Vino sfuso is something utterly magical to those who haven’t been raised in the grape-growing regions of Italy and something quite mundane to those who have. The concept is essentially wine on tap: stores selling quality local wine directly to consumers, drawn from barrels and casks into reusable glass bottles.
Wine on tap at Vigna Vittoria / ph. Harry Cochrane
Even the name—roughly translated as loose wine—is poetic. What it really means is that you buy by the litre, not by the bottle. You take along your old, empty bottiglie and have them refilled with a quaffable Vermentino or Bolgheri for under three euro a container. The wine tends to be young and made from grapes that aren’t deemed to be worth bottling and ageing, but many will agree it’s far better value than most supermarket finds. With vino sfuso, you are paying for the wine rather than the label and the fancy bottle.
The idea of vino sfuso dates back to the fifteenth century when aristocratic winemaking families would sell their surplus wine straight to the people of Florence. This procedure mostly occurred through buchette del vino, or wine windows, which you can still spot in the walls of old palaces. Florentines from all walks of life could knock on the little hatches and have their glass bottles filled up with wine directly from the Antinori, Frescobaldi and Ricasoli estates, families who are still among Tuscany’s best-known winemakers today. The system worked for centuries until reports of vino sfuso being diluted or spiked emerged in the mid-1900s. In the 1960s, the Italian government outlawed the practice. Decades of bureaucracy followed, and it was only in 2003 that the sale of unbottled wine was finally allowed again.
Bacco Nudo was one of the first stores to reopen in the Sant’Ambrogio neighbourhood in 2005. Recently taken over by Francesco Cappellini, the new owner inherited a classic wine list, which he has been working gradually to change, focusing instead on more interesting Tuscan wines. Highlights include an organic Supertuscan blend from Barberino Val d’Elsa and a Montepulciano Sangiovese. Due to quota restrictions on DOC wines, vino sfuso often cannot be labelled with famous names like Montalcino or Bolgheri, despite coming from these areas. As Francesco explains, however, if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll realise the quality is often the same. Nevertheless, price is still a key factor. “Rosso prov. Montepulciano is our most popular, simply because it’s so affordable at 2.50 euro a bottle,” Francesco tells The Florentine.
In the Oltrarno, Il Santo Vino is another mesmerizing place, a tiny cobweb-filled bottega near piazza Santo Spirito. Owner Mariella Croda and her partner Roberto are wine fanatics and have sought out independent producers in Chianti and beyond. Mariella notes how vino sfuso has maintained its democratic appeal with students, professionals, tourists and families all coming to fill up their bottles and bags, regardless of whether they can afford more expensive wine. “Like tortillas in Mexico, Italians can’t eat without wine at the table,” she explains. “There’s always a need for it.”
The effects of the pandemic on Florence’s vino sfuso shops seem to have been mixed, too. At Bacco Nudo, Francesco says that while tourist trade for their more expensive spirits and liqueurs has collapsed, the demand for quality table wine is higher than ever. Nevertheless, perceptions of vino sfuso still have a way to go among local Florentines. Some are sceptical about its quality, while others prefer the reliable reputation of an enoteca when deciding which wine to enjoy at home. Certainly, vino sfuso doesn’t offer the complexity of some of Chianti’s finer aged wines, but at such affordable prices that’s not really its purpose, Francesco explains. Wine by the cask offers a winning combination of being affordable, environmentally friendly and altogether is a more enjoyable experience than browsing the supermarket shelves. So as far as we’re concerned, long live vino sfuso.
Where to find vino sfuso in Florence
Find your local and make friends.
Il Santo Vino
Borgo Tegolaio 46
+39 055 538 7122
Bacco Nudo Di Francesco Cappellini
Via dei Macci 59R
+39 055 243298
Enoteca Alla Sosta Dei Papi
Borgo la Croce 81R
+39 055 234 1174
Fuor di Porta
Via Pisana, 29R
+39 055 225970
Piazza San Jacopino 24R + Via Fabbroni 14R
+39 055 9331452
Piazza Puccini 25
+39 338 1066366
Via Gioberti 44A
Whatsapp orders +39 376 0622469
This article was published in Issue 276 of The Florentine.