Vin Santo, literally 'holy wine' or 'sacred wine', is often referred to in Chianti as
il vino dell'amicizia,
the wine of friendship. It is
a Tuscan wine made from grapes, usually
malvasia, trebbiano and
that have been hung and desiccated slightly in the warm air that blows through
the tiled windows of the drying room. You will notice these two-storey structures with slanted tiles in the "windows" all over Chianti. In
recent years, many have been converted into accommodation. Sometimes the grapes are laid out on mats in a
warm part of the house. The result is a wine with higher than usual alcohol
level which can range from dry to sweet but which invariably has a strong,
perfumed flavour. The yeast used in the fermentation is a special strain that
can live at the higher alcohol levels.
Since the Middle Ages, Vin Santo has played an important part in the history of Tuscan wine. There are many
fantastical theories about the origin of
its name. A legend from
Siena has a friar in 1348 curing the sick with the wine normally used by the
Brothers to celebrate Mass. The conviction that this was a miraculous wine spread, leading to the
name "vin santo". Another story relates that during the
Ecumenical Council held in Florence in 1349, the Greek patriarch Bessarion
exclaimed, upon drinking the "vin pretto": "This is the wine of Xanthos! (pronounced
"zanto")", probably alluding to the famous Greek "Passito" from Thrace.
Another variant has him exclaiming "xantho", meaning
"yellow". His fellow diners believed that he had discovered qualities in the wine worthy to be proclaimed "santo". In any event, from that time on
"vin pretto" became "vin santo". A less picturesque explanation
is simply the association of this wine with its customary use during Mass.
Vin santo has always been the wine of hospitality and friendship,
and it is still to be found in most Tuscan homes. It is a wine to
enjoy at any time of day, although after meals is preferred, and almost
always accompanied by cantuccini (biscotti di Prato),
a kind of almond biscuit traditionally made in Prato but in fact
of Sicilian origin, Sicily being the home of the Italian almond.
Cantuccini are very hard so the normal procedure is to soften them
by dipping them briefly into the vin santo.
vin santo is still the wine of tradition because it is still made using the
antique methods: from selecting the
best bunches of grapes, to drying them on mats or racks,
followed by long ageing in small casks. Note that a traditional vin santo usually has no
year designated. This is because most makers of this wine have 6-7 small
casks in their cellar. When the currently tapped cask is half empty, it is
topped up with the new vin santo and moved back to the end of the queue. Genuine
vin santo is thus a blend from several years of production. However, commercial
and DOC vin santo is vintage dated.
The recognition of the DOC Vin Santo del Chianti in August 1997 marked an important stage in the quality evaluation of this highly traditional Tuscan wine product, which includes both the "Occhio di Pernice"
(which is slightly reddish in colour because it contains around 50% sangiovese
grapes) and the Riserva categories.
Vin santo is ready to drink almost immediately and can be cellared
in the bottle almost indefinitely.
It is worth noting that the first DOC designation from the
Gallo Nero Chianti Classico
area was assigned to vin santo, a product emblematic of Tuscan winemaking.