The Italians call them vini da meditazioni, or meditation wines, and while the name suggests that a transcendental state might be found at the bottom of a glass, what these wines are really meant for is leisurely sipping, preferably at home in the company of family and friends. They may be wines of great stature, such as the long-lived classics of Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino, but more often they are passito wines, which are made from dried grapes, and can be dry but are often sweet, luscious dessert wines.
In the hills of Tuscany, the wine of contemplation and sharing is vin santo. For centuries this golden, amber “holy wine” was made in minuscule batches and stashed away in private cellars, brought out only for visitors and special occasions. Rarely was the wine bottled and sold; that was what Chianti was for. These days, bottles from quality producers are readily available at any fine wine retailer, but it remains a wine to be sipped with guests, perhaps along with dessert, cantucci, or all on its own into the late hours of the night.
Which is precisely what happened at a recent dinner party in Edinburgh, where my husband’s cousin and his wife generously opened a bottle of the 2004 Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Castello di Pomino Vin Santo to serve with a cherry clafoutis (an excellent combination). Frescobaldi is one of the oldest, most prominent families in Florence, where, during the middle ages, they earned distinction as bankers to the royalty of Europe. The winery was founded in 1308 and the wines are said to have been favorites of Michelangelo and King Henry VIII. Today, Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi is one of Tuscany’s largest wine producers, making everything from Chardonnay to Brunello de Montalcino.
Castello di Pomino is one of nine estates owned by the winery and dates from 1500, the year its namesake castle was built. Located 20 miles east of Florence, the Pomino vineyards are planted along the base of the Apennine mountains at 1000 to 2400 feet. This makes for cool nights and warm days, which are critical for retaining that all-important acidity. Atypically for vin santo, this wine is made from a blend of Chardonnay, Trebbiano and a small amount of Sangiovese; more often, Malvasia and Trebbiano are the main grape varieties. Some producers dry the grapes on straw mats, but Frescobaldi hangs them on the vine from attic rafters in a special area called the vinsantaia. There they stay for a minimum of three months. Once the grapes have shriveled to raisins, sometime between Christmas and Easter (hence the name “holy wine”), they are pressed. As one might imagine, extracting liquid from a raisin is a challenge, and the amounts of thick, sweet grape must are tiny.
What must there is is then racked into small, wooden barrels called caratelli, where they remain for four years. Some producers trigger fermentation by adding a madre, a portion of the yeast left from previous fermentations, which is thought to add complexity to the wine, while others use cultured yeast. Naturally some of the wine is lost by evaporation through the wooden staves, and since the barrels are never topped up the wine is exposed to oxygen, resulting in dried fruit and caramel notes.
Styles of vin santo can range from dry and oxidized (almost like a fino sherry) to lusciously sweet with notes of dried apricots and honey. This wine was silky smooth and tasted of raisins, honey, dates and dried figs. A firm streak of acidity nicely balanced out the sweetness. It was the perfect accompaniment to the candle-lit conversation and added an extra spark to an already special evening, just as the Italians intended. Little did we know, however, that this was a mere prelude.
End of Part I