Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Badia a Coltibuono's Vin Santo: A Vertical

Coltibuono's VinsantoVinsanto is a strange and wonderful Tuscan wine: The grapes, usually white, and generally Malvasia and Trebbiano, though there are those who use other white varietals, for example San Colombano, and red varietals too, are harvested when they reach optimal ripeness, and either hung or laid out on mats to dry. When the raisins reach what the winemaker considers the proper concentration -- usually sometime between November and February -- they are pressed, and the resultant concentrated must is put into small casks that have some of the previous batch's lees, what are called madre, sealed up -- sometimes with cement over the filling hole -- and put into the vinsantaia, a chamber under the eves.

And there the casks sit for several years; for the first few months the wine ferments -- the high sugar content and the low temperatures under the eves slow the fermentation -- and then it ages, the heat of the summer making the wine expand into the staves of the casks, and the cold of the winters drawing it back out, together with quite a bit of oxygen, which interacts with the lees, and with other components in the wine.

When the time is up the winemaker opens the casks, tastes them all, and combines the best to make vinsanto; depending upon the sugar content of the original must it can range from quite dry, almost sherry-like, through extremely sweet, and can also range from fairly thin to chewy and rich.

Making Vinsanto is an extraordinarily labor intensive process that results in miniscule yields -- Maurizio Castelli, Badia a Coltibuono's enologist, figures that by the end of the process, the 260 quintals of grapes they've hung up in the drying room this year will be reduced to 30 quintals of wine. It's also almost entirely up to chance: Once the raisins are dried, a process that cannot be accelerated even with cold dry air, because doing so would adversely affect the flavors of the wine, the casks are filled and stacked; what comes out comes out. "The nice thing about making vinsanto is that you can't influence it," says Maurizio.

Once it's in the cask; one obviously can influence the results by deciding how much to dry the grapes, and this will vary some from year to year, in part because of climate: In a dry fall one can perhaps let the grapes dry for longer, whereas in a rainy fall one may cut the drying short, because grapes do not dry well in damp air and may also develop mold; though some Botrytis may be acceptable, there are other molds that simply ruin the grapes.

One can also influence Vinsanto through wood type, and wood size; vinsanto casks, which are called caratelli, are usually small, in the 50-100 liter range, and can be quite old; some producers don't change them unless they smell off, and have casks that are decades old. Others instead change them, and this obviously has an influence; Coltibuono uses fairly new casks, and replaces them regularly.

Badia a Coltibuono was one of the first Chianti Classico estates to bottle its production and sell it directly rather than sell its wine in bulk to one of the major wine merchants, and as a result they have some very interesting old bottles of Chianti Classico in their cellars. They also have old bottles of Vinsanto, and this time chose to open a number of them. It was a delightful tasting, with Maurizio Castlli, who worked on most of them, commenting together with Emanuela Stucchi Prinetti, who grew up with the older ones and has since had her say as well with the more recent vintages.

The wines:

  • 1961 Vin Santo (no label)

  • 1977 Vin Santo di Coltibuono Vino da Tavola

  • 1979 Vin Santo di Coltibuono Vino da Tavola

  • 1983 Vin Santo di Coltibuono Vino da Tavola

  • 1987 Vin Santo DOC Val D'Arbia

  • 1993 Vin Santo DOC Val D'Arbia

  • 1996 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico DOC

  • 1999 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico DOC

The 1961 Vinsanto was bottled by Emanuela's grandmother, a Giuntini, and doesn't have a label. It's amber, with some greenish highlights, and has a rich, sweet bouquet with dried apricots and walnut skins mingled with alcoholic warmth and oatmeal sweetness. Considerable depth and much alive. On the palate it's rich and full, but not terrifically sweet, with pleasing dried dates and walnut skins mingling with some nutty bitterness and slight smoke that flow into a long fairly savory dusky finish that leaves a slight butteryness on the lips. Quite elegant in a fairly deft key, and quick on its feet; it will drink quite well with piquant creamy cheeses, or far from the table.
2 stars

They had, recalls Maurizio, 7 1/2 hectares of vineyards in the Valdarno, and until 1985 they made their vinsanto with grapes from these vineyards. Beginning in 1985 they used grapes from Monti to make their vinsanto, employing a blend that was 50% Trebbiano, and the remainder a mixture of Malvasia and San Colombano -- whatever was ripest, and therefore the composition varies from year to year.

The 1977 Vin Santo di Coltibuono is tawny amber, and the darkest of the flight. Its bouquet is also quite different: Powerful, with dried fruit mingled with candied melon peel and honey, and underlying walnut skins and almond butter; a fellow taster likes it to a Sauterns, whereas Maurizio says it reminds him of Tokaj. On the palate it's full and rich, with lively acidity and apricot fruit that has some nutty sweet oatmeal notes, and flows into a long clean finish with chestnut bitterness. Nice, and very much alive.

The 1979 Vin Santo di Coltibuono is tawny amber with brassy apricot reflections and light green overtones. The bouquet is pleasingly complex, with bright acidity mingled with dry leather, smoke, almond skins and nutmeats, and slight dried apricot that with time takes on savory notes, and an underpinning of burnt toast, which is, according to Maurizio, a contribution of a cask made from chestnut wood. On the palate it's deft, bright, and moderately sweet, with lively apricot acidity and some bitter smoky undertones that flow into a long bright finish. Quite harmonious.
2 stars

The 1983 Vin Santo di Coltibuono is tawny amber with tawny gold highlights and some green in the rim. The bouquet is nutty, with sea salt and rancio mingled with alcohol and cedar bitterness. On the palate it's less interesting than some of the others, and a touch flat, with moderate dried apricot fruit and smoky cedar veneer; there's less acidity and it therefore feels more settled and slower.
1 star

In the mid-1980s they phased out the chestnut casks, and also experimented with whisky barrels, which, Maurizio recalls, still had some whisky in them when they arrived.

The 1987 Vin Santo is pale tawny amber with dried apricot reflections, and has a slightly greenish rim; the bouquet is nutty, with saddle leather and walnut skins mingling with rancio that gains in intensity with swishing, brown sugar-flavored oatmeal, and honeysuckle, and an undercurrent of kerosene. On the palate it's richer and fuller than I expected, and sweeter too, though acidity and burnt leather bitterness do provide contrast and balance, and it flows into a fairly long oatmeal and brown sugar finish with dried apricot brightness. Quite nice, a wine to sip with creamy, fairly piquant cheeses or foie gras if you must eat with it, though I would rather enjoy it on its own.

The 1993 Vin Santo is tawny amber with apricot highlights and greenish reflections; the bouquet is fresh and bright -- much younger than those of the older wines -- with bright spice and well polished leather mingled with banana skins and bitter honey, and underlying walnut skins and bread dough. Lots going on. On the palate it's rich, full, and bright, with considerable sweetness balanced by equally powerful bitterness, and underlying sea salt that flows into a long cedar-laced finish. It's still very young, and developing, though it already has a great deal going for it.

Starting with the 1995 vintage, they began using some red grapes in the blend of their vinsanto -- about 5-6%, and an Occhio di Pernice, made with just red grapes, is in the works.

The 1996 Vin Santo is deeper tawny amber than the 93, with bright brassy dried apricot reflections and greenish rim. The bouquet is spicy, with honeysuckle and honey mingled with dried apricots and pleasing, albeit unusual menthol and hints of leaf tobacco that develop into pepper jelly with time. Quite a lot going on. On the palate it's rich, and bright, with lively dried apricot fruit supported by sweetness and hints brown sugar that flow into lasting walnut skin bitterness. Quite graceful, and though young is nicely developed and has a great deal to say.

The 1999 Vin Santo is slightly paler amber than the 96, and has lively reflections. The bouquet is very young and a bit unsettled, with sour bread dough and acidity mingled with spice and some mint, with underlying dried apricot and oatmeal. On the palate it's full and sweet, with moderate acidity and bright dried apricot fruit with some cedar underpinning that flows into a long clean finish. Pleasant, but as yet undeveloped, and by comparison with some of the older wines, simpler.
2 stars

Taken as a whole Badia a Coltibuono's Vinsanti are quite elegant, with a balance between sweetness and acidity that's tilted towards acidity; the result is quite graceful, and I found it growing upon me in the course of the tasting.

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