Vin Santo, which translates as wine of the saints, is one of Italy’s best dessert wines and comes in a variety of styles. For publication in week starting 14 May 2018.
The origins of the name Vin Santo are shrouded in history. Some historians suggest it came from Carthage in Tunisia because that part of North Africa is only about 50km from Sicily. Others say the wine originated in Tuscany.
The most logical assumption is to connect the name with the church because Vin Santo is pressed and fermented in the spring, which occurs around Easter. Wine has always had strong links with religious ceremonies in Europe. Regardless of its origins, Vin Santo is made throughout the country.
Vin Santo is usually sweet, with intense flavours of hazelnut and caramel through to toffee and fruit cake. When paired with cantucci (biscuits), Vin Santo becomes “Cantucci e Vin Santo” – traditionally a way to welcome friends and visitors. I prefer it solo at the end of a meal or with blue cheese like Gorgonzola.
The winemaking process gives the unique flavours. Healthy bunches of grapes are dried after harvest in a well-ventilated attic, a process known as “passito”. Some producers store the bunches on cane or wooden racks or mats; others hang them from the rafters.
Some winemakers leave the bunches until March; others press in December or January. It is a matter of personal choice but all agree it is important to inspect the bunches regularly to check against rot. The drying process concentrates sugar content.
After pressing the must is put in barrels ranging in size from 50 to 200 litres. The former are known as caratelli, which translates as “small casks”. Barrels are left in an attic for several years waiting for natural fermentation to finish. It can take up to four years. Over time the barrels develop their own yeasts known as “madre, or “mother”, which help develop flavours and contribute to the oxidised nature of the wine.
The wine ferments slowly in summer, does almost nothing during winter and resumes fermentation in the spring. The result can be something of a lottery. Some wines are almost dry, with noticeable heat from alcohol of about 18 per cent. Other producers make very sweet wines of about 220 g/L of residual sugar and about 14 per cent alcohol.
Stephen Brook from Decanter writes that some people have likened Vin Santo to Sherry because of its oxidative tones, but he notes it is closer to Madeira because of its higher acidity. “Good examples of Vin Santo should be gold or bronze in colour, have aromas ranging from dried apricots to orange peel, honey and caramel, and should show considerable complexity on the palate, with flavours reflecting the aromas together with a velvety texture and clean acidity.”
Italy’s Vin Santo is not related to the Greek dessert wine Vinsanto, despite the similar name. I tasted a range of quality Vin Santo wines at Vinitaly (see photo below).
Many regions produce Vin Santo using grapes indigenous to that region. Some claim the style originated in Tuscany. In that region and parts of Umbria and Marche Vin Santo is typically made with a blend of Trebbiano Toscano (which adds honey flavours) and Malvasia Bianco (for perfumed notes). Other white regional grapes are added to the blend.
In Tuscany, Capezzana makes a Vin Santo de Carmignano from 90 per cent Trebbiano Toscano with the balance San Colombano. It looks and tastes like a sweet sherry. At the other end of the spectrum from the same region was a 1999 Vinsanto del Chianti by Farnito made with Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia Bianco, aged in oak and chestnut caratelli for 16 years, and only released last year. It was full of Oriental spices.
Perhaps different versions of Vin Santo could be likened to one species of animal made unique because of isolation. The Farnito is a turtle from the Galapagos islands while the Capezzana is the same creature from somewhere in India. The 2002 Vin Santo de Montepulciano by Avignonesi in Tuscany was an incandescent joy. A turtle from Australia? Tuscans also make a red Vin Santo called Occhio de Pernice (“Eye of the Partridge”) mostly from Sangiovese and a red version of the Malvasia grape called Malvasia Nera.
In Veneto, the wine region of Gambellara makes a Vin Santo with Garganega, the grape of the Soave region. The DOCG wine known as Recioto di Gambellara is a classic. I tried a 2007 Menti Vin de Granaro which had the black colour of a classic Pedro Ximenez and smelled like toffee and fruit cake yet still had good acidity. It had been fermented and aged in 40-litre oak barrels for up to four years.
In Emilia-Romagna, Lusignani produce a Vin Santo di Vigoleno that has an almost saline nose yet tastes of candied orange peel. Locals use a traditional process that involves drying grapes until December 1 and then pressing three times to extract the juice. Wines are decanted each year into progressively smaller barrels and usually aged five years.
In Marche, locals make Vin Santo di Offida from the rare Passerina grape and in Lombardy the wine known as Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Passito comes from red grapes.
In Trentino, producers use the Nosiola grape in Vin Santo di Trentino. The 1983 vintage Vin Santo by Marco and Stefano Pisoni is superb. Think rich and nutty Christmas pudding with touches of soy sauce and tamarind. The wine is aged in small acacia barrels for five years. The estate has been biodynamic since 2011.
Perhaps the most unusual wine come from Valle de Tevere in Perugia, where it is known as “smoked Vin Santo”. Traditionally locals dried tobacco leaves in their kitchens and the smoky aromas permeated the wine stored in the houses. The region does not yet have an appellation. About 15 families make wine, mostly for home consumption. The one I tried, whose name I cannot remember, was like drinking smoky treacle. A wondrous experience.
Good Vin Santo is expensive. After drying, 100kg of grapes yield only 15 to 20 litres of must. The longer the drying period, the greater the concentration and sweetness, and the smaller the volume. With long barrel-ageing evaporation can be as high as 40 per cent.
Once you have tried a great Vin Santo you will look for more.