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What Is Vin Santo? | Wine Enthusiast

What Is Vin Santo? | Wine Enthusiast

Nothing seems to encourage the long, leisurely post-dinner linger like a glass of amber vin santo and a plate of cantucci, those crunchy, anise-scented cookies of Tuscany. ‘

With a name that translates to “holy wine,” the dessert wine is said to be worthy of saints, and has been used in Italy for Catholic ceremonies as far back as the Middle Ages. But its precise origins are contested, with possible roots that trace back to Venice-ruled Santorini, between the 13th and 16th centuries. That theory suggests that “santo” was written on packages containing wine (“vin”) sent from the Greek island. 

On a balmy summer night, sipping the honey-perfumed wine above the hills that surround Montepulciano, I chose to believe the holier origin story, as I was sure I was in heaven. 

What Is Vin Santo?

Typically made with white grape varieties, like Trebbiano and Malvasia, vin Santos vary widely in sweetness levels, from dry to dessert-like. 

Not to be confused with vinsanto, the sun-dried Greek dessert wine that dates back to the 12th century, vin santo has also been called “straw wine” because the harvested grapes are traditionally left to dry on straw mats for three to six months, which concentrates and sweetens the grapes’ flavor. 

Traditional vin santos are aged in chestnut barrels, with madre (wine from the previous year) added to aid in fermentation. The wine must be aged for a minimum of three years.

Vin Santo grapes, Castello di Monsanto, Barberino, Chianti, Tuscany, Italy – Alamy

An Unsung Wine Finally Gaining Recognition

While treasured in the communities that produce it—which include parts of Trentino, Veneto, Umbria and Emilia Romagna—the historic wine is often overlooked elsewhere in Italy. 

My friend Alberto Ragoni, a chef from a small town outside of Florence who enjoys sipping vin santo after a meal and cooking with it, says it’s a bit “unpopular,” especially with younger generations. “Only in Tuscany do young people drink it, and mostly only at family gatherings or in trattorias,” he says.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of syrupy-sweet vin santos has also warped some public perception of the wine. 

“I think its reputation has suffered a bit from seeing inexpensive vin santos on dessert menus paired with cantucci, our local biscotti,” says Shannon Kircher, who founded Borgo San Vincenzo, a winery in the heart of Vin Santo di Montepulciano DOC country. 

“The idea is that the cantucci is dipped in the vin santo, which is widely practiced, but no one would dream of using high-quality vin santo for such a thing!” Kircher adds. “Given vin santo isn’t that well known to visitors to the area, that very well could be their only brush with the dessert wine.” 

It wasn’t until 1997 that vin santo earned classification under DOC law, which helped to legitimize the wine that had been simply labeled “vino del tavolo” up until that point. There are now many DOC regions that produce exceptional vin santo, mainly clustered in Tuscany. Now, the wine style is starting to get its due. 

“There are many things that make vin santo very special,” says Brando Baccheschi Berti, head of wine at Castello di Vicarello in Tuscany’s Maremma countryside. “Its ancient origins, the long work and time needed to make it, the labor of love that is in every bottle and the enjoyment that you get when you open it.”

Barrels of Vin Santo (dessert wine) inside a winery in Montepulciano, Tuscany.
Barrels of Vin Santo (dessert wine) inside a winery in Montepulciano, Tuscany – Alamy

How to Drink Vin Santo

The best way to enjoy it, according to Berti, is “at the end of the meal by itself, slightly chilled and in a tall glass, in order to appreciate all its structure and complexity.” (Dip your cantucci in something else—say, espresso?)

Luca Chiodelli, the sommelier at FORESTIS, in the Dolomites, recommends drinking it after dinner from a smaller tulip-shaped glass, which enhances the wine’s aromas, and pairing it with panettone or biscotti di Prato. 

Types of Vin Santo

There are a few different types of vin santo you’ll find across Italy. Depending on the DOC, the exact alcohol contents, grape varietals and aging times will vary. 

Occhio de Pernice, which means “eye of the partridge,” is a rarer, rosé-style vin santo made with red grape varieties, often Sangiovese. “It’s very precious,” says Ragoni.

Vin santo liquoroso is fortified with grape spirits. The quality of these wines can be more inconsistent. If you see “amabile” on a bottle, that means it’s moderately sweet, while “dolce” signifies very sweet. If a bottle is labeled “riserva,” it means the wine has been aged for at least four years. 

Excellent Vin Santos to Drink Today

“In Italy, producers are continuing to make vin santo largely as an homage to heritage and tradition,” says Kircher. “The wine requires a huge amount of patience every step of the way. Many producers wait a decade or more to see the fruits of their labor.”

Kircher’s favorite producers will often “mention it being something that’s been passed down through generations and something they witnessed their grandparents—and generations before—doing in their own drying rooms,” she says.

That’s why she gets most excited about small-scale family producers, like Le Berne and Montemercurio. “Both offer great wines and the family stories behind them that really bring vin santo to life,” Kircher says. She also loves Avignonesi’s Occio de Pernice, which “is extremely rare to find.” 

Berti is particularly fond of vin santo from Castello di Volpaia; Vin Santo Carmignano Riserva from Tenuta di Capezzana, which is made of mostly Trebbiano grapes, fermented and matured for six years; and Vin Santo S. Niccolo from Castellare di Castellina, located in the heart of Chianti Classico region. 

Chiodelli opts for the “well-balanced” vin santo from fourth-generation winemakers Isole e Olena, also in Chianti, which has “aromatic notes ranging from dry apricot and peach to dry citrus and honey.” 

Sampling a range of vin santos from different regions is the best way to determine your preferences. I’m fond of the nutty, rich Vin Santo di Montepulciano Riserva—made of Malvasia, Trebbiano and local Pulcinculo grapes—which to me, always tastes like a celebration. 

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