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Vin Santo, Holy Wine of Tuscany

By Steve Siciliano

One evening Barb and I were the only diners in a small restorante in the Tuscan hill town of Loro Ciuffenna. We had just finished sharing a massive, perfectly cooked T-bone. Before the steak came, there was an antipasti of olives, cured meats and three crispy crostini topped respectively with beans and olive oil, chicken liver pate and paper-thin sheets of cured fatback.

Tuscan T-bone

I was feeling a bit guilty about downing crostini slathered with lardo, but reasoned that the two bottles of red wine we drank with the meal—a Chianti Classico Reserva and a vino nobile di Montepulciano—would help offset the inevitable uptick in bad cholesterol. The restaurant owner walked up to the table. Si, I assured him, the bistecca alla Fiorentina was molto bueno. Si, we would have an after dinner drink. “Due vin santo, per favore.”

Drying grapes

That afternoon we had visited a small, family run winery on the crest of a high hill on the outskirts of Montepulciano. We watched while the owner’s son pumped sangiovese grape must from a stainless steel fermentation tank into a pneumatic wine press. We were told that the pressed grape skins that a worker was shoveling onto the bed of a pickup would be sold to a local grappa producer. We followed the owner’s daughter into an old stone building where vino nobile di Montepulciano was aging in huge oak barrels and then into another old but smaller building where bunches of recently harvested malvasia and trebbianno grapes were drying on wooden racks. The daughter, in almost a reverential whisper, informed us that the grapes would be used to make holy wine.

“Holy wine?” I asked.

“Si, holy wine. Vin santo.”

Vin santo is virtually unknown outside of Italy. It has been produced almost exclusively in Tuscany for centuries and probably obtained its “holy” moniker because it was the wine that Tuscan priests traditionally used during the celebration of the Mass. Undoubtedly, winemakers in other regions of the world haven’t tried to replicate the style because the process of making true vin santo is so labor intensive. It is also very unpredictable.

During the drying process, which can last for up to six months, the grapes that are used in the production of vin santo lose most of their moisture and their sugars become intensely concentrated. Winemakers gently crush the shriveled grapes then combine the sweet juice with a madre, a slurry of yeast and sediment from past vintages. The must is racked into small oak barrels which are then sealed and left alone, sometimes for as long as five years. While the fermentation is progressing, the barrels are never opened and never topped up; and as the slowly fermenting wine evaporates it acquires a lovely amber color and a sherry-like oxidation. When everything goes right, the result is a wine that is truly extraordinary. If something somewhere in the process goes wrong, the winemaker gets a barrel full of vinegar. 

Tuscan vineyard

The vin santo we tasted at the winery that afternoon was certainly not vinegar. It was nicely sweet but not cloying, with aromas of dried fruit and intense flavors of honey, raisins and spices. 

The vin santo we drank at the restorante that evening might have been even better, although I’m willing to concede that the antipasti, the steak and the two bottles of wine might have sharpened my oenophilic senses. After finishing the last drops of the amber liquid Barb and I agreed that we were hopelessly infatuated with Tuscany. Since we were also more than a little tipsy. I motioned to the waiter for the bill. He brought it a few minutes later, along with two more half-filled tumblers of vin santo.

“But I didn’t order these.” I protested in slurred English.

“Gratuito,” he said and smiled.

It’s a good thing our hotel was just a short, wobbly walk away. It would, of course, had been rude to refuse such graciousness.

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