Debunking the [Greek] Vinsanto and [Italian] Vin Santo myth

Map thanks to the Wiki.

Ok, so since I began working on the Boutari Social Media Project, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Greek wine and trolling the internets for Greek wine tidbits. In the light of this and the fact that I am a self-proclaimed lover of Italian wine and a moonlighting Italian wine historiographer, I feel compelled today to address the forgivable yet undeniably erroneous assumption that the grand traditions of Vin Santo in Italy and Vinsanto in Santorini (Greece) are related in any other way than the homonymical resemblance of their respective designations.

In other words, I’m here today to tell you that the Italian wine is called Vin Santo and the Greek wine is called Vinsanto but the wines are highly distinct from one another in style and substance and history and their relation is purely linguistic. The names sound similar (and there’s a reason for that) but it has nothing to do with the wines themselves, ok?

Exhibit A is the map above. By 1450 The Most Serene Republic of Venice controlled areas highlighted in bright green in what is now modern-day Greece. (I could go on for hours on the Venetian control of Greece and its cultural implications at the time but that’s besides the point.)

Exhibit B is the name of the island of Santorini. The Venetians gave it this name when they controlled the island and its trade during the Renaissance and beyond. The toponym arises from a corruption of the expression agia eirini, ultimately Santa Irene, and subsequently Santorini in the parlance of the Venetian merchants of that era (up until when the Sultan came knocking again, but that’s another story).

(Nota bene: I could find no philologically credible source that pointed to xantos as the origin of the island’s name [as per the Bessarione myth]. All reliable sources point to a [pseudo] Santa Irene as the origin of the Venetians’s name and the contemporary name [Σαντορίνη in contemporary Greek] for the island.)

Above: In a politically aligned marriage that helped the Republic of Venice to secure trade routes in Greece, Venetian noblewoman Caterina Cornaro reigned as the queen of Cyprus in the late 15th century. Photo via Asolo.it.

The most likely explanation for the confusion is that Venetian merchants and perhaps their customers once called the wines they found on Santorini (as the island of Thera was known then and is known today) Vinsanto, an abbreviation of vin[o] santo[rini] (Italian readers of my blog will immediately recognize the important role that the term santo plays in the Venetians’s weakness for blasphemy and related wordplay [paranomasia]).

I don’t have time to document properly the sources I’ve consulted today and I can only beg your patience to trust that I’ve done the legwork (and I have, btw).

I will close today’s post, written in haste, with a passage from the inimitable Kostantinos Lazarakis’s The Wines of Greece (Mitchell Beazley Classic Wine Library series):

    It is difficult to compare vinsanto with Tuscany’s vin santo, especially since the latter can vary from fino sherry-like dryness to highly oxidized sweetness. Most of the volatility in vin santo comes from the barrel-ageing, while vinsanto develops it mainly through sun-drying. Vin santo is dried in the shade, more gently, but for longer. (p. 381)

In fact, the Vinsanto of Santorini is made from Assyrtico and Aidani grapes that “are left on the vine to reach high levels of ripeness… After drying, the grapes are crushed and fermented, mostly on their skins.” Vin Santo from Tuscany, the Veneto, and Trentino is made from grapes dried on mats in the attic of a farmhouse. (There are a number of other elements that make Vin Santo different: the Easter week vinficiation tradition — after the wines have dried slowly on the mats over the winter — and the use of a mother yeast culled from previously used aging cask, for example.)

And I’ll also share the following passage, a little nugget I found in my research, translated slavishly (by me), from the Dizionario del dialetto veneto [Dictionary of Venetian Dialect], compiled by Giuseppe Boerio and published by Giuseppe Cecchini in Venice in 1867, p. 527.

    Vin santo, noi chiamiamo quel vino, che in qualche luogo dello Stato ex Veneto si fa la settimana santa coll’uva appassita, ed è un eccellente liquore che chiamasi Vino santo per esser appunto fatto ne’ giorni prossimi alla Santa Pasqua.

    Vin santo [is what] we call the wine, which, in certain places of the Ex-Veneto State, is produced during Holy Week with dried grapes. And it is an excellent liquor that is called Vin santo for the very fact that it is made during the days close to Holy Easter.

This is the first credible source I’ve found so far where the name of the Italian wine is attributed to the tradition of vinification during Holy Week.

I’ll provide all the footnotes for wine geeks and the philologically inclined, I promise, soon! One lazy Sunday afternoon when Tracie P is busy in the kitchen. Thanks for reading!

20 Responses to Debunking the [Greek] Vinsanto and [Italian] Vin Santo myth

  1. Some sources say that during the council of Florence in 1437 when Rome and Constantinople tried to make “peace” a Greek priest tasting wine
    during mass said it was so good it must be holy wine:
    Vin Santo

  2. Do Bianchi says:

    @Charles yes, the famous anecdote of Greek Cardinal Bessarione.

    http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilio_Bessarione

    Many sources say that when he tasted Vin Santo in Italy in Florence in the 15th century (as per your comment), he remarked that the wine was like “vin Xantos,” or so the legend goes. Some would believe that this gave Vin Santo its name.

    When I dug deeper, I found that, in fact, Vin Santo is so-called because of its relation to Holy Week in the Italian tradition. I also discovered that Xantos is not the origin of the name Santorini and that in fact, the Venetians gave the island its name (not the Greeks).

    thanks for stopping by! You and I have tasted some great Vin Santo together… what great memories I have of those wines… :-)

  3. Valerie says:

    Jeremy, last fall in one of my Tuscan Wine lectures, we were given two theories on the name “Vin Santo.” The Holy Week explanation seemed to be the most adhered-to. Another Tuscan legend refers to Franciscan friars in the 14th century taking the wine after mass to the poor or plague-stricken people who believed the wine was healing them, thus the name Holy wine. Since it was part of a lecture, I don’t have the exact source, (other than my Tuscan-born teachers), however, I found this: http://www.tuscany-wine.com/history_of_wine_in_tuscany.htm. I (budding wine geek) really enjoy these posts – thank you!

  4. Do Bianchi says:

    @Valerie thanks so much for the link and the observations. The text I quote above is the earliest I’ve been able to find that addresses the origin of the name of the wine.

    In fact, I haven’t been able to find any reference to Vin Santo in Tuscan literature before the 20th century. But I’m working on it!

    thanks for keeping up with the blog… :-)

  5. Benito says:

    Fascinating work, and I’ve suggested that some of the other bloggers I know who got the Greek vinsanto check out this post.

    Frankly I found this little bit of historical/linguistic detective work to be more interesting than The DaVinci Code. ;)

  6. Konstantinos Lazarakis MW says:

    Greek Vinsanto (meaning Vinsanto from Santorini) is one of the greatest sweet wines of the world and arguably one of the cheapest around.

    It worths keep in mind that Vinsanto from Santorini is one of these wines that oxygen has a hell of a time of get into wine, so you can open a bottle and enjoy it (or serve it by the glass in a restaurant)for several weeks.

    Additionally, since the “hard” elements (acidity, minerality, extract) are very intense in these wines, I think about them as “savoury sweet wines”, that could match rich dishes, and not just “dessert sweet wines”…

  7. Vinogirl says:

    What great research!

  8. tracie p says:

    well 2B, i will be busy in the cucina today…

    love you :x

  9. Pat says:

    The story I heard was that the Venetians named the island of Santorini (formerly Kallisti, or “the most beautiful one”), and when they came back they said – “can you make some wine like that Vino di Santorini?” With some loose direction the Italians (well, not Italian yet) were off and running. Just to really stir things up I also heard that the English made the first Champagne.

  10. [...] a hurry today but just had to get this up on the blog. After I posted the other day debunking the myth that Italian Vin Santo and Greek Vinsanto are related in any other way beyond a homonymical coi…, the chief enologist at Boutari (whose social media project is managed by me), Yannis Voyatzis, [...]

  11. [...] I posted the other day debunking the myth that Italian Vin Santo and Greek Vinsanto are related in any other way beyond a homonymical coi…, the chief enologist at Boutari, Yannis Voyatzis, express-mailed me a wonderful volume on the wines [...]

  12. Do Bianchi says:

    @Konstantinos it’s such a pleasure to have you here. It was such a great experience to get to taste with you in NYC. Your writing on Vinsanto was fundamental in my research. Thank you for sharing your insights here. I real honor for me.

    @Pat In Italy at the time, most wine was made as dried-grape wine and/or dried-grape wine was often added to dry wine. The conundrum of the two names has led to quite a bit of confusion!

    @Vinogirl I’m so glad that my colleagues enjoy the blog. Always great to see you here.

    @Tracie P hey good lookin’, what ya got cookin’? ;-)

  13. Davide B. says:

    Very interesting article, but a little clarification. Vin santo wines produced in Italy in Tuscany (Trebbiano e Malvasia etc.)while Vino (only the O more) Santo are the wines from the Trentino (Nosiola) and Veneto (Garganega). This is a classic contest sommelier question!
    Thanks

  14. [...] the link to my original post on the origins of the two [...]

  15. Good piece, but you did neglected to mention that the poet Hesiod in 700BCE wrote about the ancient process of making sweet wine called Paso…that identifies the process of making wine by sun drying grapes aging them in vessels. it is obvious that the ancient and the renaissance Greeks introduced the entire process to the Italians, passeto and ripasso.

  16. Michael says:

    I’m left a little confused though… it does sound like they are related more than just in linguistics. If the Venetians named Santorini and emulated Vinsanto, whether they are the similar or not, Vin Santo wine can trace a clear lineage back to Santorini? That is the myth, isn’t it? Whether some priest or poor people named it, is academic, because the wine was already there – brought back by Venetian merchants.

  17. Doug Bannister says:

    Thank you so much for the information about
    Vinsanto wine from Greece. We visited santorini in 2008 and visited a co-op
    Winery and were served a ruby red Von
    Santo. We brought a bottle home and wish
    It had been a case. We can’t find it in
    Owen Sound LCBO and would love to get
    It again. We likely will just have to back to Greece to get it.
    Thanks again for the info, I really appreciate
    Your research.

  18. […] toskańskich win słodkich pochodzi właśnie od Santorini i to Włosi (za pośrednictwem Wenecjan) zapożyczyli nazwę. Siga las Vinsanto 2004 (136 zł) ma jednak odmienny charakter od włoskich vin santo. Mniej […]

  19. […] Here’s a thread of posts on Santorini and my visit there and here are my notes on the origins of the toponym Santorini and enonym Vinsanto. […]

  20. […] the link to my original post on the origins of the two […]

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