The Last Bottle

Last night, for one of the first times since the beginning of the pandemic, we had a friend over for dinner, and lingered, talking after the meal. Dessert was homemade cantucci–the dry, Sienese almond cookies that practically beg for a glass of sweet wine. I had found a forgotten bottle of vin santo among the Sangioveses with which I stock my cellar and uncorked it without expectations. I prefer to dunk my cantucci in the dregs of my red wine, but tradition called for vin santo, at least for our guest.

Tuscans do not often pay compliments at the table. Silence is an honor; it means the food and wine are good. Yet, Federico, our guest, was enthusiastic about the vin santo, so I poured myself some and took a sip. It reminded me of old Barsac, such was its succulent balance of sweet and sour, its range of delicate flavors, its freshness mingled with hints of age. It was delicious and wonderfully satisfying to drink. I suddenly remembered where the bottle came from–Perrini, who, I had heard, had recently died.

Old wine in clear bottle
Vin Santo

He died of a heart attack, in his vineyard–a death similar to the one that had befallen his father, who, as Perrini had explained one morning as we stood in his vineyard with the light snow of the night before melting on the south-facing slope, had been struck by lightening under an apple tree at the end of one of the rows of vines. I had come to see Perrini, not for the first time, to talk about buying the vineyard, which at the time seemed ideal: a small parcel in the hills above the village where I live, with 70-year old vines–Sangiovese and some whites. I was enchanted with the vineyard having been, according to the old maps in the archive in Siena, in the Perrini family for 300 years, and by its wide rows, gnarled vines and fruit trees here and there.

Perrini stood there and told me about his family–the wife who died in childbirth and the daughter who now lived in Torino–and seemed willing to think about selling. He was 74 at the time. From the vineyard, we walked to his cellar–a small barn, really–in the village. He unlocked its double doors and showed me the equipment he had: the rusty, old de-stemmer, the “torchio” or basket press, and the caratelli–oblong chestnut barrels sealed with wax and full of vin santo–sitting on the old stone feeding troughs that lined the two side walls. He apologised for the dust and disorder–these days, he confessed, he mostly sold the grapes, instead of making wine. He pressed a bottle of vin santo on me, and we agreed to meet again.

We spoke a few times after that, but following a more careful look at the land, I was no longer convinced it would produce quality grapes: it was high for the area at almost 400 meters, but it sat at the bottom of a large vineyard slope on either side, such that water drained into it or through it on its way down the valley. So much water is not good for vines. They grow too much foliage and fail to ripen their grapes. And the vines were ill-kept: they had scars from decades of careless pruning. So I abandoned the idea of buying it and looked for alternatives.

Who knows, though, I thought when I finally tasted the wine, if the vineyard land in fact is good. I’m half-tempted to go back and look again.

Originally published 29 January 2021.

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