Regular readers must find us horrible bores as we bang on about our wedding and honeymoon in Italy last year almost constantly. On our penultimate day of our three week trip, we raided an enormous supermarket in the suburbs of Montevarchi for the Tuscan products we cannot find or cannot afford here in NYC, and also, just for kicks, picked up a bottle of vin santo.
Now, it’s very common — almost traditional, some would say — for the British, when visiting another European country, to buy a bottle or more of the local tipple as a souvenir. This tends to the eaux-de-vie / grappa-type firewater, often distilled with herbs from the surrounding hills, that the locals swear has health-restoring powers, but in fact is the cause of the blindness and insanity in endemic communities. And, just as commonly, once back in the UK, said bottle is placed in a dark recess of ones’ liquor cabinet and only ever reached for if, say England win something, anything, at football (soccer), and everything else in the house has already been drunk in the course of celebrating. Such was my thinking when we bought this curiously slim bottle of vin santo.
Even when I learned that it was in fact a dessert wine and not a paint-stripper, I remained cautious. After all, during the 1990s and the early years of this century, dessert wines had consistently been given a bad rap. People looked down their noses at sweeter wines as dry, crisp wines like chardonnay were all the rage. My theory (based on no research at all) is that skinny southern Californians are to blame for this. You see, the 90s power lunch diet of a “dinner salad” sans bread, expensive mineral water, and glass of something dry and white seems to have persuaded the rest of us that not only was dry white wine somehow sophisticated, but it was also lower in calories than a sweeter wine, and therefore better for us.
However, some recent actual research on the shelves of Gary’s Wines and Liquors (Flatbush Ave. and Sixth Ave., Brooklyn, NY) confirmed that wine stores which had previously been stocked almost exclusively with chardonnay, chenin blanc, and sauvignon blanc, are now burgeoning with viognier, gewurztraminer, albarino, riesling and several others whose names I forget. Clearly, there is some of sort of change in tastes afoot.
Taking this research a step further, I also noticed sweeter dessert wines are appearing on menus in my neighborhood and amongst them, in at least one restaurant, I found vin santo. All of which convinced me to find out more about this unusual beverage and, hell, give it a try!
Literally “holy wine”, vin santo is made from malvasia and trebbiano grapes that are left on the vine late to develop their sugars. The derivation of name vin santo is subject to some controversy since some believe that it had miraculous properties that cured plague in the 14th century. Others attribute it to a certain Greek Bishop who in the 15th century proclaimed upon drinking it “This is the wine of Xanthos!” — a pressed raisin wine from Santorini, which his fellow diners mistook for “santos”, i.e. “this is the wine of the saints”. Dismally though, it’s thought that the most likely derivation is its sometime use in Tuscany as a sacramental wine during mass.
The third most planted grape in the world by area, trebbiano grapes have usually received a bad reputation because they (when unblended) tend to produce very rough and ready wines (mostly white, some red) that have usually only been drunk young as table wines. Some chianti producers use them as a blend with sangiovese grapes, but again due to their inherent instability, they are being phased out in favor of 100% sangiovese these days.
Similarly, malvasia grapes are mostly used to make young and fairly rough white table wines, and are widely planted across the world too — most famously on the Portuguese island of Madeira where they are used to create the eponymous sweet wine. And, it is when trebbiano and malvasia are allowed to age that they become spectacular and display their real talents – both are commonly used as the base for other fortified wines like sherry, brandy and port.
Once picked, vin santo makers allow their grapes to dry and develop even more sweetness as they hang from rafters in well-ventilated rooms until they are pressed. Then the sweet juice is extracted and placed into small, cigar-shaped barrels called caratelli. After an initial open-barrel fermentation, and in a similar method to aging balsamic vinegars, these barrels are sealed and then stored in garrets or attic spaces and left to age, the best for as long as ten years.
It is because of this extended aging and sweetening process, as well as the deliciousness of the final product, that vin santo is so highly prized (and priced). It’s comparatively low yield per kilo of grapes picked and long production time means that not only is it a scarce commodity but it requires a lot of patience and care before it is ready.
So, erm, what does it taste like?
At the end of this 10 year period, the wine is a beautiful golden amber color with a slightly nutty flavor. It is certainly sweet but not in a honeyed or saccharine way. Rather, it has a perfectly balanced flavor that works wonderfully well at the end of a savory meal without completely coating the palate with sugar.
Vin santo is typically served with almond or hazelnut biscotti-type biscuits/cookies (“cantucci e vin santo”) which are often dipped into the wine to soften them and accentuate their taste as a dessert combo, but it may be drunk as an accompaniment to other desserts or by itself as a digestive. However, and probably because of its sweetness, it is never served with cheese.
Since first trying it and realizing that, like so many of my typically English preconceived notions about all things “foreign”, it’s actually very good and those “foreigners” know much better than the English when it comes to food, we’ve drunk it mostly by itself without biscotti. But you should get yourself some and drink it any which way you choose. Sadly, after squeezing as many small nips from it as we could manage to prolong its life, we have just finished the bottle we bought in Italy. Like many of the best things in life, you have to be sparing and savor it in order to get your money’s worth.
Now, depending on where you live vin santo may be harder to find, but it’s easy to get hold of online, if a little expensive. So I encourage you to give it a try, perhaps at a restaurant first so your initial investment is limited, but I’m sure you’ll find, as I did, that re-evaluating ones prejudices towards sweet wines is a rewarding exercise.