Chateau Musar–the world’s best wine!

Chateau MusarChâteau Musar—the world’s best wine

 

There is no such thing as “the world’s most beautiful woman.” But if there were, she would certainly be the incomparable Naomi Campbell. Likewise, to declare a “world’s best wine” would be shamelessly subjective; but if a wine were so lauded, Château Musar would undoubtedly be the one.

 

According to the foremost experts, connoisseurs, and purveyors of fine wine, Château Musar is arguably the world’s greatest wine. And it has a cult-like following—in a notoriously trendy industry—to prove it. Experiencing the wine can be so moving, so profound, that people first introduced to it have been known to shed tears. And since each bottle is subtly unique—even within a single vintage—tears have been known to beget tears with the opening of each subsequent bottle. That is because to taste the wine is to awaken dormant memories—some happy, some sad, some beautiful, some painful—of life itself: a late-afternoon walk in an enchanted forest to gather mushrooms with Grandfather; sitting, disillusioned, on a cliff overlooking a tumultuous sea; the intimate scent of a one-night lover; parched soil at the moment it is moistened by a shower of rain; a kitchen table piled high with baskets of fresh game, ripe fruits, herbs and spices, and vegetables in preparation for a scrumptious feast. “Aroma,” more so than “bouquet,” would more aptly describe the wine’s fragrance, for it resonates more as “savory” than “fruity” or “floral.”

 

Surprisingly, Château Musar does not hail from one of the venerated vineyards of one of the esteemed wine regions of one of the world’s great wine-producing countries such as Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Chile. Instead, Château Musar is from the Levant, the Biblical land of Cannan—specifically from the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, albeit a valley that has been home to vineyards for over 2,000 years and wine-drinking peoples for seven millennia. But not surprisingly, like the great luxuries and mysteries of the fabled East of yore, Château Musar—since 1979, but especially since 2000—has taken the West by storm.

 

History of Château Musar

In 1929, after studying medicine for one year in Bordeaux, France, Gaston Hochar (1910-1972), the scion of bankers and traders, realized—to the initial dismay of his father—that wine, not blood, was his passion. So, upon returning to his ancestral Lebanese homeland, where it is believed the Hochar family (pronounced “Ho-shar”) has lived for some 800 years, he entered the wine business in 1930, which at the time in Lebanon was an avocation for farmers, not a vocation for the bourgeoisie. But because Gaston possessed a penchant for things elegant, he set out to transform Lebanese winemaking into a thing sublime: He, for example, became the first Lebanese to market his wine in bottles rather than in casks. Soon, he become the sole official supplier of wine to the French officers’ mess across the Levant. (The French army had been posted in the region since World War I.)

 

In 1930, Gaston Hochar established the Château Musar winery (www.chateaumusar.com ) in Ghazir, Lebanon, 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of the capital city of Beirut, where it is said the Hochars have lived for 200 years. The vineyard, however, was situated in the sunny (300 days per annum), fertile, Bekaa Valley—known in Classical antiquity as Coele-Syria—at 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) above sea level, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Beirut. Bekaa Valley, Lebanon’s most important agricultural region, is located between Mount Lebanon to the west and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains (the mountain range that forms most of the border between Syria and Lebanon) to the east. Seventy-five miles long and ten miles wide on average, the region boasts a Mediterranean climate of wet, oftentimes-snowy winters and dry, warm summers. The region also boasts a terroir perfect for viticulture. Gaston, it is said, allowed terroir—even if in conflict-prone mountains—to dictate the location of his 180-hectare vineyard. But when it came to the situ for his winery, he insisted upon land securely within his ancestral homeland of Lebanon.

 

The name “Musar” derives from a 400-year-old castle-turned-convent called “Mzar,” where the winery was first housed. Gaston changed “Mzar” to “Musar,” a name that he thought would be easier to pronounce in both his native Lebanese and abroad. The winery’s first vintage came in 1933.

 

[ Upon his death in 1972, Gaston Hochar passed the winery on to his two sons: eccentric, creative Serge (1939-2014); and conservative, methodical Ronald. In 1959, Serge, while completing his winemaking studies at the University of Oenology in Bordeaux, becomes Château Musar’s winemaker (though, on account of his demonstrated gift at viniculture, he had begun overseeing the company’s wine production from 1954 at the tender age of 15), while Ronald in 1962 begins heading up the company’s marketing and finance departments, thereafter, in 2015, becoming the company’s chairman. Today, Ronald’s son Ralph leads the company’s social media activity as well as sales and marketing for France and Southern Asia. ]

 

For almost 50 years, Château Musar enjoyed a relatively provincial existence, selling most of its product domestically. Under the stewardship of brothers Serge and Ronald, however, the company began its foray into international marketing—promoting at trade shows, entering international tastings, forging relationships with foreign chefs and restaurants, etc. But Château Musar’s proverbial “big break” came in 1979 when, at the Bristol Wine Fair, Christie’s wine auctioneer extraordinaire Michael Broadbent and esteemed journalist Roger Voss selected a 1967 Château Musar Red as the “discovery of the Fair.” And the rest, as it is said, is history. And, in many ways, it is the company’s decision to market its wine internationally that ensured it survival.

 

From 1975 to 1990, Lebanon was gripped by a religious-political civil war that pitted the country’s Christian, Jewish, and Muslim populations against each other, the conflict further complicated by interventions and shifting allegiances from Syria and Israel. By the time the war finally came to an end, Lebanon’s pre-war population of three million people had witnessed a death toll of 120,000; one million people had migrated; and 76,000 were displaced, most permanently. The war had a devastating effect on life in Lebanon, its wine industry one of the many casualties as Lebanese people—people with an ancient winemaking tradition—stopped drinking even locally produced wine on account of the abject hardship that took center stage in the theater of war. Most Lebanese wine producers simply ceased operations.

 

But bon vivants have a way of making sure that life remains beautiful—regardless. And Serge Hochar was the quintessential bon vivant. As such, amidst years of bombings, blockades, and invasions, Château Musar not only survived, it thrived. During those war-torn years, only 1976—the year after the war began—saw no wine production: The precious grapes were left to wither away on the vines. And the mysterious 1984 vintage, made from grapes harvested one month late because of the war and pressed five days after harvest (instead of immediately after the typically three-hour drive from the vineyard to the winery), was not offered at market seven years after the harvest, but was instead uneventfully cellared, where it quietly aged into a remarkable wine that was, according to March Hochar, Serge’s son, finally released to the market 30 years later in 2014.  (Only two truckloads, representing ten percent of the harvest, were allowed past the checkpoints on the road to Damascus—the road connecting the vineyard and the winery.)

 

Serge Hochar was convinced that it was fate that allowed Château Musar to emerge relatively unscathed from those trying times: No employees died at the hands of the war; the winery was able to ship its wine to its international markets whenever roads, airports, and ports were operational; and the winery’s bunker-like, 5-story-deep cellars—located in the Christian heartland  and containing enough inventory accumulated before and during the war to see the company through a 20-year war—was only slightly disturbed.

 

Thus, it was Château Musar founder Gaston Hochar’s elegant (but also fortuitous) decision in 1930 to bottle his wine—which served to later facilitate the international marketing of it—that would enable his winery, 45 years later, to weather the woes of war. So, on that fateful day in 1979 when Château Musar was declared the stand-out wine of the Bristol Wine Fair, the winery had long been poised for the celebrity and prosperity that would ensue.

 

The Wines

Privileged to a six-month-long fermentation process in cement vats; aged for one year in barrels made of French oak from the forest of Nevers; expertly blended before being returned to cement vats for an additional year; then, three years after harvest, bottled then bottle-aged for four years before its release—seven years in the making—onto the market, Château Musar Red is the winery’s eponymous protagonist, its “primo vino,” its “ne plus ultra.” And it is upon Château Musar Red that the winery’s fame, fortune, and international reputation rest. By 2000, the wine had begun its rise to fame in the United States. Celebrated New York restaurant Terroir Tribeca has a designated section named “All Hail the Almighty Château Musar.” Château Musar’s various wines—Château Musar [red, white, and rosé], Hochar Père Et Fils [red], and Musar Jeune [red, white, and rosé]—are today exported to over 55 countries around the world, so much so that when Serge Hochar suffered an untimely death in December of 2014, he was mourned by practically every significant wine publication. And at a retail price of about $55 for the winery’s top-of-the-range Château Musar, the wine is considered one of the best-priced exquisite wines in the world.

 

Yes, the Broadbent-Voss declaration at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1979 did open the door to Château Musar’s international success as a winery. But at the end of the day, the wine had to speak for itself. And it is Serge Hochar’s philosophy of winemaking and commitment to producing authentic Lebanese wine with minimal human intervention that has ensured Château Musar’s success for the better part of a century. Today, Château Musar is a source of Lebanese pride, a national icon. What Chanel or Dior is for France, Château Musar is for Lebanon.

 

By 1954—while in his mid-teenage years—Serge Hochar had already established himself as a child prodigy of winemaking, his father allowing him to serve as principal blender of that year’s Château Musar White. Then two years later, in 1956, Serge blended the winery’s Château Musar Red. In those days, under the leadership of Serge’s father Gaston, the winery’s winemaking methodology reflected that of the day, every effort being made to introduce science, technology, order, and standardization to the process. But when artsy Serge assumed full leadership of Château Musar’s winemaking in 1959 at age 20, he began implementing a philosophy that was decidedly natural and non-interventionalist—à la laissez faire wine. And by the 1960s, the winery was on the path of distinguishing itself as a producer of living, evolving, bottle-unique wines: Red wines are fermented in cement or cement-lined vats, regarded as the most neutral material during the formative stages of wine; only the winery’s white wines—in order to achieve the desired clarity—are fined; wines are filtered only for the purpose of removing obviously extraneous materials; oak barrels are comprised of only 10% new wood since the winery’s mission is to produce wine that tastes like wine, not like wood; minimal amounts of sulfites are added only so as to ensure the stability of the wines while in transit; etc. The result is wine that is an authentic, nuanced, unadulterated expression of lands and hands that give it rise.

 

Precisely why Château Musar (red, white, and rosé), unlike most other unfortified wines, endures for decades—improving all along—is unknown. Grapes, it is said, are exceedingly impressionable fruits, the wine they produce influenced by things big and small, tangible and intangible. Perhaps, then, the Hochar family’s will to produce a living wine amidst the death of civil war has helped to imbue the grapes, and thus the wine, with tenacity and longevity. Likewise, the rocky soil of the villages of Aana and Kefraya, home to the vines of Château Musar, engenders a deep-rooted desire to survive, collaterally imparting character to the grapes and the wine they yield. Though time has not yet revealed when Château Musar is at its optimum, experts recommend that the wine (red and white) be drunk after 15 years, at which point it begins demonstrating its potential for the evolution of secondary and tertiary notes. While no bottles of the inaugural 1933 vintage exist, bottles from several pre-Serge Hochar vintages have been preserved within the cool, dark recesses of the winery’s cellar. “I tasted a red 1952 last Christmas [2017], and although it was produced by my grandfather [Gaston] with a different approach (i.e., he did fine and filter the wines at the time) to my father’s [Serge] noninterventionist philosophy, the wine was very lively, complex and continued opening up for 3 hours after decanting,” said Marc Hochar, head of marketing and sales. It is believed that the initial oak-aging acclimates the wine to minimal exposure to oxygen. And after about 50 years, bottles are reconditioned and outfitted with new corks, thereby preparing the vintages for additional decades of aging. But such methods are not singular to Château Musar. So, for the time being, the lifespans of Château Musar Red, White, and Rosé remain a delicious mystery. Since the 1960s, however, it is the company’s policy to sell only wines produced pursuant to Serge Hochar’s noninterventionist methods, beginning with the Château Musar White of 1954 and the Château Musar Red of 1956.

 

Château Musar Red

Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, and Cinsault are blended to make what is oftentimes declared the “world’s best wine.” According to Gaston Hochar, managing-director of Château Musar and grandson of his namesake founder of the company, the Cabernet Sauvignon gives the wine its structure, while Carignan provides body, with the Cinsault imparting elegance and finesse. The wine is blended to reflect the overall character of the particular vintage. In its youth, Château Musar Red is dense and richly textured with indications of baked and dried fruits. As the wine ages, however, it acquires tawny hues subtler notes. The company still proudly offers Château Musar Reds from the 1950s. Because the wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered, it should be allowed to stand upright for 24 hours before serving, thereby allowing the naturally occurring sediment to settle. Decanting is recommended. The wine should be allowed to breathe for several hours before being served at 18°C. Château Musar Red is beautifully paired with lamb, game, roasts, and mature cheeses.

 

 

Château Musar White

Two ancient, indigenous, Lebanese white grapes unite to create Château Musar White: Obaideh, from the chalky, stony soil of the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains; and Merwah, from the calcareous gravels of the seaward side of Mount Lebanon. Seven years in the making—after fermenting in French oak barrels for nine months before being blended and bottled at the end of the first year, then bottle-aged for six years before release onto the market—the wine is in its youth yellow-gold in hue, mildly oaky, and rich and creamy in texture, though dry. As the precious liquid ages in the company’s cellars at Ghazir, it attains tawny hues and mellow, spicy notes. Like its red counterpart, Château Musar White ages beautifully for decades, the company proudly offering bottles dating as far back as 1954. This complex wine, sometimes compared to dry Sauternes or mature white Graves, is best served after breathing for several hours. Decanting is recommended. Best if presented “cellar-cool” (around 15°C), Château Musar White makes for an exquisite complement for foie gras, pâtés, seafood dishes, and spicy foods.

 

Château Musar Rosé

Since specific grape qualities are required so as to ensure an elegant combination of the varietals, Château Musar Rosé is not made every year. When made, however, at its foundation are the two native Lebanese white grapes—Merwah and Obaideh—the origins of which go back 5,000 years to the era of the Phoenicians, and the Cinsault red grape. The grapes are pressed together, the juice fermented and aged for six to nine months in barrels of French oak. The wine is bottled a year after harvest and released onto the market two years later. Château Musar Rosé is a still, softly oaked tribute to the “blended” rosés of Champagne, a style much admired by Serge Hochar. In its youth, Château Musar Rosé is a gentle salmon-pink in color, with a smooth, balanced, velvety texture. Its refreshing aroma and flavor suggests of citrus, almonds, wild herbs, and peaches. As the wine ages, it takes on a tawny hue, with hints of spice. Château Musar Rosé should be allowed to breathe for several hours before serving at cellar temperature (around 15°C). The wine pairs perfectly with seafood, Provençal dishes, nuts, and olives.

 

Epilogue

In a dozen years—in 2030—Château Musar will celebrate its centennial year, the company’s iconic status predictably intact. And it is likely that the “formula” finalized by Serge Hochar in 1977 for making Château Musar Red, the wine that has come to be called “the world’s best wine,” will still guide Hochar family winemakers—now in their fourth generation—in the making of the quintessential Lebanese wine that elevated not only the winemaking of the Levant, but of the world.

Marsala–The Great Fortified Wine of Sicily

Marsala

The world-famous Italian desserts tiramisu and zabaglione, and the celebrated Italian-American dishes chicken and veal marsala, all owe their existence to Marsala, the great fortified wine of Sicily.  And in many ways, it is the fame of those culinary specialties that has precipitated the relegation of the once-celebrated Marsala to the status of “cooking wine.”  But despite its admittedly humble position vis-à-vis its venerated fortified-wine counterparts, namely Sherry, Port, and Madeira, and despite the fact that Sicily has emerged as one of the world’s greatest producers of wine, Marsala has still managed—for hundreds of years—to maintain its position as Sicily’s most iconic wine. To this day, when people think “Sicilian wine,” they think “Marsala.”

 

The History of Marsala:

As with many of the great wines, there are many claims to Marsala’s fame. But the narrative that rings most plausible is the one which goes that when English trader John Woodhouse sailed into the port of Marsala, Sicily, in 1773, he indulged in the local, barrel-aged wine which, like Spanish Sherry and Portuguese Port, was fortified.  Immediately noticing the wine’s similarity to its fortified counterparts, which were at the time exceedingly popular in England, Woodhouse wagered that Marsala, too, would be popular in England. And he was absolutely correct!  So, 23 years later, in 1796, he returned to Sicily and began producing the wine as a commercial endeavor.

A decade later, in 1806, Benjamin Ingham (1784-1861) arrived in Sicily from Leeds, thereafter opening new markets for Marsala wine in Europe and the Americas.  So, it was just a matter of time before the Italians themselves began capitalizing on their own invention. Enter:  Vincenzo Florio. Born in Calabria but “adopted” by Palermo, in 1833 Florio bought a tract of land between those of Woodhouse and Ingham and began producing his own Marsala. Then, in the late 19th century, he purchased Woodhouse’s establishment, along with others, and consolidated the Marsala wine industry. Today, the Italian firms Florio and Pelligrino are the foremost producers of Marsala.

Classification:

Marsala wines are classified according to color, sweetness, and duration of aging.

Color

Most Marsalas are made from white grapes:  Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto, and Damaschino, among others. But there is also “Rubino” Marsala, which is ruby-red in color and made from red grape varieties such a Perricone, Calabrese, Nero d’Avola, and Nerello Mascalese.

-“Oro” is a golden wine;

-“Ambra” is amber-colored and derives its color from the “mosto cotto,” the cooked, reduced grape juice, called “must” in English, that is added to the wine as a sweetener;

-and the claret-colored “Rubino,” which is made from red grapes.

Sweetness

-“Secco,” which means “dry,” is used to classify Marsala wine with 40 grams of residual sugar per liter.

-“Semi-Secco” Marsalas contain 41-100 grams of residual sugar per liter.

-“Sweet” Marsalas have over 100 grams of residual sugar per liter.

 

Duration of Aging

-“Fino” describes Marsala aged at least one(1) year;

-“Superiore” is the classification for Marsala aged at least two(2) years;

-“Superiore Reserva” is used to describe Marsala aged at least four(4) years;

-“Solera” is a designation reserved for Marsala aged at least five(5 )years;

-“Solera Stravecchio” or “Solera Reserva” describes Marsala aged at least ten(10) years.

 

What the “solera system” of aging is for Spanish Sherry is what the “perpetuum system” is for Marsala. (See Sherry). And as with all the great fortified wines, brandy—distilled grape juice—is added, thereby increasing the alcohol content and endowing the wine with longevity and hardiness, both indispensable qualities during the long sea voyages to market in days of yore.  The alcohol content of Marsala ranges from 15-20% by volume, and the wine remains potable for as many as six weeks after opening.

Uses:

Traditionally, a dry Marsala is served as an apéritif between the first and second meat courses. But today, chilled dry (secco) Marsala is served with cheese, fruits, or pastries. Sweet Marsalas, however, are served only at room temperature and enjoyed as dessert wines.

In general, dry Marsalas are used as apéritifs, while the sweet varieties are enjoyed as dessert wines or digestivos (after-dinner drinks).

Marsala is oftentimes mentioned in conjunction with Passito di Pantelleria, another famous Sicilian wine, which is made from grapes that have been dehydrated (thereby concentrating their natural sugar content) almost to raisins.

Designations:

Most countries limit the usage of the term “Marsala” to wines coming from the region surrounding the city of Marsala in Sicily.   And in 1969 the wine was granted DOC status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata/Controlled Designation of Origin), a quality-assurance system for Italian food products, especially wines, which ensures that production meets certain established standards set by an independent review board consisting of experts. Marsala also enjoys PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin), granted by the European Union, which officially limits the use of the term “Marsala” within the European Union to wine produced in the Marsala region of Sicily.

[A DOP/PDO (Denominazione di Origine Protetta/Protected Designation of Origin) classification may be obtained only after a group of producers from an area or province or region, for example—typically organized as a consortium—comes together and agrees upon production and quality standards, then selects an independent certification entity to ensure compliance with those standards. The producers then forward their classification request to the designated Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which, after review and preliminary approval, forwards the request to the European Union for final review and status designation.]

 

 

Vin Santo (Holy Wine)–one of the luxuries of the world

Vin Santo of Fattoria Santa Maria, Montescudaio, Italy

Vin santo, which literally means “holy wine,” is a dessert wine made in several of Italy’s twenty regions. But the region most revered for vin santo (also called “vino santo”) is Tuscany. And of the most esteemed Tuscan vin santos, the one produced at Fattoria Santa Maria (www.fattoriasantamaria.it) in the hilltop village of Montescudaio, in the province of Pisa, reigns supreme. Aged in oak barrels for at least four years, one sip of this precious wine reveals it as not only holy, but also godly.

Traditionally, vin santo is made of blends of the white grapes Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia. Occasionally, Grechetto and Vermentino, as well as other varieties of Italian whites, are added. The darker-hued vin santo called “Occhio di Pernice” (“Eye of the Partridge”) must be comprised of at least fifty percent Sangiovese.

Unlike most other wines, which are made of grapes picked in September or October and pressed the day they are harvested, the bunches of grapes destined for vin santo (also called “straw wine”—“vin de paille” in French and “strohwein” in German ) are laid atop reed mats called “cannicci” and/or hung from rafters in a warm, dry, well-ventilated room or area, sometimes called the “vinsantaio,” for a period ranging from several weeks to several months (depending on the degree of desired sweetness of the vin santo) so that the grapes may desiccate—naturally dehydrate, thereby allowing the sugars in the grapes to concentrate. Generally, a grape will lose sixty percent of its original volume during the drying process, which, in Italy, is referred to as “appassimento” or “rasinate.” For a “bone-dry” vin santo, akin to a fortified dry wine such as fino sherry, for example, the desiccation period may be as short as three weeks, and such vin santos undergo a more rigorous fermentation process where almost all the sugars are converted into alcohol; but for sweeter vin santos, akin to the botrylized wines of France and Germany, such as “sauternes” and “trockenbeerenausiese,” respectively, the desiccation period may last from three to six months, ending as late as March of the following year, and the fermentation process is more protracted. At the end of the day, vin santos are characterized as “sweet” (“amabile”), “very sweet” (“dolce”), or “dry” (“secco”).

But it is primarily in the harvesting and desiccation phases that vin santos begin distinguishing themselves as exquisite, good, or average. (A “bad” vin santo is not a real vin santo!) And to the see the process whereby the exquisite vin santos are made is to immediately know that only a vintner who adores grapes could produce such wines.

For the best vin santo producers, the desiccation process actually begins in the fields—by selecting only those bunches that are most ripe and bearing sparsely spaced grapes since such bunches naturally lend themselves to the appassimento process: dry air can more easily circulate around grapes on loosely packed bunches; and grapes ripened on the vine have already begun the process of concentrating their sugars. During the desiccation process, the bunches of grapes lying on mats are occasionally turned by hand so as to expose all grapes to comparable drying conditions. Bunches hanging from rafters are sometimes repositioned. Either case, substandard grapes are painstakingly plucked by hand from the bunches and discarded.

After the grapes have desiccated to the desired degree, they are gently pressed, and the sweet juice is transferred to the small barrels called “caratelli,” where the long, natural fermentation process begins—with the help the “madre” (Spanish for “mother”), a starter-culture comprised of the indigenous barrel-bred yeast formed over the years and which remains at the bottom of the barrel each time it is emptied, and/or a little of the previous year’s vin santo. Once in the caratelli, the wine is left to age not in cellars, but in attics—which are cold in the winter and hot in the summer—from a minimum of three years to a maximum of ten years, without human intervention. (One of the reasons vin santo caratelli are traditionally smaller than normal wine barrels is because of the safety concerns associated with storing heavy barrels on upper floors). With vin santo, once the caratelli are sealed, it is the natural starting of fermentation in the warm months and stopping of fermentation in the cool months that guides the maturation of the wine. Eventually, the wine stabilizes itself. So making “holy wine” the traditional way is an act of faith: Unlike other wines, which are tested and monitored throughout the production process, for vin santo, once sealed away in its caratelli, its quality remains a mystery until the barrels are opened years later. If, when opened, the wine has been over-oxidized or does not meet the quality standards of the producer, it may be converted into a vinegar that is highly regarded in the culinary market. (Today, with modern wine production techniques, vin santo is oftentimes aged in temperature-controlled rooms, thereby increasing the likelihood of a high-quality wine).

Vin santo caratelli are traditionally made not of oak, but of chestnut, which, because of its porous nature, contributes to copious evaporation and oxidation of the wine. Towards the end of the 20th century, however, many producers began switching to oak barrels, which results in less evaporation. Other producers prefer caratelli made of juniper or cherry wood. And some producers blend vin santos aged in barrels of different wood-types, oftentimes imparting a certain complexity to their final-product, the way barrels of different woods add subtlety to the balsamic vinegars of Modena, Italy (See “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO” below). The little barrels, typically with a carrying capacity of 50 or100 liters, are filled and sealed for the duration of the aging process. And because they are sealed, they cannot be “topped up” when the portion of the aging wine called the “angel’s share” evaporates. Consequently, oxidation occurs as a result of the air space (“ullage”) created within the barrel as a result of evaporation (also referred to as “ullage”). And it is that oxidation that transforms the precious wine into its golden-amber color. (In case of Occhio di Pernice, a caramel-rosé color is achieved). Typically, only thirty percent of the “must” (grape juice) initially put into the barrel remains after a ten-year aging process. The rest, as they say, goes to the “angels.” But the remaining thirty percent is the drink of the “gods.”

The earliest evidence of a fermented drink made from grapes is from China, circa 7000 B.C.E. And the practice of making wine from partially dehydrated grapes is believed to be as old as wine-making itself. What is less clear, however, is how Italian appassimento wines came to receive the lofty appellation of “holy.” Many tales exist—each as plausible or apocryphal as the next. But interestingly, though not entirely surprisingly, most of the enduring tales involve men of the cloth or things holy: a 14th-century friar from Siena who would give the wine leftover from the Mass to the sick, sometimes miraculously healing them of their ailments, the wine eventually being declared “holy”; the tradition of bottling the wine during Easter; the 14th-century story involving John Bessarion, a patriarch of the Greek Eastern Orthodox Church, who, when attending the Ecumenical Council of Florence in 1349, tasted a local Florentine wine called “vino pretto” (“pure wine”) and is said to have either declared that the wine was like Xanthos (a famous straw wine of Thrace) or xantho (a Greek word for yellow)—both words sounding like “santo” to the Florentines, who were more than happy to bestow the name upon their wine. Some of the earliest documented usage of the term “vinsanto” is gleaned from the Renaissance-era sales logs of Florentine wine merchants who used to aggressively market their strong, sweet wines in Rome and elsewhere. But the most likely source of the term “vin santo” comes from the Catholic Church’s preference for sweet wines for the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist during Mass. And just as the Church’s water is called “holy water,” it was only fitting that the Church’s wine would come to be called “holy wine.”

Because of the labor-intensive, labor-sensitive nature of vin santo production, it has always enjoyed a “cottage industry” status and appeal. And for many years, because of the various manners in which the wine was produced, it was served and sold as a basic table wine for simplicity’s sake. But today, most of the wine-producing regions of Italy have their own DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which translates to “controlled designation of origin,” a quality assurance system and label for Italian food products, especially wines) for the vin santos produced within the region.

The D’Antilio name has been associated with land-holding and wine-making in Montescudaio since 1779. But it is since 1973 that the family has been producing Tuscany’s finest vin santo at Fattoria Santa Maria. A vin santo of the caliber of Fattoria Santa Maria’s is what the Italians affectionately refer to as “vini di meditazioni”—wines for contemplation…. Such wines are to be sipped slowly and savored. Traditionally, vin santo is served at cellar temperature to welcome guests to one’s home. But it is more often served with cantuccini (hard, semi-sweet biscuits with almonds inside)—at the end of a meal after espresso—as an alternative digestivo to grappa or limoncello. However, because of the exquisite quality of the Fattoria Santa Maria vin santo, many people—even cantuccini-loving Tuscans—prefer to allow nothing to come between them and the vin santo of Fattoria Santa Maria. Simply put: To taste the wine is to be elevated—spiritually.

Though not a fortified wine, vin santo, because it is oxidized during the aging process, has a long shelf-life after being opened—after all, whatever harm could come to the wine from exposure to oxygen would have already occurred during the years of oxidation while in the barrel. Some experts insist that the wine, once opened, if re-corked, laid down, and kept in a cool, dark, moderately damp cellar, can last as long as six months.