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Vin Santo - best dessert wine in Italy

Updated: May 10, 2020

Vin Santo is a heavenly dessert wine typical of Tuscany served at the end of a meal. It ranges from very sweet styles to dryer ones. There are also tremendous differences in quality levels, ranging from pretty poor to dessert wines that can challenge the finest and most famous Tokaj or Sauternes. The name most probably refers to the time of pressing which was after the Saints, so typically in January. In Tuscany, a lot of contadini (farmers) would make their own and take great pride in it. Nowadays only little Vin Santo is made, but some winemakers still put a lot of passion into it.

Let’s look at a few details about Vin Santo to get to know this fascinating wine a bit better.

Native Grapes

Vin Santo can be made from either white or red grapes (the latter is the rarer version referred to in Italian as Occhio di Pernice – literally Partridge Eye), and a well-made one takes years to produce. The grape varieties employed to produce white Vin Santo are traditionally Grechetto, Malvasia and Trebbiano. The red version must contain at least 50% of Sangiovese.

Oxidative Process

It's truly fascinating to learn about the Vin Santo making process, as it differs greatly from the method used to make regular dry wines.

The grapes are carefully harvested at the normal time and then laid out on straw mats or hang in neat lines inside a ventilated room of a winery called the appassitoio. They stay here for approximately 3-6 months then undergo pressing and are placed in traditional small barrels (traditionally chestnut for more oxidation but modern producers also use oak) called caratelli, located in the vinsantaia (literally the vin santo room which tends to be the worst room of the winery, usually in a garage or directly under the rafters somewhere).

Barrels are filled completely so that oxygen is in contact with the wine during the whole fermentation and ageing period. Often in a vinsantaia you'll see the barrels have been closed on top with cement to prevent the cork from popping.

The fermentation (and re-micro fermentation) takes place over a number of years and many will introduce a special, secret ingredient called the madre (mother), but we can think of it as a yeast “starter”, or the barrel's own yeast strain. Fermentations start and stop a number of times due to temperature fluctuations since the vinsantaia usually is open to the elements year-round – so it becomes blistering hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter and the yeasts only operate in a particular moderate temperature range. When it is too hot or too cold they tend to lay dormant in the bottom of the carratello until the temperature comes back in the operative range.

Then it is time to forget about it and let time do its magic. A Vin Santo is required to age over the 3+ years, but top producers will go years beyond the minimum required level. Oftentimes as much as 60% of the original must evaporates, and barrels are not topped off. The dessert wines tend to be a golden amber colour (or ruby/garnet red for the rarer Occhio di Pernice) and styles vary depending on how much residual sugar remains. The alcohol content varies greatly from 11%-18%.

Because of very high production costs and low yields, good quality Vin Santo is unlikely to be found in a normal grocery store. They are produced in small quantities and are usually sold locally, in half-size bottles.

Food Wine or Meditation Wine?

The pairing here in Tuscany is with Cantucci (biscotti) but this is not recommended for high-quality Vin Santos, where the wine itself is the dessert and decadence. Traditionally the hard almond cookie is dumped into the Vin Santo. Vin Santo is also delicious poured over vanilla gelato. Unconventionally, at times in Tuscan trattorias you’ll find Vin Santo served with a classic starter, crostini toscani (chicken liver paté), and it works in such a divine way!

Fake Vin Santo!

There is also a fortified style called Liquoroso. Most Liquoroso wine is of low quality. The words “vin santo” cannot legally be written on the labels, but often they’ll have similar-sounding names. And in cheap restaurants, the vin santo given at the end of the meal is the fake stuff. So beware and in doubt ask to see the label. Proper Vin Santo will have a DOC (such as the Vin Santo di Carmignano DOC produced by Capezzana - watch the video of the pressing!)

The first week of February 2020 was finally the time to press the 2019 grapes - the wine will have to age 7-8 yrs before it gets bottles and you can taste it. Follow our visit with winemaker Benedetta Contini Bonacossi who won best dessert wine of Italy for her Vin Santo di Carmignano Riserva 2012!


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