My husband and I just got back from two wonderful and delicious weeks in Italy. Whenever I travel I am always amazed at how young our country is. When standing inside the necropolis under St. Peters Basilica, something that was built in the 1st century A.D, and they kept speaking about “The New Church” which was built over head (meaning the basilica that was built in the 1600’s), I was reminded that not much in the United States is still standing from the 17th century. So other than an amazing amount of art and history and architecture, we also took in some food and beverages. And while I will write a post solely dedicated to the delicious Italian foods we had, I decided to write today’s about a new to us dessert wine we found: Vin Santo!
On most dessert menus in Italy you will see an offering of biscotti and Vin Santo. We had our first taste of it on one of our last nights in Florence. We were at a delicious wine bar and decided to try some and were pleasantly surprised. It was sweet, but not sickeningly so and coats the palate really nicely. It wasn't until we did a vineyard tour and five course tasting at Avignonesi Vineyards in Montepulciano that we learned more about this delicious wine.
Vin Santo literally translates to Wine of the Saints, or Holy Wine, as it was once used in masses. While there’s lots of question as to where it originated, in honesty, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter however, it where it is now. The Italian government regulates wines (ever wondered why some of your Chiantis have that label around the top that says DOC?) and of course, it regulates the production of Vin Santo’s. In order to be called a Vin Santo, the grapes must be aged for 3 years at least, most vineyard age theirs 5-10 years. While on our tour of Avignonesi, we were walked through their Vin Santo vault and told about how they create their wine. To start, the winery must use its best grapes, they are harvested and laid out to air dry from October through April, the longer they dry, the higher the sugar levels and therefore the higher the alcohol content. In April they will have a gathering where they will taste the Vin Santo that was barreled 10 years previously, so this April they will taste the barrels from 2002. Once the barrels are tasted, they will be bottled and the grapes from the previous season will be crushed and placed into those barrels. Unlike with other wines, where the oak barrel is meant to last no more than 5 years, Vin Santo barrels are used until they fall apart. This is because there is madre inside, or Mother Yeast. The Avignonesi vinters have no idea where their yeast came from, they do not create it. It is within each of their barrels and they assume the original yeast was started when the vineyard started in the mid 15th century; It is like this for most well known makes of Vin Santo’s. So when the barrels are no longer fit for use, they open them up, scoop out the yeast and place it inside a new barrel, but of course every time this is done yeast is lost. So the goal is the keep the barrels as long as possible and maintain the madre.
So the crush goes into the barrels, the barrels are closed with a wax seal to mark the year they were barreled with the madre and the grapes and are left in a room that isn’t climate controlled, which for those of you wine drinks out there, know that is unusual. Generally when fermenting the barrels are placed underground or in cooler rooms in order to keep the sweetness of the wine to a certain level. By allowing the natural heat and cold to contact the barrels, the end product becomes much sweeter.
Bottles of Vin Santo at Avignonesi (which are only sold in 350mL) are sold from between 180 to 210 Euros depending on if it’s a red or white Vin Santo.
We had the complete fortune to taste both while at the Vineyard and I can say without a doubt it was the best wine I’ve ever had in my life. We were told that some American’s likened it to Maple Syrup, after having a taste I informed the lovely people in the tasting room that this was wildly incorrect and that if maple syrup tasted anything like this I would be bathing it in daily.
Avignonesi’s Vin Santo was like a kiss from the Saints, soft and sweet. The wine was more viscous that any I had ever had, but the viscosity made it stick to your mouth better and ensured that you were able to enjoy ever last drop. So while in the past I may have scoffed at purchasing a $300 bottle of wine, I can assure you that I'm saving every penny I have in order to buy an Avignonesi Vin Santo. I hear 2011 was an excellent harvest....