Wine is an integral part of a Catholic mass, a physical representation of the blood of Christ present at the Last Supper. It’s not clear if that connection is the origin of Vin Santo, Tuscany’s “holy” wine. What is known is that the good friars of Europe planted vineyards to have a ready supply of highly alcoholic, mildly sweet wine for liturgical services and to dole out to the sick for its “miraculous” healing power.
The process to make it pre-dates the Roman era, a time when grapes were often left on the vine to dry before fermentation, a practice common in the eastern Mediterranean and the Greek islands. In the Middle Ages air-dried wines were called “straw wine” because they were left to dry on straw mats for months. That’s still the basic idea behind Amarone, the Sicilian dessert wines I wrote about recently, and passito wines made in Italy and elsewhere.
Making Vin Santo is considered a special challenge. Some describe their work as a magical experience. Vin Santo requires patience and an almost mystical, reverential faith in nature to turn grapes into liquid gold. That may be why, relatively speaking, there are few wineries that produce it, and many who do make less than two or three thousand 375 ml half-bottles a year.
Another reason for what seem minimal gains is that 22 pounds of freshly harvested grapes yield a liter of Vin Santo, the equal of three half-bottles. As the grapes dry for about five months, the humidity in the drying room needs to be checked three times daily and adjustments made. When ready, they will undergo a one-to-three-month fermentation. To jump start the action, a mother culture of dense, sludgy old yeast and leftover Vin Santo from the previous year is introduced. This potent cocktail can continue to ferment naturally for years after the juice has been put in wood.
Traditionally, the wine ages for at least five years in caratelli, small 50-liter barrels made from oak, chestnut, acacia or cherry. The barrels are kept in vinsantaie, well ventilated lofts that don’t have temperature control like a typical cellar. The stored wine reacts accordingly to seasonal variations. The caratelli are sealed in wax, so along the way there will be some oxidation, especially in summer. Roughly a third to a half of the original wine will evaporate, the “angel’s share” that is the price paid for perfection. If the aging extends to seven or more years up to 90% will be lost, with little or no guarantee that what remains is worthy.
In that sense, Vin Santo is a contradiction. Oxidation is usually the kiss of death for living organisms, yet that slow evolution in the barrel extends the amount of time it can age in the bottle. Maybe magical and mystical are the right words.
The patience and faith come when the barrel is unsealed, the hand of nature is revealed, and the winemaker is hopefully rewarded. Not all producers are willing to share their wine with heaven. They use larger casks, moderate the attic temperatures, and top off the barrels – replacing the smaller percentages of evaporation with fresh juice. This is more modern Vin Santo, fruitier but not as rich and complex.
Vin Santo is made from white grapes all around Italy, notably in Emilia-Romagna, Trentino, Umbria and Marche. The prime region is Tuscany, and the beating heart is the Chianti zone, specifically Vin Santo del Chianti, Vin Santo del Chianti Classico, and Vin Santo de Montepulciano, the best of over a dozen DOC areas, each with its own regulations. The most commonly used grapes are Trebbiano and Malvasia, but Canaiolo Bianco, Vermentino, Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco are allowed. Supposedly, the higher the amount of Malvasia the better the wine, though you’d be hard pressed to find that info on a label.
Though thought of as a dessert wine, there are styles of Vin Santo differentiated by alcohol level and degree of sweetness. Dolce, or sweet versions, can have enough grams of sugar to send your cholesterol through the roof; Amabile are not as sweet; Abboccato are a balance of sweet and mildly dry; Secco can be bone dry and have the feel of sherry. There is also Vin Santo Liquoroso, fortified with grape spirits during fermentation. Occhio di Pernice, the Eye of the Partridge, is a light, refreshing pale rose’ made from 50% or more Sangiovese and a mix of whatever locally prescribed red and white grapes are on hand.
A well-made Vin Santo is one of the best “sweet” wines you can have. In Tuscany it’s considered a mark of fine hospitality to serve it after dinner with cantucci, almond cookies, or perhaps an aged cheese, and either fresh melons, berries or dried fruit. Sipping it on its own is a way to savor a range of aromas and flavors of peach, apricot, and orange as well as nuts, raisins, figs, cinnamon, and dates in a spectrum of colors from golden and amber to a malt-like brown.
The kicker (isn’t it always?) is the price. Even a half-bottle can run from $35-$80, and a full 750 ml bottle might set you back $60-$100 or more. As I cautioned with Amarone, beware of lower priced bottles, you truly do get what you paid for. Exorbitant? Maybe. But with the effort and time that goes into making Vin Santo and the limited quantities available, that’s to be expected. It’s hard to put a price on greatness.