Holy Wine, biscotti welcome visitors to Tuscany

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By Justin Manjorin | Wine & Food Editor
Drying grapes in Tuscany to make Vin Santo.

Drying grapes in Tuscany to make Vin Santo.

Vin Santo or Holy Wine is the name for Italy’s famous sweet or Sherry-like dessert wine. Although produced in several areas of Italy, this wine is most often associated with Tuscany.

Made primarily from two varieties of white grapes, Trebbiano and Malvasia, the wine can be straw colored to amber and when it is made with the addition of red wine grapes this style is called “eye of the partridge.” It is a rare style and I have never seen it. The wine can also range in taste from fairly dry (like Fino Sherry) to a sweet variety more akin to a French Sauterne.

Lost in the mists of time is the origin of why this style of wine is called Vin Santo or Holy Wine. There are two theories.

The first is that since the grapes of this wine are dried from the previous harvest and usually pressed around Easter, thus the name Holy Wine. The second theory is that back in the Middle Ages the Catholic Mass was celebrated with both wine and bread and the priest would use the leftover consecrated wine as a cure for the sick in the parish.

Although mostly used as a dessert wine after dinner, in Tuscany it is traditional to offer a guest a small glass of Vin Santo and a hard cookie known as “biscotti” (twice baked) as a way of welcoming a visitor.

In the technique of making Vin Santo, grapes are harvested and placed in the warmest, driest area that can be found. In older times, they rested on straw but you can see from the picture above that they now rest on wooden slats.

The grapes are dried until they are almost raisins and are then gently pressed. The juice is put into small barrels called Caratelli. They are small because they were stored in the attic and large barrels would probably crash through the ceiling. The barrels are sealed and due to the presence of yeast from prior years, fermentation begins. The barrels are left for a minimum of three years. Many producers leave the barrels for six years and a few for as long as 10.

When the wine is taken from the barrel, as much as 70 percent of the original juice has evaporated. Due to the residual sugar in the grapes prior to fermentation, Vin Santo can reach 16 percent alcohol by volume. The hot/cold cycle also causes the wine to become slightly oxidized. In this respect, it resembles Madeira. The oxidation produces a complex, nutty flavor that stops the sweetness from becoming overpowering.

Aside from the obvious biscotti pairing, what goes well with Vin Santo? The first thought that comes to mind would be desserts such as Pecan Pie or a Walnut Tart. Surprisingly, Spanish and Portuguese cuisine go well probably because of the Sherry taste of the dry Vin Santo variety. As Stilton goes with Port, Vin Santo pairs very well with Gorgonzola. Of course, if you can’t stand Gorgonzola, just drink the Vin Santo as Dessert.

Although there are many producers of Vin Santo in Tuscany, little finds its way to the U.S. Due to the production methods, this wine isn’t cheap but with some careful searching $25 bottles can be found. Bear in mind, this wine often comes in 500 ml as opposed to the 750 ml, which is the most common size bottle.

Two examples available in this country are Castella di Castellini VIN Santo del Chianti Classico S. Niccolo, and San Felice VIN Santo del Chianti Classico. Both of these wines should cost less than $25, and are typically served in small three-ounce portions.

As usual, I can be reached via e-mail with comments, questions or suggestions. E-mail justin@compassnews360.com