Vin Santo (or Vinsanto) from the Chianti region is a sweet wine which holds the prestigious DOC certification. This DOC certification allows it to be produced in the provinces of Arezzo, Florence, Pisa, Pistoia, Prato and Siena.
Tuscan Vin Santo represents hospitality. Each family offers it to their guests and keeps their particular recipe a closely guarded secret. The DOC certification was granted in 1997, bringing recognition for this great wine produced in the Chianti area.
The grapes used to make Vin Santo have an extremely high sugar content which means that traditional Vin Santo has a much higher alcohol content than that which is permitted by law. In theory, Vin Santo producers ought to request authorization to make liqueur wines.
However, in the past Vin Santo was often only a side product made by many wine producers and official authorization was therefore rarely requested. Consequently, much Vin Santo was made ‘illegally’.
The DOC recognition resolved this situation by allowing the alcohol content to be between 15.5 and 17 per cent, which brought most producers back within legal boundaries.
Traditionally, Vin Santo was produced by harvesting only the best bunches of grapes and leaving them to dry hung from hooks. This was often done when there was a waning moon as, according to local superstition, this stopped the grapes from going bad.
Once the grapes were dry, they were pressed and the grape juice would be transferred into wooden containers which could hold anything from between 15 and 50 litres. These containers would have held the previous year’s Vin Santo too. It was made sure that the dregs of the previous year’s production stayed in the wooden containers as it was believed that this was one way of assuring that the Vin Santo would be good. In fact, the dregs were called ‘the mother of Vin Santo’. These large wooden containers would then be stored for around three years to allow the wine to ferment and age properly.
The high sugar content results in a high alcohol content, sometimes up to 19 per cent.
Traditionally in Tuscany (and in many other wine producing regions), yeast wasn’t used in wine making. Despite this, natural yeast from the air and on the equipment would nonetheless play a part in the fermentation process. There are various kinds of natural yeasts although very few of them manage to survive where there is more than 13 per cent alcohol. This means that in the past, the fermentation of Vin Santo was not so automatic. To help the process along, the grape juice was often left to ferment in small containers in the hope that at least one would contain a form of yeast capable of surviving the high concentration of alcohol. When this was successful, the dregs were jealously guarded and spread among the following years barrels in order to stimulate fermentation in the newer wine juice. The dregs would be used time and time again, hence the name ‘mother of Vin Santo’. The wooden containers also contained natural yeasts and so were never washed. This slightly unhygienic way of producing Vin Santo had many positive but also some negative consequences.
VIN SANTO TODAY
In the modern day production of Vin Santo, new and clean wooden containers are used and yeasts are which are known to survive the high sugar/alcohol content are deliberately added to the wine juice. Of course, nowadays national hygiene and health regulations also apply. Nonetheless, a great many producers still add a small quantity of the ‘mother’ dregs to recreate a feeling of the past and carry on the ancient tradition of Vin Santo making.