Vin Santo: an overlooked “orange” wine? (and a more likely explanation of its name)

vin santo

Above: Ale posted photos of grapes (Trebbiano and Malvasia) being laid out to dry on reed mats for the Vin Santo that he and his father are making this year.

Scanning my Google Reader feed this morning, I came across these posts by my friend Ale in Sant’Angelo in Colle. He and his father grow Sangiovese and make Brunello di Montalcino for one of the oldest — and one of my favorite — producers in the appellation, Il Poggione.

vin santo

Above: The mats are then hung in the vinsantaia, an attic used especially for the drying of the grapes. Windows on either side of the space allow for ventilation that helps to limit humidity during drying.

Reading his descriptions of harvesting and drying grapes for the production of Vin Santo, it occurred to me that Vin Santo is an “orange” wine. There is no canonical definition of “orange wine,” even though a new “orange wine” movement has clearly emerged among European winemakers, mainstream wine writers, fringe wine bloggers (like me), enthusiasts, and lovers. Vin Santo is generally not made using skin contact during fermentation (one of the fundamental techniques employed in the production of orange wine). But there is no denying that Vin Santo is orange in color.

The rich orange color of Vin Santo is created by the drying of the grapes and by intentional oxidation of the wine.

vin santo

Above: Specially sized caratelli (literally, “small casks”) are used for aging. Many believe that the size of the barrels is one of the keys to the unique flavors and aromas of Vin Santo.

The earliest documented printed reference to Vin Santo is found in Giovanni Cosimo Villifranchi’s Oenologia Toscana (1773). In 1605, Sir Robert Dallington mentions a wine called Zibibbo, which was “dried for Lent” and could possibly be a reference to Vin Santo (see his entire description of grape growing and winemaking in Tuscany here).

Many claim that the name Vin Santo (literally, “holy wine”) was coined in the 15th century when Greek humanist Basilios Bessarion tasted the wine and compared it to the wines of Xantos (see also this entry on Bessarion in the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia). Supporters of the theory maintain that he liked it so much, he exclaimed “Xantos!” and those present understood him to say “Santo!” But I doubt this is the case.

I’ve heard some say that the name is inspired by the fact that Vin Santo can go through a second fermentation in the spring when temperatures rise in the vinsantaia. Like Christ, the wine “rises again.” I doubt this is the case but Dallington’s reference to Lent leads me to believe that dried grape wines were associated directly or indirectly with Easter in his time.

In 1773, Villifranchi writes: “The name that is given by us today to this ‘Vino di Santo’ is believed by some to be owed to Ancoret saints* and the Monks of Soria [Spain] who originally made wine in this manner.” He adds that “others believe that this name derives from the fact that the grapes are typically pressed during the period of the Christmas holidays.”

Whether you call Vin Santo an orange wine or not, it would seem to pass muster with the natural wine dogmatists. Using a “mother” yeast to start fermentation is a sine qua non of Vin Santo production: after pressing, sediment is scraped from a cask from a previous vintage and then added to the newly pressed juice to initiate fermentation. That’s how they’ve been making Vin Santo for centuries (or at least since Villifranchi first described methods of vinification employed in his day).

The only difference is that in Italy, they don’t call it “natural wine.” They just call it wine.

Look for more on Sir Robert in upcoming posts and check out this cool video posted by Ale on his blog today:

* “The recluses of the East in the early Christian centuries” (OED).

9 thoughts on “Vin Santo: an overlooked “orange” wine? (and a more likely explanation of its name)

    • Len, thanks for reading and for the comment. There’s no doubt that the Venetians’s contact with Greece and Greek wines had a big influence on the wine trade. In the Veneto and Friuli, you can still find references to a wine called “vino di Cipro” or “Cyprus Wine.”

      My thought is that Xantos (Santorini) is a linguistic coincidence. I believe that dried grape winemaking originated in the Arab world (as the name Zibibbo reveals) and was prevalent throughout the Mediterranean before the modern era.

      My feeling is that Villifranchi’s explanation of the names origin is probably closest to the truth and that the wine has traditionally been associated with the Church and religious holidays.

      Let us know if you find out more on your trip and happy (and safe) travels to you!

  1. Reading your post I was reminded of the wine I learned to appreciate while living in Cyprus for 7 years. Commandaria is an amber-colored sweet wine made from sun-dried indigenous grapes. Cypriots claim it’s the oldest wine still in production. The big 4 wineries dominate about 75% of the market and, in my opinion, have in their mass production strayed from what captivated the Venetians. There are however a few small producers who make some Commandaria well worth trying.

  2. @rbrand I’ve been told there are some fantastic Cypriot wines out there and would love to try some one of these days.

    The Venetians dominated the Greek wine trade during the Renaissance until they were ultimately ousted by the Sultan, who forbade wine. That’s one of the reasons the Greek wine trade is only now emerging from the “dark ages.”

    I’ll look for Commandaria… thanks for the comment and thanks for reading… :-)

  3. so if every wine is “innoculated” (without the dirty connotation of ‘manipulated’ wine) with the previous vintage’s sediment, it would be fun to discover how long-lived some of those cultures are.

  4. The rich orange color of Vin Santo is created by the drying of the grapes and by intentional oxidation of the wine.

    Indeed, though the years the wine spends in contact with those “small casks” and the effects of baking through summers in the un-climate-controlled aging rooms also play a significant role in the oranging of Vin Santo.

  5. When I was is Sicilia last I drank a wine called Zibibbo that was sweet but it was made using muscat grapes. Any connection between the Zibibbo there and Zibibbo in Toscana?

  6. thanks, everyone, for the comments and insights…

    @David and Tracie B Vin Santo is at once an entirely manipulated wine and a truly “natural” (in quotes) wine, isn’t it? Gee I sure hope that you-know-who isn’t reading my blog! ;-)

    @Alfonso I would love to try that wine.

    @Chris I actually posted on that very topic a few posts ago… just scroll down through previous posts and you’ll find it! :-)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s