Aged in an Attic, Enjoyed at the Table
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One of the frustrations of wine writing is the inability to reach out beyond the page and put a glass of wine in the reader’s hand. Now, this would be nice for an awful lot of wines. But it’s utterly essential — and yet so sorrowfully impossible — for the antique magnificence of the Italian wine called vin santo.
The problem here is one of familiarity — or rather, the lack of it. If I praise a pinot noir or a chardonnay, the usual flavor descriptors suffice to give you at least a notion of the wine, aided by your own mental referencing to pinot noirs or chardonnays you’ve already had.It’s like saying “I saw the best-looking cocker spaniel the other day.” You nod knowingly. We’re on the same (doggy) wavelength.
But with some wines, such as vin santo, this is all but impossible. Sure, some wine fanciers are deeply knowing about vin santo (saint wine, or holy wine). But more casual wine drinkers likely never even have heard of it, let alone tasted a glass.
Worse, if they have indeed had one, chances are good that the vin santo they tried was an insipid soulless vin santo cranked out in industrial quantity. The vin santo recommended below is the real thing. But before getting to it, allow me to explain just what it is about vin santo — the authentic ones, anyway — that’s so compelling.
A specialty of Tuscany — although not exclusively so — vin santo at first glance is not that different from what Italians call a passito wine, made from the juice of carefully selected bunches of dried grapes. (France had a similar winemaking tradition called vin de paille, or straw wine, as did Germany for their strohwein.)
To make vin santo, the grower picks ripe and undamaged grape clusters and places them on straw or plastic mats. The grapes are allowed to dry for several months, shriveling into near-raisins. Because there is so little juice when the near-raisins get pressed, the containers used for vin santo are commensurately small, just 50 liters, or 13 gallons. (The conventional small oak barrel or barrique used by wineries everywhere holds 60 gallons.)
Here’s the twist: Vin santo is aged not in a cool cellar like most wines but in the attic of a winery or the grower’s house, subjected to the (oxidizing) heat of the summer as well as the cold of winter. And it remains there, untouched in tightly sealed barrels for years, sometimes even decades.
Finally, like opening a time capsule — which, in a way, it is — the bung is prized from the barrel and the winemaker finally gets to taste the vin santo. This is an apprehensive moment, as there’s no guarantee that the wine will be good. A bacterial infection could have occurred, making the wine undrinkable. Or the fermentation may never have completed. (It’s pretty slow anyway, taking the better part of three years due to the sluggishness of the yeasts in such sugar-rich juice.) In an age where near-absolute control extends to every part of the winemaking process, such literally hands-off winemaking is a true act of faith.To do so calls for a sincere reverence for the wisdom of one’s forebears, along with an extravagance of time uncommon today. If all went well, what emerges is an amber-hued wine with an oxidized, i.e., sherry-like scent. But vin santo is very different from sherry.A good vin santo will deliver scents of nuts, apples, raisins, caramel, or toffee, honey, and salty-mineral notes. It can be completely dry or retain an edge of sweetness. The texture can be like table wine or it can be almost viscous. In short, there’s no one, definitive vin santo. But what is easy to establish, effortlessly, is a bad vin santo. It will be thin, fruitless and somehow lifeless. You won’t have a peacock’s tail of flavor shadings. It will be dull and you’ll wonder (rightly) why anybody bothered.
HERE’S THE (SAINTLY) DEAL
VIN SANTO 1998, FATTORIA DI FÈLSINA If you take the effort to track down a bottle of this extraordinary wine, I promise you that you won’t wonder why anybody bothered to make it. Instead, you’ll wonder where it’s been all your life.
Many Tuscan winegrowers make a vin santo, if only for private use. Most are adequate; only a few are compelling. This is one such.
Fattoria di Fèlsina is a highly regarded Chianti Classico producer. Fèlsina’s day job, as it were, is (very fine) red wine — a good thing too, as Fèlsina’s vin santo is aged for seven years before the small barrels cocooned in the winery attic are opened — exhumed really. There’s not much money in making a wine such as this. It’s a matter of love — of history, tradition, and a unique taste. And there’s a real risk of failure, as once that tiny barrel is sealed (often with a forbidding glob of wax over the bung), there’s no further fiddling.
Still, Fèlsina’s got it down, if not to a science, then to the more predictable effects of practiced craft. Theirs is a consistently superb vin santo — at least those they choose to release commercially. (If there are lesser barrels or vintages, we never get to see them.)
This 1998 vin santo from Fattoria di Fèlsina is superb. A honey-hued blend of malvasia and trebbiano with a 20% addition of the red grape sangiovese, this is a dense, rich vin santo with surprisingly refreshing acidity that’s almost roomfilling in its multiplicity and intensity of scents: apricots, nuts, pineapple, tropical fruits, raisins, and gingerbread, to name a few.
To use a word I rarely apply to any wine, a vin santo such as this is fabulous. It’s also a wine that, because of its individuality, you serve as an aperitif or, more traditionally, as an after-dinner accompaniment to nuts, aged cheeses such as pecorino, pound cake, and most classically of all, with biscotti. Serve it cool, but not cold.
The price is downright cheap for the impressive quality: $36 for a 500 ml bottle. Multiple merchants carry this wine including Chambers Street Wines and Columbus Circle Liquor in Manhattan, as well as Blanc and Rouge in Brooklyn, among others.
Oh, and by the way, a wine like this will keep astonishingly well for weeks, if kept tightly corked and stored in the refrigerator between servings. So you can savor a single glass without fear of wastage or profligacy.