The other Doc
Carmignano does not simply mean red wine, even though this the zone’s chief claim to fame. The vineyards of the zone, in addition to the Chianti Montalbano DOCG, produced without the Cabernet which goes into the area’s principal product, also give white wines of real interest, already well thought of by Datini many centuries ago. Unfortunately, the quantities are very small, even if fermentation techniques have greatly progressed over the past few years. And there is also some very good Cabernet and Merlot. But the two principal alternative wines are the cheery Vin Ruspo and the excellent Vin Santo, two wines which compete for attention with the more famous Carmignano; both, since 1982, have enjoyed appellation (DOC) status.
The fact of being included in an appellation where the major red wine enjoys a higher status appeared to pose a problem when this latter wine achieved DOCG recognition. There were some fears, in fact, that Vin Santo and Vin Ruspo could be downgraded to the simple status of vino da tavola, “table wines”, a loss of rank which would have created significant commercial problems, given their relatively high alcohol content. But, in the end, everything was successfully resolved by the joint efforts of producers and legislators, and the right to the DOC title successfully reaffirmed.
The new production rules of the appellation, formulated in 1994, also gave official DOC recognition to Barco Reale, a wine which, like Vin Ruspo, comes from the same vineyards as the Carmginano red wine. It is, in fact, in almost every respect, a Carmignano which has been aged for a shorter period in the cellars and released to the public earlier.
The rules, in fact, established the right to pick the same grapes for either Carmignano or Barco Reale during the harvest and to then decide which category to select for the wines in the cellar. This kind of versatility is extremely useful for the producers of the zone, who thereby acquired the right, in abundant vintages or in vintages of only average level, to protect the quality level by using only the best, most structured wine for the Carmignano DOCG. Another valuable decision allows producers to utilize the grapes of either Barco Reale or Vin Ruspo for the red-grape version of Vin Santo, Occhio di Pernice, the counterfoil of the Trebbiano-based Vin Santo.
The story of Vin Ruspo, in any case, is an extremely interesting one, and is much worth recounting. It is a most versatile rosé wine which can be drunk as a simple thirst-quencher between meals, or as an aperitif, and which goes very well with appetizers, fish, shell fish and sea food, and even with braised meat, an adaptability which few wines can match. Its origins go back to the days of sharecropping, once widely practiced in Tuscany.
During the harvest, the sharecropper, with the excuse the it was late in the day, delayed bringing to the estate’s cellars the last batch of grapes which had been picked and then trod; during the night, he drew off, or “ruspava”, a certain quantity of must which ended up in his own cellar. In other words, he appropriated it for his own use. The estate owners were well aware of these tricks, but, in order to maintain a certain peace and tranquillity on the their properties, pretended to ignore what was going on.
This must was stored in demijohns over the entire winter, without any use of the re-fermentation technique (the “governo”) used for the red wines. The same technique is used today, even if nowadays the wine is made the cellars of the estate, not in those of the individual peasant. It was a small producer, the late Sghedoni, who first marketed a wine of this type, and by now the other houses of the zone have all followed him. A few hours after the harvest, or at most the following day, five or ten percent of the must is drawn off from the vats which the Carmignano red wine is produced. It is then fined and, within a day or two, goes into its own tanks to ferment. The result is a fresh, semi-sparkling winemeant to be drunk young (it was, in fact, the wine intended to be drunk during the threshing season), but one which can also be aged for a short period of time during which it takes on a light amber color. It is marketed quite early, often in the month of November. But it does not fall apart in brief space of time, like Beaujolais nouveau and other wines of that type. Particularly during the summer, Vin Ruspo is a perfect wine. Vin Santo is the last of the DOC wines of Carmignano and, in one of its versions, either lightly or markedly sweet, an excellent match for the famous sweet almond biscuits of Prato (or, with a touch of local chauvinism, with the sweet Fochi biscuits, by now part of the tradition of Carmignano). This wine is produced in rather small quantities, and the dry version could easily be called a wine for meditation, for slow and reflective sipping at the end of a meal or as an aperitif. During the harvest, the finest bunches are selected and laid on a layer of leaves in open – slatted – wooden packing cases. They are then left to dry on straw and reed mats, assembled in vertical structures from the floor to the ceiling in large and well ventilated rooms on the various estates. Here the grapes remain for four months, and during this period the window are
periodically opened to allow the dry winds of the north to sweep through the rooms; when the more humid south wind blows, sulphur is burned in the rooms to protect against the danger that rot develop. The grapes, by then little more than raisins, are destemmed and pressed in January, and the small quantities of dense, sugar-rich must, goes immediately into very small barrels, never more than 26-52 gallons (100-200 liters); by law these can never exceed 130 gallons (500) liters. The barrels are usually stored just below the roof (so that the wine can feel, and be influenced by, the temperatures of the changing seasons to the maximum extent) and the wine allowed to age for three or four years. The wine is never racked, nor the barrels filled up, and ages under a natural film which develops on the surface and protects it from oxidation in barrels which have never been topped up. At the end of the aging process the wine is a brilliant golden amber, with an elegant bouquet, a dry or lightly sweet flavor and 16° of alcohol, and can be further aged in bottle for a very long time, becoming more and more refined in flavor and aroma. In the glass, it appears almost as dense as olive oil and represents only 20-25% of the original weight of the grapes used for making it (a fact which unquestionably makes it a very expensive wine to produce). DOC regulations impose a maximum of 55 liters from every 100 kilograms of grapes. But in Carmignano, where the grapes are dried for a full four months, the yield in wine is much lower. In the year 2000, less than 2600 gallons (98 hectoliters) of Vin Santo were produced in the Carmignano appellation.