Something From the Attic


For most people, climbing up to the attic to see what’s been gathering dust for several years is  unpleasant.   Not so for the Tuscans.   Their signature dessert wine – Vin Santo – traditionally was made by drying grapes in the attic for about four months to concentrate the sugar and flavors, and then slowly fermenting the wine in small oak barrels and leaving it in the attic to age for several years.

The first time that I tasted a Vin Santo, it was with pleasant company on a spectacular summer evening overlooking the Tuscan countryside.  I hadn't been a fan of sweet wines until then, but this was a revelation about how good they could be.  Which brought up the age-old question: was the wine really that good, or would a glass of motor oil have seemed special under the circumstances?  While I can't deny that I'd prefer to drink Vin Santo in Tuscany, it's pretty darn tasty at home.

Vin Santo generally.

  • Most Vin Santo is made in Tuscany.  It's a signature wine, and can be either a vini da meditazione (a meditation wine to be sipped slowly by itself) or a dessert wine paired with Tuscan desserts.
  • Vin Santo is made primarily from the white Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes, generally as a blend.   There’s also a rare pink version made from red grapes (typically Sangiovese) that is called occhio di pernice (“eye of the partridge”); the best of this is produced by Avignonesi and it will set you back about $150.  That's some serious meditating.
  • Production of Vin Santo begins with drying the grapes for three to six months in a well-ventilated room, sometimes on straw mats but typically hung from the rafters.  The sugar content of the grapes (and ultimately the sweetness of the wine) is determined by how long they dry.
    • After the grapes have dried, they are pressed and the juice is fermented slowly in small oak barrels.  Uniquely, the fermentation process is initiated by a "madre" (mother), which is the thick deposit left at the bottom of the barrel of a previous batch.  The old wine is removed and the newly pressed grape juice is added to the barrel.  The quality of a Vin Santo depends on the quality of the mother.
    • The wine is stored in non-temperature controlled rooms, subject to seasonal temperature variations, for a minimum of two - three years.   The best producers age the wine for longer periods.
    • Vin Santo can be made in varying levels of sweetness, although it's typically not as sweet as Sauternes and similar dessert wines.
    • Vin Santo is expensive because it's labor intensive and only small amounts of juice are obtained from the dried grapes.
  • The origins of Vin Santo (“Holy Wine”) date to the Middle Ages, and there are several theories about how got its name.  The most likely explanation is that historically Vin Santo was pressed and fermented during Holy Week.

Our wine of the week is a 2009 Badia a Coltibuono Vin Santo del Chianti Classico (about $40 for a 375 ml bottle).   This very good Vin Santo is a Wine Concepts favorite, and worth the price.   It's made from organic grapes, and aged about six years in small oak barrels.  The color is brilliant amber, and it has enticing aromas of honey, apricot and a hint of citrus.  On the palate, it's full-bodied, rich and sweet, with honey, apricot, orange peel and hazelnut notes.  The acid nicely balances the sweetness of the wine, which has a long, pleasant finish.  You should serve Vin Santo at 60 to 65 degrees.

Vin Santo Pairings. Traditionally, Vin Santo is served with hard almond biscuits called cantucci.  This is a contrasting pairing - rather than trying to match a sweet dessert, the wine softens and sweetens the dry cookie, and the cookie moderates the sweetness of the wine (yes, it's OK to dip the biscuits in the wine).  Vin Santo also pairs well with blue cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, Gorgonzola,  liver paté and desserts with chocolate and hazelnut flavors.

Other good and relatively easy to find producers include Frescobaldi, Carpezzana, Isole e Olena, Rocca della Macie and Antinori.



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