Having a growth mindset can be especially rewarding in the wine universe, and some would say this is particularly true as we strive to know more about the complexities, civility and celebration of Italian wine and culture.
I’ve been fortunate to visit Italy on a half dozen or so missions, to VinItaly as well as various specific regions. Being in wine country, meeting with winemakers “in situ” is the best classroom – but not the only one – to peel back the many layers of Italian wine and culture.
I’ve had my eye on Italian Wine Central for a few years – I’ve always been impressed by their content and generosity as an open source for knowledge. In January (2019), I enrolled in their Italian Wine Professional (IWP) course to expand and refresh my understanding of Italian wine. During the course, I came to realize that Vino Santo is a rabbit hole not fully illuminated in our information age. So, I gathered what I could from my own experiences as well as multiple other sources on Vino Santo. The result is the focus of this blog post, an abstract from my IWP presentation paper. (To hear more from me about the IWP course, please read the end note.)
Vino Santo: a famous and fascinating Italian dried grape wine
Vino Santo or Vin Santo, also known as “Holy Wine” or “Saints’ Wine”, has a long and storied history. Its significance is that Vino Santo carries a unique and diverse identity in the Italian wine context depending on where you are in Italy.
- Vino Santo reflects the historical and cultural heritage that is essentially Italy.
- It’s directly tied to ancient religious practices and ceremonies of the Catholic church.
- It predates modern Italian wine law.
- Vino Santo defied capture by definition in any one particular wine law in any one specific region until 1997.
- 29 separate DOC exist in almost half the provinces of central and northern Italy. *
- One origin story of the name Vin Santo comes from the Greek island of Santorini, which the EU recognised as home of dried grape wine in 2002.
- Passito – or appassimento – is the name of the air-drying process and is borrowed from the Greeks, and is derived from Passum, the raisin wine made in ancient Carthage (Tunisia)
* A list of the provincial DOC and their disciplinare will appear in a future post.
Prior to 1997, Vino Santo was only permitted as Vino da Tavola in Italy, which is significantly different than its current multitude of DOC designations.
Provinces that produce Vino Santo include Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto and Trentino. No other DOC wine comes close to matching the pan-provincial scope of this Holy wine. Tuscany is the most prolific province with 22 Vino Santo DOC not including the sub-zones or Riserva designations. For a place with zero wine law for Vino Santo prior to 1997, Tuscany has sure made up for lost time.
Style, Colour, Sweetness and Quality
Vino Santo can vary widely depending on grape varieties and production methods. While white grapes, such as Trebbiano and Malvasia in Tuscany, are most widely used, red grape varieties, such as Sangiovese, can be used to produce a pinky rosé style wine. When red grape varieties are used, the wine is often labelled as Occhio di Pernice “partridge’s eye“, which has its own DOC classification in several regions of Italy.
Sweetness levels vary from dry secco to off-dry abboccato, to the more common semi-sweet amabile, to very sweet dolce. The wines can also be fortified with grape spirit added during fermentation, like Port or Rivesaltes. These fortified examples are labelled as Vino Santo Liquoroso.
The colour of wine can range from a pale to dark amber to even neon orange. Various levels of oxidation from different aging requirements and practices develop different levels of rancio (nutty) and other volatile aromas and flavours.
Drying processes for Vino Santo are either on or off the vine, indoors on mats or carriages or tied together and hung from rafters. This is distinctly different from the heat-soaked southern Italian practice of dehydrating outside on mats in the direct sun.
Some Vino Santo winemaking traditions use a madre (mother sediment), like sourdough bread, for fermentation.
Pravis Vin Santo Arèle – one of the world’s greatest sweet wines
(photo credit Tyler Dawson @ VinItaly)
My tasting notes: mesmerizingly succulent sweet wine with flavours of peach, pineapple, lime, white flowers, hazelnuts, almond paste, tropical fruit jelly, and vibrant fresh acidity with rich complex viscosity and sweetness. Long, persistent and crescendo finish with the high acidity. Pictured here with a Colomba di Pasqua, a dove-shaped Easter Cake similar to Panettone with candied peel and pearl sugar. This is a classic pairing especially served around Easter Week. Vino Santo is also commonly enjoyed with biscotti.
A very rare gem of a wine that is bound to raise your spirits and quite likely to re-adjust your perspective on how amazingly alive Vino Santo can taste.
Denominazione: Trentino DOC Vino Santo
Winery Special Name: Arèle
This particular wine owes its name to its production process: the Nosiola grapes are left to dry on special wooden racks called “arèle” up to their crushing period, which is carried out during the Settimana Santa (Holy Week). The mosto (juice) so obtained is fermented and remains for at least three years in oak barrels that get topped up to reduce excessive oxidation.
It is produced using Nosiola grapes, a prized and exclusive variety to Trentino. Only the loose straggly clusters are selected, that is the bunches with large, distanced berries and sufficiently ripe to ensure a high sugar content.
While the grapes are left to dry on racks, noble rot or in Italian, muffa nobile (Botrytis cinerea) will concentrate and impart the distinctive honeycomb aroma and taste it is prized for. The combined action of time, air and noble rot on the grapes result in a 50 to 80% weight loss: this means that with 100 kg of fresh grapes, yield only 15-18 litres of nectar for making Vino Santo. After crushing the grapes, the must is separated from the sediment, decanted and racked into small oak barrels. Here natural fermentation begins, which will progress very slowly because of the high sugar content.
The wine is aged for a minimum of 50 months. The annual production of Trentino DOC Vino Santo is generally not over 50 thousand bottles per year.
Grazie mille. Thank you for sharing my interest in Vino Santo. For client appreciation, education, market entry and program strategies, please contact me here.
Until next time,
To date, there are about 330 certified Italian Wine Professionals (IWP) internationally. I was very pleased with the curriculum, the dialogue, the exam and my result – IWP, Honors designation. There are many learning options available for anyone interested in advancing their Italian wine knowledge. Contact me if you’d like to hear more about my recommendations.
Research sources for this article include:
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