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
‘Tis the season for Thanksgiving wine lists when experts recommend their best bets for what to pair with the meal’s myriad, complicated flavors: turkey, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce. Favorites include Beaujolais crus, Rieslings, and Pinot Noirs, all wonderful choices, but that is where the lists usually end. So what to serve with the pumpkin pie? Give your holiday that extra special touch by serving a dessert wine that’s been specially chosen for the holiday’s signature desserts?
Pumpkin pie is by far my all-time favorite and even when I don’t think I have any room left I will find a way for a slice of this. Pumpkin pie is creamy, not to mention the dollop of whipped cream on top, and wonderfully rich with autumnal spices like cinnamon, cloves and allspice. What’s needed is a wine that blends with the spices and isn’t too over-the-top sweet.
- Blandy’s Five Year Old Verdelho, $25. Madeira is a great choice due to its signature high acidity that cuts through all that richness. A drier style such as Verdelho with it’s nutty, dried fruit flavors would work well. These wines tend to be less sweet than the Malmseys or Boals, but still have a fair amount of residual sugar. In the world of fortified wines this is relatively light bodied with notes of dried fruits (raisins, punes and figs) and toffee, caramel and candied ginger. Its acidity not only cuts through the rich creaminess but also has the surprising effect of refreshing the palate, which, at this point in the meal, comes as a welcome relief. Its burnt orange color, too, couldn’t be better coordinated. And if you don’t manage to finish the bottle, no worries, due to the intentional oxidation and heating during the aging process, these will keep for next year’s celebration, or the one after that or the one after that. Blandy’makes wines that are readily available here in the U.S.
- Falchini Podere Casale I Vin Santo del Chianti, $25. This wine is made from Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes that have been dried and aged in oak and cherry casks for many years. It is softer and more viscous than the Madeira but still has a bright acidity to keep it from being cloying. Flavors of candied orange, caramel, cloves and almonds work perfectly with the sweet spices of the pumpkin pie.
With its rich nutty sweetness pecan pie calls for something that can stand up to its intensity.
- Lustau Pedro Ximenez “San Emilio” Sherry, $29. Lusciously sweet, with silky, rich flavors of raisins, dried figs, dates, molasses and walnuts, this wine gets its concentration from Pedro Ximenez grapes that have been dried out in the sun for 4 to 10 days. The flavors are further concentrated by aging in the solera system that allows for controlled oxidation in barrels. If you wanted to forego pie altogether and just sip your dessert this would be the wine to have.
- Graham’s 20-year-old Tawny Port, $55. Rich and smooth, with notes of roasted walnuts, dried fruits and butterscotch, a 20-year tawny is the pinnacle of this style. The age indicated on the bottle is the average amount of time the wines have spent in wood casks. Extended wood aging slowly turns the wine a pale amber or brown, and its flavors develop from bright red fruit to concentrated dried fruit and caramel. Twenty years is the peak of a tawny’s evolution, when the tannins soften and the flavors come together to create a complex yet harmonious wine. Once opened these can be kept for about a month or two in the refrigerator (recorked of course).
There are many wines that pair well with apple pie, but if you want to keep things all American (or how about at least all North American?) than two choices come easily to mind.
- Inniskillin Vidal Icewine Niagara Pearl 2008, $54 for a half bottle (375 ml). Made from frozen grapes, icewine was originally a specialty of Germany and Austria, where it’s known as eiswein, but has turned out to be a popular wine to make in the cold climates of Canada and northern New York and Michigan. The grapes are picked while frozen on the vine, thus removing most of the water and concentrating the sugar and flavors of the grape. Some of Inniskillin’s icewines are oak aged, but his one is not, retaining the grapes fresh fruit flavors. This golden wine is silky sweet but with a refreshing amount of acidity and tastes of apricots, pears and honey.
- Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Late Harvest Finger Lakes 2012, $30. More time on the vine translates into a sweeter, richer wine with deeper, more concentrated flavors. The Riesling grape is famous for retaining its acidity, which is critical for dessert wines, keeping them wine fresh and lively. Hermann J. Wiemer is a well-known producer from the Finger Lakes region of New York, and the wine’s flavors of ripe apple, pear and honey pair perfectly with that quintessential American dessert—apple pie.