It is just as well to clarify one issue with regard to Vin Santo: it is not the sole prerogative of Tuscan wine-makers. Indeed, according to Attilio Scienza, a leading expert on the subject, the Vin Santo produced on the Greek island of Santorini probably has the longest history. In late mediaeval times, the sweet wine imported from Greece was considered the best on the market, and so Italian producers started to imitate its style, beginning with the Venetians. This is recorded in one of the most important books on wine history: “Tuscan Oenology” by the Florentine doctor and botanist Giovanni Cosimo Villafranchi. So Vin Santo certainly did not originate in Tuscany, although the history of wine is full of chance encounters and the exchange of ideas. The origins of the name (‘Holy Wine’) are also far from clear. Some claim it derives from its use in the Mass, others say it relates to the fact that the grapes were dried during Holy Week, while others maintain it comes from the Greek word “xantos”, meaning yellow. However, the most interesting explanation, if not the most plausible, comes from Giacomo Tachis, winemaker and father of the Italian wine Renaissance. He claims that when Cardinal Bessarione was attending the Ecumenical Council in Florence in 1439, he was served a glassful and immediately exclaimed: “This wine is from Xantos” – in reference to a Greek wine.
Surrounded by legends and history, for many centuries this was a wine for the few, drunk by the nobility but not by the ordinary people. Today, it lives on as a secondary product, enjoying general popularity. It is mainly produced in Tuscany, not only in Chianti but throughout the region, and also in Emilia Romagna and Umbria. What unites all types of Vin Santo, and makes it unique and different from any other wine, is the particular method of production. We will give a brief description of what this entails, so that even wine novices will be able to understand this complicated process. Firstly, there are the grapes: every region and terrain has its own varieties, Malvasia and Trebbiano in Tuscany, but Pinot Bianco or Grigio, Chardonnay or Sauvignon in other parts of the country. In general, thicker-skinned varieties in smaller bunches are better suited to the drying process and less susceptible to rot. The most painstaking part of the operation is undoubtedly the drying of the grapes, a costly but clearly essential process. There are three ways of doing this: one way is to let the bunches wither on the vine, i.e. let them over-ripen and then pick them after the rest of the crop, but this is not the best or safest method; the traditional and most widespread practice involves laying out the grapes in wooden boxes or on mats in spaces under the eaves, where they can slowly dessicate without exposure to the weather; finally, the bunches can dried in rooms equipped with fans: this method is used when making Amarone, but much less commonly for Vin Santo.
The grapes are ready for crushing when their sugar level reaches between 25% and 40% (depending on the type of Vin Santo you want to produce). The crushed grapes are then squeezed, and the resulting must, with all the lees and grape marc, is usually allowed to rest for 3-4 days at a temperature of 20-22 degrees. After the decanting process, the phase begins that will ultimately determine the quality of the wine: fermentation. This traditionally takes place in “caratelli”, oak or chestnut kegs similar to barrels, but only designed to hold between 50 and 200 litres. An important element here is the ‘madre’: a starter culture of yeast containing lees from the final racking of the previous year’s production. The resilient micro-organisms in this older wine encourage the fermentation process. When this is complete, the wine is racked to separate off the dregs, and allowed to age, once again in wooden kegs. After a minimum of three years, the Vin Santo is removed from the ‘caratelli’, filtered and bottled. This long process also takes place in the cellars of the Castelli del Grevepesa cooperative, leading to the production of the Castelgreve Vin Santo del Chianti Classico and the Clemente VII Vin Santo del Chianti Classico Riserva.