Vin Santo, Sweet Wine Made Using The Passito Method
This is the last of our series on Tuscan wine, and what better way to end up than with a wine made to accompany dessert? When visiting Tuscany you may come across Vin Santo (holy wine), a sweet wine made from air dried grapes. Usually the wine is made from white grapes, trebbiano and malvasia but in the case of Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice, sangiovese is used (sometimes with the addition of white grapes). Once picked, either the grapes are spread out on bamboo matting in a well ventilated room or the bunches are hung from beams). After 1-6 months air-drying the grapes have lost 35-40% of their water, they are pressed and the resulting liquid put in a small (100 litre) barrel. Air dying grapes to concentrate sugars and flavours is known as the passito method, it is commonly used in Italy to make dessert wines and, in Northern Italy, Valpolicella Amarone and Sforzato di Valtellina, both dry, concentrated red wines.
In the past fortified sweet wines were also labelled as vin santo but this is no longer permitted as it was detracting from the high quality and labour intensive passito method (you can make a sweet wine by adding a spirit part way through fermentation, this kills the yeast and leaves residual sugar in the wine, port is an example of a wine made this way), today such wines are called vino liquoroso. Depending on the restaurant you go to, it is possible to be served either type of wine with cantucci biscuits for dessert. More expensive restaurants are likely to offer the passito method vin santo whereas cheaper places are more likely to offer a liquoroso.
To start the fermentation a small amount of older vin santo is transferred from an older barrel to the new barrel containing the freshly pressed juice, this has a natural yeast (known as the mother yeast or madre) that kicks things off. These prized strains of yeast can be hundreds of years old if generations of your family have been making vin santo. A gap is left at the top of the barrel which allows the wine to oxidise. The extremely sugar rich environment slows down the action of the yeast and the resulting wines are usually 12-13% alcohol by the time fermentation stops. The Vin Santo is left in barrel for a minimum of 3 years but some producers age for 10. There is still a lot of residual sugar so the wine is sweet and persistent in the mouth with intense dried fruit, spice, honey, caramel and hazelnut aromas. The amber colour results from oxidation in the barrel as do the hazelnut aromas.
L’Occhio di Pernice (eye of the partridge) is made with sangiovese, as a result the colour is more orange with aromas of plum jam, caramel, honey, dark chocolate, coffee and tobacco.
You will find vin santo in other regions of Italy but Tuscany has by far the highest level of production, there are twenty four Vin Santo DOCs.