Vino Santo from Cantina Toblino – WOTY 2021
The Wine Alchemy WOTY (Wine of the Year) 2021 is the extraordinary Trentino Vino Santo DOC 2004 from Cantina Toblino.
A worthy winner
As usual, the Wine Alchemy WOTY is an exceptional wine. It’s also sustainable and available to buy in the UK. There were plenty of close contenders!
Sweet wines make delicious after-dinner treats, especially on high days and holidays. As well as being one of the world’s best examples, Trentino Vino Santo DOC is rare and unique. Even in Italy, it hides in plain sight.
Trentino is in northeastern Italy, a mountainous region where the influences of the Mediterranean Lake Garda and alpine Brenta Dolomites collide. Consequently, it’s a place where alpine plants happily co-exist alongside Mediterranean species such as Palm trees, Holm oaks and olives. Fruit growing thrives too – apples, pears, damsons, plums, kiwi fruit- and, of course, grapes.
Trentino has a wealth of grape varieties, eleven whites and thirteen reds, enabling single-variety wines and blends of every hue and style. The wine culture here predates the Romans, but today, 40% of production is “Trentodoc” Metodo Classico fizz. Whatever style is made, standards are high.
Yet only one white grape variety in Trentino is autochthonous, an actual native of this region. That’s Nosiola, perhaps named after the taste of nocciola, the Italian word for hazelnuts. This high-quality grape was once widespread here but was decimated by phylloxera. While successful once again, that’s now mainly as a dry white wine, covering only 0.6% of Trentino’s vineyard area.
It’s Nosiola that makes Vino Santo Trentino’s glory. Of the 79 hectares of Nosiola grown in Trentino, only 10 hectares produce Vino Santo. Usually, this Nosiola is a loose-bunched biotype typical of the oldest vines, trained high on the distinctive Pergola Trentina. With low yields and a complex and time-consuming production process, no wonder that Vino Santo is a rarity for special occasions. The entire production is only around 30-35,000 bottles each year.
It suffices to say that Cantina Toblino is an excellent co-operative founded in 1960 and is now known for sustainable production, including organic cultivation and clay amphorae in the maturation of some wines. There are 600 members and 880 hectares of vineyards, including an organic 40-ha farm once belonging to the Bishops of Trento. 80% of Toblino’s production is white, and they have made Vino Santo since 1965 – one of a handful of wineries that preserve and promote this tradition. They have now released a new range of flagship wines under their Vènt Project*.
The Vino Santo terroir
The epicentre of Nosiola is in the Valle dei Laghi, a U-shaped “valley of lakes” in the western part of Trentino. Here, the spectacular terroir is a strong candidate for the biblical Eden.
As the name implies, there are numerous lakes, including Lake Toblino. Cantina Toblino’s Nosiola is on the lake’s edge, at an altitude of 200-300 metres, occupying well-drained dolostone glacial soils rich in magnesium and calcium carbonate.
A warm wind (the Ora) blows north from Lake Garda during the afternoon. In the morning, a cold wind blows south from the Brenta Dolomites. These opposing winds create a microclimate that preserves acidity in the grapes, lengthening their ripening time.
Air-drying and Botrytis
While Vino Santo DOC must contain a minimum of 85% Nosiola, most are 100%. Picking the Nosiola for Vino Santo is in mid-October. Those loose-bunched grapes grow high on traditional pergolas. This arrangement is ideal, encouraging airflow during autumn that helps prevent fungal diseases.
Vino Santo is a dried-grape (appassimento) wine. While the grapes can dry on the vine, they are usually picked and dried in lofts on the traditional mats called Arèle. Unusually, this drying period is one of the world’s longest, lasting up to six months. To put that into perspective, that’s around twice the time stipulated for Veneto’s famous Amarone and Recioto wines.
The grapes lose 80% of their original weight during this period. Air-drying is a transformation, as not only is water lost and sugars concentrated, new complex flavour compounds form. In addition, noble rot (the fungus Botrytis Cinerea) is always welcome. Facilitated by the humidity of the nearby lake and the Ora wind, it infects up to 60% of the grapes. Although Botrytis isn’t typical of most appassimento wines, it’s beneficial in creating even more concentration and imparts classic botrytised flavours.
Vino Santo gets its name because the drying period traditionally lasts until Holy Week, in other words, the week before Easter. Pressing the grapes uses a vertical screw press, and the yields are tiny. Two or three pressings are needed to squeeze out all the remaining juice and capture the complex compounds created by Botrytis. Unlike dry wines, the final pressing is often the best.
Fermentation and maturation
The amount of sugar (400 g/l) and natural antibiotics in the thick juice means a challenging fermentation. It commences in small 200 and 400-litre French oak barrels (between 10 and 60 years of age) and takes over two years to complete. Fermentation ceases naturally at around 14% alcohol, leaving a sweet wine with about 160 g/l of residual sugar.
The Vino Santo now commences its long maturation in those same barrels. These are always topped up to prevent unwanted oxidation and preserve the complexity of the dried and botrytised fruit. The DOC rules insist on a minimum of three years, but at Cantina Toblino, it lasts for more than ten. Then, there’s another year to settle down after bottling—no wonder the 2004 vintage is the current one. There are only 5-7,000 bottles made by the Cantina each harvest.
Cantina Toblino, Vino Santo 2004, Trentino DOC, Italy. 14%
Vino Santo comes in an unassuming 50cl bottle with a Diam cork under a wax seal. Left unopened, drinking 50 or more years from now would still be good.
This Vino Santo is bright amber. It yields intense and complex fragrances; honeyed peach and apricot are initially at the forefront, followed by caramel. These sophisticated scents will continue to linger in the glass long after it’s empty. So be in no rush for the first sip, but when you do, there’s a hazelnut background, a canvas daubed will all manner of zesty fruit expressions. Seville orange and lime marmalade, quince, kumquat, apricot and peach.
Texturally, it’s soft, rounded, caramel-creamy, and yet as light as a custard. It’s not over-sweet or cloying and certainly not “sticky” or over-alcoholic. Instead, the retention of bright cleansing acidity perfectly balances the residual sugar, alcohol, and weight in the mouth. There’s delicious tension between all these elements, a Prima Ballerina in seemingly effortless grace, combining delicacy and strength, sweetness and freshness. As for persistence, it lasts for minutes. There’s an absence of oxidation or volatile acidity, allowing entrancing ripe fruit to dominate before a final frangipane farewell.
You’ll find this wine in 50cl bottles for £57.80 at Hedonism in London or €40.80 at Cantina Toblino.
Serving and Food
Serve Vino Santo chilled in a small glass. Try it with blue cheeses like Stilton, Gorgonzola or Roquefort (a classic match of salt and sweet). Traditional cakes from Trentino are perfect partners, such as Torta di Fregoloti and Zelten. However, Shortbread makes a good substitute, and do try Bakewell Tart. Both Crème Caramel and Creme Brûlée are excellent, while the simplicity of poached quince with fresh cream is a revelation. Or, if you prefer, serve Vino Santo to enhance a good conversation.
Once opened, this wine will keep fresh for a few days. At least theoretically. Bet you can’t resist another glass!
Any list of Vino Santo’s peers would include Sauternes, Tokaji Aszú, Vouvray, Coteaux du Layon and Trockenbeerenauslesen. So now’s the time to put those aside and try Cantina Toblino’s Vino Santo instead.
1, Località Sarche
38076 Madruzzo (TN)
*Now published: a full review of the Vènt Project at Cantina Toblino.
And now another year is gone – see my WOTY 2022 here.