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.
This may be as good a time to mention that there are a lot of Vin Santos being produced. Very little of it is worth drinking (or buying). There is much industrial swill and rumors abound about artificial coloring, the wine being spiked with grain alcohol to raise alcohol levels and other less than savory practices.
The best Vin Santo is made in a very old and traditional method. To make a good Vin Santo, the grapes are harvested and then dried for three to six months in a traditional (appassimento) method. They were often tied to the rafters of the buildings in the past but now are usually laid on straw mats (or plastic ones) out in the sun to raisin. This process is used in many places in Italy and the wine is known as passito wine. The raisiny grapes are now lacking in moisture and have much higher sugar levels than the freshly harvested grapes. The grapes are then vinified into small barrels made from cedar or oak called caratelli. These barrels, usually less than 500 liters, are filled 90% full to allow for the wine making process to complete. A yeast mixture is added to the grapes.
Although table wines can ferment with the local indigenous or feral yeast (or winemakers may even inoculate with specific strains of yeast), Vin Santo requires a special yeast, which has developed over time. The particular yeast strain used for Vin Santo is very dry and able to slowly ferment a wine with quite high natural sugar levels. This is mandatory because Vin Santo’s will spend a long time in the barrel fermenting. If this special strain of yeast is not utilized, the yeast cells will die long before their job is complete.
As the yeast consumes the sugar in the wine, they emit carbon dioxide and alcohol. The empty 10% space in the barrel is needed to allow room for the carbon dioxide (otherwise the barrels would explode). The barrels used for making table wine often have a seal allowing the carbon dioxide to escape. In addition, they are checked in on regularly during the fermentation process. Not so with Vin Santo, once the barrel is full it is left alone. The yeasts will continue to slowly consume the yeast often taking as long as three years. At this point, either the sugar is gone and the wine is dry, or the yeasts have added enough alcohol to the wine that the yeasts cannot survive in such high alcohol levels and so they perish. Usually this results in wine around 16 to 18% alcohol by volume. The DOC rules require at least three years of barrel ageing (more for the Riservas) to allow the wine time to fully vinify.
There is one other very unique aspect to the making of Vin Santo. The barrels do not sit in a cool cellar. Rather, they are stored in the hot attics of the winery where the wine is exposed to the heat of summer and cold of winter. Making good Vin Santo is truly an act of faith because the barrels are not opened until the wine is ready. The evaporated wine is not replaced.
When the barrel is finally opened, the wine may turn out to be substandard, but more often than not, the good producers make a sweet wine that is slightly oxidized, amber in color with scents of nuts, toffee and raisins. It will have a thick viscous texture. On the palate, in addition to the raisin and toffee notes, there is a crisp acidity, which balances the wine exquisitely. The occhio di pernice versions are more rose in colored due to the large amount of the Sangiovese grape. While there are Vin Santos in which the yeasts have completely fermented all of the sugars into a dry wine, I have never tasted a dry Vin Santo that I enjoyed. This usually occurs when the grapes are not left on the mats long enough for sufficient sugars to develop. The resultant wine is somewhat “Sherry-like” in character but lacking depth or flavor for my tastes. The best ones are sweet with enough acidity to keep them from being cloying.
Most good Vin Santos are vintage dated. They are ready to drink on purchase but will last almost indefinitely in a cellar. They change little in a bottle over a few years.
There are a handful of producers that you should be looking for. You should not be looking for cheaper versions. Frankly, they are just not worth wasting your money on. The best of all producers is Avignonesi. This is a quality minded producer who makes a small amount of Vin Santo in addition to their table wines. Their Vin Santos mature in fifty-liter casks for more than six years before being released. They make both the white and the red versions but they do not come cheaply. A 375 ml bottle (known as a half bottle) will cost $150 and up.
Nevertheless, this is the clear standard for quality Vin Santo and if possible, should not be missed. Other producers to look for include the better Chianti and Brunello producers. Names to look for would include Flesina, Fontodi, Isola E Olena, Cappezzana and Selvapiana. I have heard the Massa Vecchia makes a very nice one, but I have not been able to taste it for myself.
You should expect to pay at least $30 for a half bottle. Occasionally you can find them in the much more friendly 500ml size bottle too.
Vin Santo should be served at cellar temperature either alone or with a dessert. In Italy, desserts are often slightly sweet or even savory. The Tuscans long ago determined that the best match for a sweet dessert wine is a less sweet treat to go along side of it. The classic pairing for Vin Santo is biscotti, the dry, hard almond cookies of Tuscany. Quite delicious on their own, matched with a Vin Santo they become something at a whole new level. The cookie is dipped into the Vin Santo and both are consumed in that manner. The Biscotti is not a sweet dessert on its own. The sweetness of the wine is more than enough. Of course, for some, a really good Vin Santo, should be served on its own.
A good Vin Santo is what the Italians refer to as vini da meditazioni or a wine to contemplate with or meditate by. They are a good wine to sip slowly at the end of a winter day and think about the rewards your life has to offer. I hope you all go out and try a bottle. Please let me know what you think.