In 1439, a council of the Greek and Roman churches was called at Florence. According to legend, during the meeting, the Bishop of Florence proudly served his local communion wine to one of the Greek bishops who proclaimed, ‘What lovely wine! It’s xantho! (yellow)’. The Florentines, mishearing the greek adjective as santo (holy), took this as a pronouncement of quality rather than colour, and the wine has been known as vin santo ever since.
Today, vin santo is a sweet wine, usually served as a dessert with cantuccini (biscotti) to be dipped in it. Making vin santo has been part of the Tuscan culinary tradition since medieval times, and it was originally (and in many cases still is) made on farms, since the process is relatively easy compared to other wines.
To make vin santo, grapes were hung up inside barns for the winter to dry out. During this time mould, known as botrytis, developed inside the grape creating sugar which then fermented into alcohol. In the spring, the grapes would be squeezed and the vin santo would come out, ready to be bottled, simple as that.
Despite the wonderful legend above, the name probably derives from the simple fact that it was used as communion wine in churches and so was referred to as holy wine.
As well as the home made version, vino santo is also produced by many of the large wine producers in Tuscany. This week I went along to Tenuta Vitereta in Laterina (Arezzo) to try theirs and see how it’s made. They use the traditional process, drying the grapes in the rafters of a huge building which used to be used for drying tobacco. Since the grapes are hung from September to March, I was lucky enough to be allowed to go inside and see them: white trebbiano grapes for the normal vin santo, known as Supremo and red sangiovese grapes for the darker occhio di pernice (partridge eye) wine, so called because of its dark red colour.
The video below shows the grapes hanging up to dry to give you an idea of the scale. However, even with this large amount of grapes, the production remains very small.
The grapes, which have been hung up carefully are subjected to rising and falling humidity throughout the winter and into early spring.
After the grapes have been fermented and squeezed, the wine is matured in small oak casks for up to ten years before bottling. The result is an incredibly fine sweet dessert wine in which I could taste raisins, walnuts, almonds, and citrus notes, rather like an English Christmas Pudding. It’s a viscous wine, more the consistency of syrup and was probably the best vin santo I have ever tasted.
I slipped a couple of bottles of Supremo into my shopping basket before leaving Vitereta and they are waiting to be served with dessert on 25th December: what a Christmas present!