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!