Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
Every year, in the first week of June, Tuscany's Carmignano Consorzio presents its newly released vintages to journalists. By far the most interest is lavished on the prestigious local red wines, the Carmignano and Carmignano Riserva DOCGs, but Carmignano for its size (some 2O producers working some 5OO acres of vineyards) also has some very good producers of Vin Santo. Consistently two estates outshine the others with respect to quality. One is Villa da Capezzana, a large estate with an excellent international reputation and is widely distributed in the United States. It makes a refined, elegant nutty style of Vin Santo. The other star performer, Il Poggiolo, is less well known and less present in the US market, but it is an older estate, in existence some 15O years compared to the 8O years of age of Capezzana. The Poggiolo Vin Santos are typically rounder and sweeter than those of Villa da Capezzana. True to past experience, these two wines showed both their superiority and their unique identities when I tasted them blind in a group of five Vin Santos last June.
On the way out of the cavernous Renaissance de' Medici villa, Villa Ferdinanda, I spied Giuseppe Cianchi, who manages Il Poggiolo, his family's estate. I sang my praise for the Il Poggiolo Vin Santo. Cianchi invited me to his family farm to taste some old Vin Santo. There is so little Vin Santo made, that the opportunity to taste well-stored relics can't be passed up. Cianchi, who is 37-years-old, has a degree in enology. In an article, I wrote over three years ago about Vin Santo (consult the archive section of beveragebusiness.com), I claimed that Vin Santo is a wine that defies modern enology. Wouldn't it be interesting to experience Vin Santo with someone who has been trained to be a technician?
We arrived at the winery. He sat me down in the tasting room, then he disappeared for a few minutes and came back with two bottles of Vin Santo. The script on one label read 1937; the other, 1916. These were by far the oldest Vin Santos that I had ever tasted. The two labels had been glued on by hand. The 1916 bottle was hand made. I could see that some light sediment had settled in both bottles.
"I must open them now because they must breath for an hour or so. Meanwhile I will tell you about how they are made and how here at Poggiolo we make Vin Santo today."
He carefully removed the corks with a waiter's friend corkscrew.
"Today the wine blend is about 9O% Trebbiano, 5% Malvasia and 5% San Colombano. There is also a small percentage of Canaiolo Bianco. The use of Trebbiano and Malvasia is standard for Tuscan Vin Santos. San Colombano has a thick skin, which helps it resist degradation and also has a pleasant muscat scent. It is a good eating grape. Canaiolo Bianco is difficult to raisin. Back then vine varieties were planted together in a chaotic fashion. Today, the vines varieties are separated out in the vineyards. We pick the grapes when they turn yellow-gold, a sign of complete ripeness. Then we harvest them in plastic drying racks. This eliminates handling the grapes and damaging the skins. We put the drying racks in a well-ventilated room because the moisture coming from the grapes needs to rapidly disperse and evaporate so that fungus disease is kept in check. I have screens on the windows, which keep small flies out. You have to watch out for acid rot. One scents the vinegar in the air when it happens. The cleaner the grapes are, the better the drying. A little noble rot improves the flavor of the Vin Santo, but it reduces volume somewhat. The drying of the grapes occurs from the harvest (usually early October) to February, a period of about 5 months. If it remains too humid, the drying period could be longer. I do not use air conditioning to regularize and speed up the drying process. I dry them in a well-aerated room, one that has windows that face the north. During the winter that is where the dry winds come from. The traditional way to dry the grapes was either to hang them by their stems from the rafters or to dry them in a system called "I Castelli di Graticci", which consists of lattice shelves supported by four poles. Many producers finish the drying by early December, which is too soon. The Vin Santo ends up tasting too much like dried fruits, particularly figs, almonds and hazelnuts.
I put the dried bunches in the press. The must I extract I put in a container. I leave it there for 15 days so that it will drop sediments. Some estates however put the must directly in the caratelli, which makes the fermentation more difficult and more risky. I prefer to work with clear must. In some years, however, it is too hot to sediment properly and the fermentation begins before separation occurs. I put this must into separate containers and watch each fermentation as it develops. If the fermentation is a good one, I will use the wine. I douse empty caratelli with fermenting juice and then pour the clean press juice into it. This kick starts the fermentation. The yeasts I use are therefore the ambient ones.
The caratelli range from 5O to 1OO liter capacity to as high as 12O liters. I have both old and new barrels. I have two caratelli that have been in use since the 16OOs. I got them from a famous, historic - but now non-existent - fattoria in Carmignano. Back in the days of the 1916 Vin Santo, most if not all the barrels were made of chestnut. Now the larger percentage is of oak. In the old days, other woods were used too, such as cherry.
In the 1916 and the 1937, the freshly pressed juice, probably in a turbid condition, went into barrels containing the "madre" (mother). Use of the madre is very traditional. Its use is still common today. It is the lees that came from barrels whose wine had just been bottled. The sediment you see in the 1916 and the 1937 is madre. Believe it or not, that white sludge still contains active yeast even after all these years. Today I don't use madre because it can easily become infected with spoilage yeasts and bacteria and then the spoilage can spread to other caratelli. Some producers go one step further and use selected yeasts. This gives more predictable results.
I put the caratelli in a room under the roof because it is necessary for the wine to feel the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. The heat increases the evaporation, thus concentrating the wine. It also increases oxidation. The cold of winter increases natural sedimentation.
I rack all the caratelli once year. Because of evaporation, at every racking the number of barrels I use diminishes. I don't care much about how much air comes in contact with the Vin Santo. I feel it benefits from the air. I have had to diminish the maturation period recently from 8 years to 6 years because of the increased demand. Until now, we have made 2OOO five centiliter bottles per year. Starting with the 2OOO vintage, we will make 3OOO to 35OO bottles per year. The 1937 and 1916 probably spent about 3 to 4 years in caratelli.
When I assemble the Vin Santo today, if there is a caratello that I don't like I do not include it in the blend. Before putting the assembled Vin Santo in bottle, I filter it. I do two filtrations. The first is a gross one and the second is almost a sterile filtration. This reduces the possibility that there will be a deposit in the bottle. Our customers do not like to see sediment. Concerning fining agents, sometimes I use bentonite and casein during the racking. If the oxidation is too accentuated, giving a prickly smell and taste, I use them. Oxidation also turns the color too brown. Bentonite and casein can bring it back to yellow-gold. In the days when the 1916 and 1937 were made, they bottled the wine caratello by caratello. As the sediment in the bottles indicates there was no filtration or fining.
Carmignano wine laws allow a maximum of 1.6 grams per liter of volatile acidity. I usually arrive from 1.1O to 1.3. The potential alcohol level of Il Poggiolo Vin Santos is usually between 15 and 16 degrees. They can be higher, 17 degrees. I bet these older Vin Santos have a high potential alcohol, perhaps around 17. The total acidity of Il Poggiolo Vin Santos is probably between 7 and 7.5 grams per liter. When the grapes are drying, the sugar and acid in the grapes rise. It is necessary that the acidity be a little high, but not out of balance.
We have to charge a lot of money for our Vin Santo (18 euro per 5O centiliter bottle, retail at the winery). It takes 6 years to make. Out of one quintal (1OO kilograms) of grapes, we make only about 25 liters of Vin Santo. We have not been able to make money on the 2OOO bottles that we have produced annually. We have done it because it is what we have always done. Plus we take pride in making great Vin Santo. There are many ways to make Vin Santo. For 4 euro here in Tuscany, you can buy wine labeled Vin Santo - but what is in that bottle is not something that I would call Vin Santo!"
We turned now to taste the 1937. It had light amber color with a yellow rim. On the nose it showed leather, spices, cloves, nutmeg, and burnt smells. In the mouth, it was gently sweet, with strong tangy acidity and a long finish. The 1916 showed similar wine color but had more green in the rim. The nose had stronger burnt smells, particularly burnt brown sugar. On the palate it was less sweet, more acidic and bitterer. The finish had strong leather smells. Both wines had evident volatile acidity, which was appropriate to their wine style, the way they were produced and their age. I preferred the 1937. The burnt, bitter flavor of the 1916 indicated to me a wine past its prime. I suggested that some of the sugar had turned bitter with age. Cianchi agreed with me. I had experienced this phenomenon tasting old Vendage Tardive wines in Alsace. We then sampled a younger Vin Santo, a 1995, for comparison. It had stronger gold-amber colors with a yellow tinted rim. The nose was filled with the smell of raisins and dried figs. It was softer and sweeter and less piquant than the two older wines. The volatile acidity was much less.
Reflecting on the experience, I could see where and why Giuseppe Cianchi had moved away from traditional practice. He has eschewed madre in an effort to assure quality consistency. He fines and filters to adjust wine color, reduce oxidative smells and assure wine stability. I believe that overall the impact of shortening the maturation period will be an increase of fruit and freshness in the finished wine. This would answer a market more interested in lively fruit smells than unusual maturation ones. Cianchi feels that the shortened maturation period will not diminish complexity. The change will reduce the cost of holding unsold wine at the winery. The added volume of production will give Cianchi more ability to satisfy an international demand, niche-oriented though it may be. Cianchi is moving in a pragmatic direction. So far it has not diminished the quality of the excellent Il Poggiolo Vin Santos.