Revisiting my research on Vinsanto (Greek) vs. Vin Santo (Italian)

I’m taking a break from blogging for the next couple of days and so I thought I’d revisit my research on the etymologies of the enonyms Vinsanto (Greek) and Vin Santo (Italian) and their philological relationship (for anyone who missed it the first time around or for anyone who’s only recently started following here).

Here’s a link to the thread.

Happy reading, everyone! I hope you drink something great for the holiday and have a safe and fun Fourth of July!

The earliest mention of Vin Santo in print? Maffei, Verona, 1732

Above: I’m borrowing images of grapes recently picked and laid out to dry for Vin Santo from my friends at Il Poggione.

For those of you who have been following my research into the origins of the enonyms Vinsanto (Santorini, Greece) and Vin Santo (Italy), I hope that you will find my most recent discoveries as interesting and exciting as I do.

The first comes from Francesco Scipione Maffei’s history of Verona, Verona Illustrata (parte prima) (Verona, Jacopo Vallarsi e Pierantonio Berno, 1732).

N.B.: for brevity’s sake, I’ve refrained from glossing the historical figures mentioned here. Where possible, I’ve included relevant links. On another occasion, I’ll translate more from Maffei’s wonderful book.

In discussing the historically significant agricultural products of greater Verona, Maffei devotes ample space to the wines, citing mentions in Cassiodorus and in various Roman decrees. Two wines, he writes, were highly coveted by the Romans: one white and one red. He translates (into Italian) Cassidorus’s description of a vinification process for a wine that resembles today’s Recioto di Soave (no surprise here). But a discrepancy in the nomenclature leads him to make the following observation:

    But perhaps [the wine described below] had another name in antiquity, because Pliny omits it. And it seems that [Roman jurist] Ulpian meant something else when he referred to Acinaticum or Acineum in a law.

    Select grapes are stored until December. They are then gently pressed in the great cold [of winter]. The must is stored for a long while without starting fermentation and before laying a hand on it or drinking it.

    [Ancient documents] show that this wine, although red and not white, was the very same wine that we praise today by calling it Santo [holy].

    It is also produced in greater Brescia, from here to the Chiesi river.

    [translation mine]

I believe that this may be the earliest known reference to “Vin Santo” in print (1732). Whether it is or not, it demonstrates that the citizens of the Venetian Republic produced a wine known popularly as “[Vin] Santo.” The fact that it’s mentioned in 1732 reveals that it was popular long before then.

Above: The grapes are laid out to dry on mats called cannicci in Italian.

The second fascinating discovery comes in the form of La teoria e la pratica della Viticultura e della enologia [Theory and Practice of Viticulture and Enology] by Egidio Pollacci (Milano, Fatelli Dumolard, 1883). I’ll let the text speak for itself:

    Vin-santo. — The grapes used to make this wine vary from place to place because the same grape varieties, when cultivated in different regions, naturally deliver fruit of varying character. As a result, grapes good for Vin-santo in one place are difficult to use in other places. In Tuscany, for example, the grapes best suited for Vin-santo are Tribbiano [sic], Canaiolo bianco, and San Colombano. (1)

    (1) Vin-santo di Caluso, which is famous especially in Piedmont, is prepared using grape varieties known locally as Erbaluce and Bonarda. But in other parts of Piedmont, other grapes are used. …

    [translation mine]

In other texts I’ve uncovered, there is clear evidence that the production of Vin Santo was wildly popular in Tuscany by the end of the 19th century. The fact that Pollacci uses Tuscany as an example is indicative of this phenomenon. But what’s important here is the fact that he describes how different grapes are used in different regions, thus revealing that Vin Santo was popular in other parts of Italy as well. The production of Vin Santo in Piedmont was evidently significant enough in the late 19th century that Pollacci (who was from Pistoia) felt compelled to mention it here.


Above: Specially sized oak casks, called caratelli, are used for the long-term aging of Vin Santo.

I wish I had more time to devote to the many interesting texts I’ve “unearthed” recently and Maffei alone would merit his own monographic blog! Alas, it’s time to pay some bills around here… More later… and THANKS SO MUCH FOR READING!

Better than the Da Vinci Code: more Santorini sleuthing!

Posting in 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 coincidence, the chief enologist at Boutari (whose social media project is managed by me), Yannis Voyatzis, express-mailed me a wonderful volume on the wines of Santorini, which (literally) just arrived. In it, I found this wonderful reproduction of a map, printed in 1576 by a Venetian printer. As you can see above and in the detail below, in late 16th-century Venice, the Venetian name of the island Santorini was already well-established.

But more importantly, you can see that the name Santo Erini was still prevalent.

I believe that this supports my theory that the Greek appellation name Vinsanto comes from Vin[o di] Santo[erini].

I’ll have a great deal to say about this in an upcoming post. Early Venetian printing was one of the subjects of my doctoral thesis and I think I’ll have some interesting insights for the philologically inclined among us.

I’m super slammed with work today but just had to share this find asap.

Is this better than the Da Vinci Code OR WHAT???!!!! :-)

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

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!

The Easter-springtime miracle of Vin Santo

Today, as I watch the events of the Italian wine industry trade fairs unfold from afar, a Facebook friend from Padua, Andrea Fasolo, reminds me of a small miracle that takes place in the Veneto (where the trade fairs take place) and elsewhere in Italy during this time of the year: Vin Santo, via a post by VinoPigro from a few years ago.

It’s natural to think of Vin Santo as quintessentially Tuscan, since Tuscany is the region that continues to produce excellent expressions of Vin Santo with great commercial and qualitative success. But, however small the numbers in terms of volume, Vin Santo continues to be produced in other regions of Italy, notably the Veneto and Trentino-Alto Adige.

While most wineries finished vinification long before Christmas of 2009, producers of Vin Santo are only now pressing their dried grapes (like those in the image above, left) for fermentation. One of the possible explanations of the name Vin Santo or Vinsanto, i.e., holy wine, is that fermentation is carried during the period of Easter — springtime, renewal, rebirth — when “Christ rises” again. One of the unique elements of Vin Santo is that fermentation occurs not when temperatures are cooling in fall but when temperatures are beginning to rise in the spring.

But the Easter miracle of Vin Santo doesn’t end here. Once vinification takes place, the wine is transferred to small barrels and laid to rest in the attic of a farm house or barn. There, the wine will remain unmolested for two years and it will undergo at least two more fermentations, “rising again” next spring and the spring thereafter.

The images here — like the one to the right, where the grapes are being removed from the racks where they’ve dried during the winter — come from the Canoso winery in Brognoligo, the “hamlet with the most surface area planted to vine” in the “township with the most surface area planted to vine” in all of Italy, Monteforte d’Alpone, near the town of Soave, in the Veneto, just east of Verona. Canoso is one of the handful of wineries that still makes Vinsanto there.

I was happy to sit the wine fairs out this year since I’ve been on the road so much already in 2010. But I’ve been enjoying the coverage on blogs like Alfonso’s and Ale’s. If I were there, I’d just be complaining about being in my region, the Veneto, and not being able to visit with my many friends in Padua and Belluno. But thanks to Andrea, I can still taste the sweet must (above, not yet filtered nor fined) of the Vinsanto that they’re making now… one of life’s holy, small miracles…

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).