While out driving, I noticed that the vignerons were out in force these past couple of days, taking advantage of the clear weather to carefully prune the vines. They and their workers must do this with real care and precision: if the time-consuming prunings aren't done properly (i.e. dans les régles de l'art) the harvest for the year can be lost.Having pruned my birthday cake of its (many) candles, I've remained in a celebratory mood, so I decided to open two half-bottle-sized beauties that had been quietly improving in the cellar.
Vin de paille is French for "straw wine", but in my personal language translates to "wine beyond the norm". Intense and quite complex, it is pricier due to the juice yields, which are absurdly tiny because only the healthiest (otherwise there is a risk of mold), very ripest grapes are partially dried on mats of straw before being pressed. Some 100 kilos of the "partially raisined" grapes will result in only about 20 liters of juice.
Because the wine is thus deliberately concentrated, it is stronger and sweeter, which means it can be stored for very long periods of time, and is in fact often aged for quite some time in barrels by the vigneron. This rare wine is found only in the Hermitage and the Jura, with some production also in the Alsace. In the Jura, the (white) grapes used are Chardonnay, Poulsard and Savagnin. The result is a sweet wine that defies expectation, with a luscious but complicated, earthy character that, at its finest, can make time stand still. Seriously mmm--yes, that's very technical wine-speak.The Italian version of vin de paille is vin santo, or holy wine, and it is traditionally made of white Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes. This wine has actually had a significantly longer history than vin de paille, but can vary hugely in taste from a very dry, sherry style to cloyingly sweet. This is perhaps in part due to the less organized, sometimes contradictory approach of the Italians (wine being, at its best, after all a reflection of its terroir, which includes the people who make it). There is also, I have been warned, an alarmingly broad range of quality among vin santo. Don't allow this to deter you from trying a bottle yourself, however. The one I opened is from Volpaia, and is a well-regarded nuanced, sweet vin santo from the breath-taking Tuscan vineyard of an Italian acquaintance. Volpaia is both suave and of the earth; you sip it and feel the contradictions in the mouth, the viscous depth, the stretched out finish.
If you want to be Italian for an evening, you serve this to visiting friends, you dip almond biscotti (crunchy biscuits) in your glasses (hang the crumbs!) and have a great rollicking conversation about everything and nothing.