Vin Santo ('Holy Wine') is the name given to the amber-hued straw wines traditionally from Tuscany, central Italy. The origins of the name are disputed, but most agree it comes from the time when these wines were used for Holy Communion. There are similar wines made in other Italian wine regions, and the vinsanto of Santorini is almost identical in both name and style, but the Tuscan hills retain a long-standing connection with these golden, intensely flavored wines.
Tuscan vin santo is one of various types of 'straw wine' (vin de paille in French and strohwein in German). Straw wines are so named because they are traditionally made from grapes left to dry out on straw mats after harvest. The mats are placed in the warmest, driest part of the home (or winery) so the grapes gradually desiccate over the winter. This process concentrates the grapes' natural sugars (they usually lose around 60% of their original volume) and thus the flavor of the wine they make. A typical vin santo offers aromas of apricots and orange blossom, followed by a caramel, nut and raisin-rich palate with a hint of honey and cream on the finish.
After the grapes have dried out (3–6 months), they are gently pressed and the resulting must fermented. In Tuscany the harsh winters are often so cold as to delay or even stop fermentation, and the solution to this is to kick-start the process with a starter culture (madre) taken from the previous year's wine. Once fermentation is over, the wine is left to age in small wooden barrels called caratelli. These remain small by necessity: to store large barrels in one's roof creates obvious structural safety issues. Because these caratelli are completely sealed, they cannot be topped up to compensate for natural ullage (evaporation) and this inevitably results in slight oxidation. This contributes to the wine's rich amber color, and although it is an accepted as part of the vin santo style, some modern producers now use temperature-controlled environments to retain a certain freshness in the wines. Ageing lasts for a minimum of three years, although some producers leave their wines for as long as ten years.
Vin santo wines are known to have been made since at least the Middle Ages, and have become a traditional part of Tuscan life. They are offered as a welcoming drink to house guests, and are often consumed with almond-scented amaretti biscuits or knobbly cantucci biscuits. The wines are still produced widely today, and were finally recognized under DOC law in 1997. The late arrival of the various vin santo DOCs was not due to any particular lack of quality (although this is quite variable due to the inconsistency of production methods and winemaking ability), but because of the vast range of styles in which vin santo is made. To impose production and labeling restrictions on such a traditional and widely produced wine is far from straightforward.
Although vin santo is generally classed as a dessert wine, its sweetness levels vary. Most are made sweet (amabile) or very sweet (dolce), and in terms of sweetness rank alongside such botrytized wines as Sauternes, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise or Trockenbeerenauslese styles from Austria's Neusiedlersee region. Other wines are almost completely dry (secco), made from grapes which have not been left to desiccate so completely; they undergo a more rigorous fermentation until almost all of the sugars have been converted to alcohol. These resemble a dry fortified wine (such as fino sherry) more than a sweet nectar, and have the nutty aroma of sweet, baked earth. Those vin santo cuvees labeled as liquoroso have been fortified with grape spirit and left with a considerable quantity of residual sugar, resulting in a sweet style with alcohol levels around 17% alcohol by volume.
Vin santo is produced in various classified zones in Tuscany, including Chianti and its viticultural sub-regions of Carmignano, Sant'Antimo and Montepulciano. In these four places the vin santo has its own DOC, but it is also covered by other DOCs including Pomino, Bolgheri and Elba. Other examples are found in Umbria, Veneto (specifically in Gambellara) and Trentino, where it is made from Nosiola.