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).