What’s With Vin Santo?

Altesino has been a familiar name in Brunello di Montalcino since the early 70’s. Their Brunello designated Montosoli Vineyard is consistently highly related, delicious, hard to get and expensive. But worth it. Last year the previous owners sold the vineyard and brand to a woman who resides in Rome and who owns another vineyard in Montalcino and a winery in Chianti.

Taking a 20 minute drive outside of Montalcino we turn onto a dirt road and pass a number of farms, vineyards and farmhouses till we get to the top of crest overlooking golden hue colored rolling hills with green cypress trees sprinkled here in there. We have a private tour and tasting here today but a woman from Long Island stumbled upon the farm (in Italy these estates are really not called vineyards or wineries, they are simply farms – Fattoria) remembering visiting the property a couple years ago, this woman was there because of the property, not the wine. When sipping the Vin Santo (a dry sweet wine) she felt it was “too strong”. But I’m diverting. After taking a cell phone call in the middle of the tour we were ready for business as we gazed across the vast property toward the south east where our guides fingers pointed to the vineyard that made Altesino famous: the Montosoli. The Long Island woman’s comment was simple, straightforward and honest. “I liked it better with the previous owners because they let 30 wild horses roam the property.

We were treated to a special tour of the room where the Vin Santo is made. Rather than explain the process of making Vin Santo, I’m going to draw on an article titled Elixir of the cognoscenti by Tomas Clancy of The Sunday Business Post:

The process of Vin Santo creation is called passito and is a grape-drying method.

The grapes, usually the widely-planted but somewhat underwhelming Trebbiano and the Malvasia, are harvested more or less on time. Then they are hung up on racks or laid on bamboo hammocks, usually and classically in the attic of the vineyard owner’s house. The grapes are left to dry out very slowly, by natural action.

Once desiccated fully, sometime around February (again the timing is a matter of great anxiety), the grapes are crushed. The crush is then poured evenly into numerous small wooden barrels known as caratelli.

They must be as small as you can afford and there are many regulations on maximum size, particularly for those who wish to comply with DOC rules on Vin Santo production. These small wooden casks in contrast to the general fetish are not new, indeed, older casks with long vinous histories are most prized here.

Then the next stage is the X element in each producer’s creative cycle. Before the casks are sealed, each Vin Santo maker will drop in a dollop of ‘something’ into the cask.

The something is a ‘fuse’ designed to ignite the fermentation process. This is known as the ‘mother’, the same ‘madre’ often seen in vinegar production. It is often merely the lees from a prior fermentation, although occasionally it might also contain a little special family additive.

Whether they are adding a shuffle of yeast or just pouring it in through their grandfather’s favourite funnel, you are never going to find out. Its effect is probably mythical anyway. The casks are then sealed, and gently brought back up to the attic.

The attics of classical Vin Santo production are wide, graceful spaces below sensuous, umber tiled roofs. In the winter they are chill places, across which clouds of wood smoke drift. Even during a single day they can run a full cycle from boiling heat to unexpected bitter chill.

The casks remain absolutely still, no racking, no movement of any kind for at least three years, but good Vin Santo can stay up there, like a wooden Mir, for seven or eight years. When the casks return to earth they are quickly bottled and sold for extortionate, but entirely economic prices.

The best producers can make a wine of staggering and hypnotic power. The worst end up with something resembling meths. In Ireland we are fortunate, because of the price and the required levels of commercial sophistication that are necessary to bring a product — even a boutique one — to market, we are spared the meths.

In Tuscan Vin Santo production there are many princes and one king. The undisputed Holy Grail is the stellar Vin Santo of the Montepulciano House Avignonesi. It is produced by Paolo Trappalini to a searing intensity after a ‘no expense spared’ production process. This is just what you would expect when a half bottle of the wine runs to roughly £170.

As for the Holy Grail, the next night Tim and I experienced the Holy Grail in more ways the one. Stay tuned!

Photos: (1) Aging bottles of Altesino wine in cellar of 14th Century Palace. (2) Slovenian casks in Altesino Cellar. (3) Vin Santo grapes recently harvest and in process of 5-6 month hang drying prior to crushing. (4) Tim Santo backlit by the vineyard sun casting watchful eye over the next vintage of Vin Santo.