Tuscany is well known and regarded for its red wine. But you might be surprised to know that Tuscany also produces a sweet dessert wine called Vin Santo. When visiting the region, you will often see Vin Santo wine on restaurant dessert menus served along with cantuccini. Cantuccini are long and rectangular-shaped, hard cookies (what in America is called “biscotti”) that are meant to be dipped into the Vin Santo before eating – just as you might a circular, chocolate cookie into milk. Like the wine, these cookies are native to Tuscany. Vin Santo may also be served alone in small glasses for sipping as typical with sweet dessert wines.
There are several types of dessert wines but Vin Santo is different for several reasons. Vin Santo is unique not only in its taste, but also in how it is made. Unlike port or sherry wines, Vin Santo is not fortified with spirits. Vin Santo is typically made with two types of white grapes from Tuscany called Trebbiano and Malvasia. There is also a red version of Vin Santo, called “occhio di pernice” (translated as “eye of the partridge”), and is made out of sangiovese, malvasia nera and/or cannaiolo grapes.
How vin santo is made
1. Harvesting of the grapes. The selection and picking of the grapes is completed by hand to ensure the grapes are handled with extreme care. The grapes have to be perfectly healthy and free of damage or impurities because they have to dry out for weeks – sometimes months – without going bad.
2. Drying period. Once picked, the grapes are laid on nets or hung in windy locations in the shade to dry out for several months until they become raisins. As the water within the grapes evaporate, the concentration of sugar increases.
3. Pressing and barreling. Once properly dried, the grapes are pressed and the resultant must is placed into small traditional wooden barrels (15 to 50 liters) called “caratelli”. Along with the must, the wine maker will add either yeast or “mosto madre” (mother must). Mosto madre is a small portion of the must leftover from the previous years’ batch and it helps with the creation of yeast in the wine over the long fermentation period.
4. Fermentation and aging. The caratelli barrels are then kept perfectly sealed without any contact to the air for several years. Traditionally, the barrels are kept in a room, such as an attic, without temperature control. It’s believed that a room with frequent temperature changes between night and day and between seasons will increase the quality of the aroma and the taste of the Vin Santo. The period of time the wine is allowed to age in the barrels varies between wine makers, but it is frequently six years or more.
With this lengthy and highly variable production process, it is understandable why the resultant wine is so uncommon and special. It is also why the taste of the wine itself can vary so widely between different wine makers. It should also be noted that traditional Vin Santo is different from wine you will find in the supermarket labeled Vin Santo Liquoroso which is is a fortified product and further sweetened with concentrated must.
The exact origins of the name “Vin Santo” are unknown. As directly translated from the Italian language, Vin Santo means “saint wine”. There are several stories which have propagated through time to explain the origin of the name. The two most popular stories come from two of the largest cities in Tuscany – Siena and Florence.
The story coming from Siena dates back to 1348 when a Franciscan friar started to use the wine that was normally used by the friars during mass to cure the plague. The Sienese people started to believe that the wine was actually curing them and so they started to call it “saint wine”. The story originating from Florence dates back to 1439 when a Greek priest referred to the wine using the word “xanthos”, which means yellow in Greek. The Florentines thought that the priest was saying the word “santo” and started calling the wine Vin Santo from that time onward.