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!
12 thoughts on “Holy wine!: How Vin Santo is made”
Love the pictures and great to read a bit more history about Vin Santo 🙂
Thanks Casey. It was really a privilege to be able to see the grapes hanging up. It’s really a country tradition that this winery has taken to a more industrial size while keeping the original practice to the letter. And the finished product was amazing.
Your photos are magnificent. I have never seen anything like it and never tasted Vin Santo – I doubt there is much exported?
So they don’t ferment the juice at all? They really just extract partially fermented juice from the dried grape and leave it at that? Amazing process.
Thanks! It was really just a matter of pointing and shooting since the place was SO photogenic. It’s a rare sight to see such a large number of grapes hanging, because Vin Santo is traditionally a country product and not a lot is produced professionally because people still make their own at home. That is absolutely the process, which is amazing. They actively encourage mold, such as botrytis, in order to encourage the juice to ferment but all the fermentation takes place within the grape. As the name suggests, in the middle ages, priests used to produce this for use as communion wine in church, despite my lovely story.
Pingback: Panforte di Siena: Chestnuts and Truffles TV « Chestnuts and Truffles
Pingback: Tozzetti all’anice: Aniseed biscotti – Chesnuts and Truffles TV « Chestnuts and Truffles
Ohhh delicious! I can nearly taste it. It sounds a lot like the process for amarone wines, we have a few producers of that style here in McLaren Vale. I love dessert wines and fortifieds, especially in Winter.
Thanks for linking up your post on the #WINENOT WIne Blog Post Link Sharing Party!
Louise @ WillungaWino.com
It really is an extraordinary wine, more like a Pedro Ximinez sherry than a classic Vin Santo but unique. So glad you liked the post.
Pedro Ximinez is one of my favourites. I will be looking out for some Vin Santo on my next Italian journey, whenever that may be! 🙂
Then you’d love this. Do let me know if you come over. We can share a bottle 🙂
Pingback: #WINENOT Linky Party #15 - December 2015 - Willunga Wino
Pingback: Winenot Wednesday #15 - December 2015 - Champagne and Chips