Vin Santo: A Truly Great Dessert Wine from Tuscany, Fit for Saints

Italy is known for many unique and delicious wines. This column has examined many of them. Up until now, however, we have ignored the topic of dessert wines. Many great dessert wines are made in all parts of Italy. Perhaps the most famous and renowned is Vin Santo.

The name Vin Santo literally translates to Saint Wine. There are many theories on the origin of the name. Whatever the true story, this is a wine with a long history. The wine’s history certainly dates back to at least the Middle Ages.

One story is that the wine was leftover wine from Mass that was given to the ill by a 14th century friar. The wine became known as “santo” or holy.

Another story is that a patriarch of the Greek Eastern Orthodox Church, John Bessarion, tasting the wine at the 1349 Ecumenical Council of Florence was served the local wine called Vin Pretto (or pure wine). He supposedly remarked that the wine was from Xanthos (other versions have him using the word Xantho, the Greek word for yellow). The locals thought he said “Santo” and liked the idea of a “holy wine” better than “pure wine” thus adopting the name. It may be that the wine got its name because the vinification traditionally started on All Saints Day or that bottling traditionally started around Easter during Holy Week. In any event, this is a wine that has a long history of being associated with the Church and a favorite with the priests.

Vin Santo is made in many parts of Italy, but the best of these come from Tuscany. There are three recognized DOC’s in Tuscany for Vin Santo. They are Vin Santo del Chianti (created in 1997), Vin Santo del Chianti Classico (1995) and Vin Santo di Montepulciano (1996). The wine is made from a blend of white grapes, specifically Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia, with the occasional use of Grechetto. There is also a red version of Vin Santo made called Occhio di Pernice (literally “eye of the partridge”) that is made with a minimum of 50% Sangiovese.