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Vin Santo

Vin Santo is a passito dessert wine that has been produced for centuries in the regions of Tuscany and Umbria, with close ties to local traditions. It is made from grapes dried on mats or racks, with vinification in small sealed oak barrels called caratelli, where maturation continues for many years. The traditional production method requires the presence of a lees deposit deriving from previous productions, called Madre, which triggers fermentation. The grapes used are generally white varieties, in particular Malvasia and Trebbiano, but red grapes are also used for the Occhio di Pernice version. The result is a robust, rich and concentrated passito wine, which is supported by a good freshness and equipped with a soft and intense taste that can be more or less sweet. It pairs perfectly with the typical sweet foods of central Italy such as cantucci, panforte, traditional ciambella, fave dei morti and dry pastries.

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Vin Santo is a passito dessert wine that has been produced for centuries in the regions of Tuscany and Umbria, with close ties to local traditions. It is made from grapes dried on mats or racks, with vinification in small sealed oak barrels called caratelli, where maturation continues for many years. The traditional production method requires the presence of a lees deposit deriving from previous productions, called Madre, which triggers fermentation. The grapes used are generally white varieties, in particular Malvasia and Trebbiano, but red grapes are also used for the Occhio di Pernice version. The result is a robust, rich and concentrated passito wine, which is supported by a good freshness and equipped with a soft and intense taste that can be more or less sweet. It pairs perfectly with the typical sweet foods of central Italy such as cantucci, panforte, traditional ciambella, fave dei morti and dry pastries.

The Origins of the Name

Numerous theories have tried to explain the origin of the name Vin Santo ('Holy Wine'), which is typical of the Umbria and Tuscany regions, linking it to ancient religious use or to the practice of fermenting must during the Holy Week. It is certainly known that for centuries this territorial expression was reserved only for those who could afford it, such as the nobility and the high clergy. Some historians suggest that it was consumed during liturgical celebrations, because of its ability to be conserved in the sacristies, even in open bottles. Others believe that the grapes were pressed strictly on the feast day of the saints, thus acquiring its famous name. According to legend, at the height of the plague that broke out in Siena in 1348, a monk supposedly served this precious drink to the dying to ease their suffering. One of them, relieved of the pains of the disease, is said to have appreciated the passito, referring to it as 'sanctus'. Another suggestion is based on the obvious similarities with Xanthos, a Greek passito produced on the island of Santorini. This hypothesis has been authoritatively supported by the famous winemaker Giacomo Tachis who, in one of his books, revealed an interesting anecdote dating back to 1439, during the days when the Ecumenical Council was being held in Florence. During a lavish banquet, Cardinal Bessarione, while tasting a bottle of wine from Greece, enthusiastically exclaimed "this is from Xanthos", referring to the speciality of the island of Santorini. The other guests, who did not fully understand the meaning of the expression, interpreted it as high praise for the bottle, which was even believed to be sacred. The most likely theory is that all these anecdotes and events may have contributed together to the origin of the name, which is one of the oldest and most fascinating in the Italian wine tradition. This great appeal, combined with unique and inimitable organoleptic characteristics, have contributed to the worldwide success of this leading Tuscan wine.


The Ancient Production Method of Vin Santo

The production method has remained virtually unchanged for centuries and is still practised today with great rigour and passion. In the vineyard, the best bunches of grapes are carefully selected and placed in well-ventilated drying rooms and laid on racks, crates or frames. After the drying phase, which in some cases can last more than 4 months, the healthy, unmolded grapes are destemmed and softly pressed. Fermentation takes place in traditional chestnut barrels or in more modern, untoasted European oak barrels, which are always small in size and can hold a maximum of 200 litres. Due to the significant sugar concentration, it is not easy for fermentation to take place completely spontaneously. For this reason, over the centuries producers used to conserve the lees from previous vintages inside the small barrels, which were rich in wild yeasts that favoured the triggering and eventual complete alcoholic fermentation. Even today, the most traditionalist producers exploit this lees deposit called Madre, while respecting the most ancient and territorial methods. This is the case of the prestigious Vin Santo Avignonesi, which is produced from a centuries-old Madre, as well as many other labels from important producers. The use of the Madre reduces the winemaker's ability to control the production process. This is why some producers use specially selected yeasts, to reduce the risk of the final product developing unexpected notes that may be perceived as unpleasant. The famous enologist Giacomo Tachis, however, has argued that, thanks to modern analysis laboratories, it is possible to identify the casks that contain the best and most reliable Madre. In this way, it is possible to avoid the risk of losing control of production while continuing to faithfully follow the ancient method of production.


The Various Types in Central Italy

There are various types of Vin Santo DOC, both in the regions of Tuscany and Umbria. The Chianti version is mainly produced from dried white Trebbiano Toscano or Malvasia grapes. It must be aged in oak barrels no larger than 500 litres and cannot be released on the market before 3 years after the harvest. If produced in the historic Chianti zone, which includes the hills between Florence and Siena, it can bear the Classico appellation. The Occhio di Pernice designation is reserved for wines made from at least 50% red Sangiovese grapes. These are red wines with a typical colour reminiscent of a partridge's eye. Other areas of Tuscany also produce important expressions of this renowned passito, often from Malvasia Bianca, Trebbiano Toscano and Grechetto grapes, as is the case with Carmignano or Montepulciano. Various types are also produced in Umbria, both in the white version and in the Occhio di Pernice version. In fact, several denominations of origin allow its production. Some of these include Amelia DOC, Torgiano and Colli del Trasimeno. These are only a few examples of a type that is widespread throughout central Italy and is produced in many variations.

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