avignonesi’s vin santo, there are other terrific examples out there—and most are a bit more affordable at $20 to $60. These age in caratelli for five to eight years (still well over the three-year minimum), and some might mature in barrels larger than the 50-liter caratelli. But all are unctuous, honeyed, bewitching wines.

You can’t go wrong with vin santo from Castello di Brolio (4–5 years in caratelli), Castello d’Albola (8 years), Felsina (7 years), Fontodi (5 years), Isole e Olena (5 years), San Felice (5 years), and San Giusto Rentennano (6 years).

But my heart belongs to Rocca di Montegrossi. Their absolutely delectable Vin Santo del Chianti Classico (6–7 years) is one of the few that utilizes grapes with botrytis cinerea or noble rot. This benevolent fungus shrivels grapes on the vine, which concentrates their sugars even before they hit the mat. (Sauternes is the most famous example of a botrytized wine.)

It’s a delicate dance when you play with mold. That’s why Rocca di Montegrossi owner/winemaker Marco Ricasoli-Firidolfi uses a different system for drying his grapes. Rather than laying them on horizontal mats, he hooks the botrytized bunches onto vertical nets, which in turn are hung from rails. Like a carpet display, these rails can swivel and move on tracks, allowing workers to get in close and inspect the bunches from all sides for bad mold.

Another difference is the barrels, which combine staves of cherry, mulberry, and oak—much like how balsamic-vinegar producers mix woods to provide extra spice and nuance. There’s also the grapes: Rocca di Montegrossi’s vin santo is 95 percent malvasia blanca, which oxidizes easily in a desirable way. Ricasoli-Firidolfi skips the trebbiano altogether (“Trebbiano is a silly grape, without flavor or acidity,” he once told me), opting instead for a splash of canaiolo, an indigenous red grape used in traditional Chianti Classico.

All these recommendations, by the way, are Vin Santo del Chianti Classico DOC. This is just one of three denominazione di origine controllata for vin santo; the others are Vin Santo del Chianti and Vin Santo di Montepulciano (home to Avignonesi). Vin santo of the IGT kind (indicazione geographica tipica) is made in many more regions, including Montepulciano, Carmignano, Cortona, and Rúfina, for starters. It’s even found outside of Tuscany, mostly in Trentino, where it’s made from the local nosiola grape. Each DOC and IGT sets its own rules, but three years in wood is the minimum. There’s no requirement, however, as to taste, so you’ll find vin santo that’s dry and fino-sherry-like, off-dry, and downright sweet. Since you can’t tell by looking at the label, ask your wine merchant.

If you make vin santo part of your holidays, you’ll join a long tradition. Since medieval times, a gift of vin santo has been a token of friendship and esteem, and offering it to guests is a gesture of fine hospitality. Vin santo should be served cool, but not refrigerator-cold. Biscotti are optional, of course, and work fine as separate but equal partners. To dip or not to dip is up to you and your conscience. 

Published in the December 2014 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.

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