I was lucky enough this autumn to join a Society Dining Club visit to Tuscany. One of the many high spots was rediscovering one of Italy’s most eccentric wines: Vin Santo.
The name’s origin is disputed. An obvious explanation that it was ‘holy’ wine used for celebrating Mass, because it kept well once open, is now thought to be less likely than the theory that the name derives from the Greek volcanic island of Santorini, principal supplier of Vin Santo for many years for Mass to the Orthodox church. Whichever story is true, it is a wine long associated with hospitality, brought out on special occasions to honour guests, and made laboriously and with love in small quantities rather than for commercial profit.
This is because the process is decidedly elaborate. Minuccio Cappelli, one-time supplier of The Society’s Chianti Classico, who first introduced me to it, was of the oldfashioned school. He made it from a mix of trebbiano, malvasia and sangiovese grapes crushed and left to ferment on the madre, a thick residue of the previous batch in small barrels (caratelli), which he sealed with concrete and left to ferment undisturbed without racking for five to seven years. Results were either fabulous, disastrous or something in between and could be dry, mediumdry or sweet.
Today, one of the very finest is produced by Paolo di Marchi at Isole e Olena. It is wonderfully luscious and sweet, yet with refreshing, fruity acidity and entirely natural sweetness of 190g/l. Sip with almond biscuits (cantucci) or blue cheese, and you will be filled with goodwill towards this puzzling but sometimes wonderfully eccentric world.
Sebastian Payne MW
Chief wine buyer