Vin Santo or Vino Santo (holy wine) is a style of Italian dessert wine. Traditional in Tuscany, these wines are often made from white grape varieties such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, though Sangiovese may be used to produce a rosé style known as Occhio di Pernice or eye of the partridge. The wines may accurately be described as straw wines since they are most often produced by drying the freshly harvested grapes on straw mats in a warm and well ventilated area of the house. Though technically a dessert wine, the wines can vary in sweetness levels from bone dry (like a Fino Sherry) to extremely sweet. While the style is believed to have originated in Tuscany, examples of Vin Santo can be found throughout Italy and is an authorized style of wine for several Denominazione di origine controllata (DOCs) and Indicazione geografica tipica (IGTs).
Origins of the name
While the style of making wine from dried grapes has been around almost as long as wine has been made, there are many theories on how the particular name Vin Santo or "holy wine" came to be associated with this style of wine in Italy. The most likely origin was the wine's historic use in religious Mass, where sweet wine was often preferred. One of the earliest references to a "vinsanto" wine come from the Renaissance era sales logs of Florentine wine merchants who widely marketed the strong, sweet wine in Rome and elsewhere. Eventually the term "vinsanto" became almost an umbrella name for this style of wine produced elsewhere in Italy. When the Greek island of Santorini came under rule of the Ottoman Empire, the ruling Turks encouraged the island's wine production of a sweet dessert wine made from dried grapes. Over the next few centuries, this wine became known as Vin Santo and was widely exported to Russia where it became a principle wine in the celebration of Mass for the Russian Orthodox Church.
Other, likely apocryphal, stories on the name's origin attributes its naming to the work of a 14th century friar from the province of Siena who would use the leftover wine from Mass to cure the sick. The miraculous healing became associated with the santo or "holy" wine and the name Vin Santo was allegedly born. Another 14th century story involving John Bessarion, a patriarch of the Greek Eastern Orthodox Church. According to legend at the Ecumenical Council of Florence of 1349 a local Florentine wine called Vin Pretto (pure wine) was served. After trying the wine, Bessarion is said to have liked the wine and remarked that it was like Xanthos, alluding to the famous straw wine of Thrace, (though some sources said he described the wine as Xantho or "yellow"). The Florentine locals thought they heard the patriarch describe the wine as Santo and they accordingly started promoting the wine as a "holy wine". Another theory for the name association often touted is the tradition of starting fermentation around All Saint's Day and bottling the wine during Easter week.
After the grapes destined for Vin Santo are harvested in September or October, they are laid out on straw mats, often under rafters or staircases. They are kept in warm, well ventilated rooms that allow the moisture in the grape to evaporate. This process of desiccation allows the sugars in the grape to be more concentrated. The longer the grapes are allowed to dry and desiccate, the higher the resulting residual sugar levels will be in the wine. Depending on the style of wine desired, the grapes may be crushed and the fermentation process started after a few weeks or not till late March. Producers may use a starter culture of yeast known as a madre that includes a small amount of finished Vin Santo from previous years production. It is believed that this older wine can help jump start the fermentation process and also add complexity to the wine.
After fermentation the grapes are then aged in small oak barrels. In many DOC regions, the wines are required to age for at least 3 years though it is not uncommon for producers to age their wines for 5 to 10 years. Traditionally the barrels were made of chestnut instead of oak, which contributed high amounts of wood tannins and was very porous which promoted excessive evaporation in the barrel. Under this same traditional style of winemaking, a large ullage or air space would emerge in the barrel and oxidation took place. This gave the wine its characteristic amber color but also flavors and traits that may be characterized as wine faults. Towards the end of the 20th century, more produces began switching to oak barrels while maintaining the tradition of not topping up the barrels and filling in the ullage space. This angel's share still produces some level of oxidation, though not as severe as the style was historically made. Modern winemaking technique also calls for more temperature control and keeping the wine in rooms with a consistent temperature that promotes more fresh flavors in the wine and fewer faults.
Some producers will still use non-oak barrels, such as chestnut, juniper and cherry wood and may even blend batches of Vin Santo aged in different wood barrels together. This has the potential of giving the wines more layers of complexity in much the same way that vinegar producers in the Emilia-Romagna region use different wood types to add complexity to their vinegar. As a fall back, if their wines become too oxidized or do not develop the way the producer wishes, some Vin Santo may be intentionally converted into vinegar that is very desirable in the culinary market.
The styles, color, sweetness and quality of Vin Santo can vary widely depending on the grape varieties and production methods used to make the wine. While white grapes, such as Trebbiano and Malvasia in Tuscany, are most widely used, red grape varieties (such as Sangiovese) can be used to produce a rosé style wine. When red grape varieties are used, the wine is often labeled as a Occhio di Pernice or "eye of the partridge," which has its own DOC classification in several regions of Italy. The wines can be made to fit any style of sweetness levels from bone dry, almost Fino Sherry-like, to extremely sweet and on par with the botrytized wines of France and Germany. The wines can even be fortified with grape spirit like Port added during fermentation. These fortified examples are usually labelled as Vin Santo Liquoroso.
The color of wine Vin Santo can range from a pale to dark amber to even neon orange. The flavors typical of Vin Santo often include nutty or raisin notes with honey and cream attributes. In Italy it is traditional to serve the wine as a digestif at the end of the meal after espresso. It is often served with biscotti cookies that may be dunked into the wine.
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Vin Santo, en.wikipedia.org
The Best Wines & Vineyards, www.frommers.com
Vinsanto, Nectar of the Gods, www.seetuscany.com