Vin Santo (Holy Wine)–one of the luxuries of the world

Vin Santo of Fattoria Santa Maria, Montescudaio, Italy

Vin santo, which literally means “holy wine,” is a dessert wine made in several of Italy’s twenty regions. But the region most revered for vin santo (also called “vino santo”) is Tuscany. And of the most esteemed Tuscan vin santos, the one produced at Fattoria Santa Maria (www.fattoriasantamaria.it) in the hilltop village of Montescudaio, in the province of Pisa, reigns supreme. Aged in oak barrels for at least four years, one sip of this precious wine reveals it as not only holy, but also godly.

Traditionally, vin santo is made of blends of the white grapes Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia. Occasionally, Grechetto and Vermentino, as well as other varieties of Italian whites, are added. The darker-hued vin santo called “Occhio di Pernice” (“Eye of the Partridge”) must be comprised of at least fifty percent Sangiovese.

Unlike most other wines, which are made of grapes picked in September or October and pressed the day they are harvested, the bunches of grapes destined for vin santo (also called “straw wine”—“vin de paille” in French and “strohwein” in German ) are laid atop reed mats called “cannicci” and/or hung from rafters in a warm, dry, well-ventilated room or area, sometimes called the “vinsantaio,” for a period ranging from several weeks to several months (depending on the degree of desired sweetness of the vin santo) so that the grapes may desiccate—naturally dehydrate, thereby allowing the sugars in the grapes to concentrate. Generally, a grape will lose sixty percent of its original volume during the drying process, which, in Italy, is referred to as “appassimento” or “rasinate.” For a “bone-dry” vin santo, akin to a fortified dry wine such as fino sherry, for example, the desiccation period may be as short as three weeks, and such vin santos undergo a more rigorous fermentation process where almost all the sugars are converted into alcohol; but for sweeter vin santos, akin to the botrylized wines of France and Germany, such as “sauternes” and “trockenbeerenausiese,” respectively, the desiccation period may last from three to six months, ending as late as March of the following year, and the fermentation process is more protracted. At the end of the day, vin santos are characterized as “sweet” (“amabile”), “very sweet” (“dolce”), or “dry” (“secco”).

But it is primarily in the harvesting and desiccation phases that vin santos begin distinguishing themselves as exquisite, good, or average. (A “bad” vin santo is not a real vin santo!) And to the see the process whereby the exquisite vin santos are made is to immediately know that only a vintner who adores grapes could produce such wines.

For the best vin santo producers, the desiccation process actually begins in the fields—by selecting only those bunches that are most ripe and bearing sparsely spaced grapes since such bunches naturally lend themselves to the appassimento process: dry air can more easily circulate around grapes on loosely packed bunches; and grapes ripened on the vine have already begun the process of concentrating their sugars. During the desiccation process, the bunches of grapes lying on mats are occasionally turned by hand so as to expose all grapes to comparable drying conditions. Bunches hanging from rafters are sometimes repositioned. Either case, substandard grapes are painstakingly plucked by hand from the bunches and discarded.

After the grapes have desiccated to the desired degree, they are gently pressed, and the sweet juice is transferred to the small barrels called “caratelli,” where the long, natural fermentation process begins—with the help the “madre” (Spanish for “mother”), a starter-culture comprised of the indigenous barrel-bred yeast formed over the years and which remains at the bottom of the barrel each time it is emptied, and/or a little of the previous year’s vin santo. Once in the caratelli, the wine is left to age not in cellars, but in attics—which are cold in the winter and hot in the summer—from a minimum of three years to a maximum of ten years, without human intervention. (One of the reasons vin santo caratelli are traditionally smaller than normal wine barrels is because of the safety concerns associated with storing heavy barrels on upper floors). With vin santo, once the caratelli are sealed, it is the natural starting of fermentation in the warm months and stopping of fermentation in the cool months that guides the maturation of the wine. Eventually, the wine stabilizes itself. So making “holy wine” the traditional way is an act of faith: Unlike other wines, which are tested and monitored throughout the production process, for vin santo, once sealed away in its caratelli, its quality remains a mystery until the barrels are opened years later. If, when opened, the wine has been over-oxidized or does not meet the quality standards of the producer, it may be converted into a vinegar that is highly regarded in the culinary market. (Today, with modern wine production techniques, vin santo is oftentimes aged in temperature-controlled rooms, thereby increasing the likelihood of a high-quality wine).

Vin santo caratelli are traditionally made not of oak, but of chestnut, which, because of its porous nature, contributes to copious evaporation and oxidation of the wine. Towards the end of the 20th century, however, many producers began switching to oak barrels, which results in less evaporation. Other producers prefer caratelli made of juniper or cherry wood. And some producers blend vin santos aged in barrels of different wood-types, oftentimes imparting a certain complexity to their final-product, the way barrels of different woods add subtlety to the balsamic vinegars of Modena, Italy (See “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO” below). The little barrels, typically with a carrying capacity of 50 or100 liters, are filled and sealed for the duration of the aging process. And because they are sealed, they cannot be “topped up” when the portion of the aging wine called the “angel’s share” evaporates. Consequently, oxidation occurs as a result of the air space (“ullage”) created within the barrel as a result of evaporation (also referred to as “ullage”). And it is that oxidation that transforms the precious wine into its golden-amber color. (In case of Occhio di Pernice, a caramel-rosé color is achieved). Typically, only thirty percent of the “must” (grape juice) initially put into the barrel remains after a ten-year aging process. The rest, as they say, goes to the “angels.” But the remaining thirty percent is the drink of the “gods.”

The earliest evidence of a fermented drink made from grapes is from China, circa 7000 B.C.E. And the practice of making wine from partially dehydrated grapes is believed to be as old as wine-making itself. What is less clear, however, is how Italian appassimento wines came to receive the lofty appellation of “holy.” Many tales exist—each as plausible or apocryphal as the next. But interestingly, though not entirely surprisingly, most of the enduring tales involve men of the cloth or things holy: a 14th-century friar from Siena who would give the wine leftover from the Mass to the sick, sometimes miraculously healing them of their ailments, the wine eventually being declared “holy”; the tradition of bottling the wine during Easter; the 14th-century story involving John Bessarion, a patriarch of the Greek Eastern Orthodox Church, who, when attending the Ecumenical Council of Florence in 1349, tasted a local Florentine wine called “vino pretto” (“pure wine”) and is said to have either declared that the wine was like Xanthos (a famous straw wine of Thrace) or xantho (a Greek word for yellow)—both words sounding like “santo” to the Florentines, who were more than happy to bestow the name upon their wine. Some of the earliest documented usage of the term “vinsanto” is gleaned from the Renaissance-era sales logs of Florentine wine merchants who used to aggressively market their strong, sweet wines in Rome and elsewhere. But the most likely source of the term “vin santo” comes from the Catholic Church’s preference for sweet wines for the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist during Mass. And just as the Church’s water is called “holy water,” it was only fitting that the Church’s wine would come to be called “holy wine.”

Because of the labor-intensive, labor-sensitive nature of vin santo production, it has always enjoyed a “cottage industry” status and appeal. And for many years, because of the various manners in which the wine was produced, it was served and sold as a basic table wine for simplicity’s sake. But today, most of the wine-producing regions of Italy have their own DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which translates to “controlled designation of origin,” a quality assurance system and label for Italian food products, especially wines) for the vin santos produced within the region.

The D’Antilio name has been associated with land-holding and wine-making in Montescudaio since 1779. But it is since 1973 that the family has been producing Tuscany’s finest vin santo at Fattoria Santa Maria. A vin santo of the caliber of Fattoria Santa Maria’s is what the Italians affectionately refer to as “vini di meditazioni”—wines for contemplation…. Such wines are to be sipped slowly and savored. Traditionally, vin santo is served at cellar temperature to welcome guests to one’s home. But it is more often served with cantuccini (hard, semi-sweet biscuits with almonds inside)—at the end of a meal after espresso—as an alternative digestivo to grappa or limoncello. However, because of the exquisite quality of the Fattoria Santa Maria vin santo, many people—even cantuccini-loving Tuscans—prefer to allow nothing to come between them and the vin santo of Fattoria Santa Maria. Simply put: To taste the wine is to be elevated—spiritually.

Though not a fortified wine, vin santo, because it is oxidized during the aging process, has a long shelf-life after being opened—after all, whatever harm could come to the wine from exposure to oxygen would have already occurred during the years of oxidation while in the barrel. Some experts insist that the wine, once opened, if re-corked, laid down, and kept in a cool, dark, moderately damp cellar, can last as long as six months.

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