The Sweet & Wild side of Chianti Classico: Vin Santo dessert wine
Hey, what is this beautiful aroma?
Dried and cooked fruits, dates, caramel, oriental spices, candied ginger, iodine, soy sauce, saffron, medicinal herbs, toasted almonds, cigar boxes, coffee, toffee, tea tree oil, mushrooms and licorice.
Dry/off-dry like a Sherry Fino: medium sweet with clean dry fruit like a “passito”; sweet with strong oxidative notes; dense syrup and sticky sweet with lower alcohol and darker color. Never flabby, amazingly juicy with an oxidative and “briny” contrasting presence with a never-ending finish. What is it?
It’s Vin Santo DOC del Chianti Classico! An ancient dessert wine that can be found in different regions of Italy and under several appellations in Tuscany, but today we will focus on this specific one.
The History of a Very Fine Dessert Wine
‘Vin Santo del Chianti Classico… but Chianti Classico is the red wine that I have with my steak or pasta every week!’ you might be thinking. But amongst the world renown red Chianti Classico wines, there is another hidden treasure in the region.
So how can a red wine region produced such a wonderful dessert wine like Vin Santo?
Until the 2005 vintage, Chianti Classico DOCG traditionally allowed a small presence of the white varieties of Trebbiano and Malvasia into the red wine blend. And it is with these two varieties that winemakers have mainly been producing a small batch of the dessert wine, Vin Santo. This wine is created by drying the grapes for many months before fermenting them in small barrels (between 50-300l) for at least 24 months.
Amongst the many sources of information regarding the origin of this wine, a common denominator easily identified is its connection to being considered holy is some capacity and in fact, Vin Santo means ‘holy wine’. Hence it is possible that this was a “mass wine” or that the grapes were drying until the holy week before Easter.
Some sources say it was a Greek cardinal who while tasting Vin Santo during a visit in Florence in 1439 said: this wine is as sweet and the wines of Xantos in Santorini or maybe because the coloro was a dark yellow (yellow in greek is Xantos ). There are plenty of other stories to be found but it is really tough to say which is the real answer.
Despite the ancient origins and the high reputation among the wine critics, this wine is almost like a ghost making its appearance only at then end of very special wine events or during winery dinners for press&trade. Very few wine lovers and consumers outside Tuscany are aware of this unique and super complex product.
It’s only form 1995 this wine went under a DOC system which recently made the rules even stricter, mainly forbidding the use of Vin Santo name for fortified wines and describing precise production parameters such us a minimum and maximum alcohol (10,5%-16%), sugar content, cellar aging time (3 years minimum), etc.
Cheap fortified and sweetened Vin Santos have made this wine go under the radar of wine critics and consumers, so far as to be widely disregarded as a fine wine and confined to a low key role as a dipping wine for dry biscuits: Cantucci.
A price paradox has also jeopardized the image of this wine; as a matter of fact these wines are way more expensive than most dry wines while consumer would maybe purchase dessert wine for only a fraction of the price! Production of this wine is very expensive and so equating to the cost per bottle in a 25-50€ price range, to shooting up to 300€ for the cult versions – for the half bottles!
So why don’t wineries lower their prices? Mainly because the productive ratio is extremely low. From grapes to wine, one can obtain a maximum of 35% of wine at the third year of aging. And some of the finest versions, in which the grapes dry for 3-4 months and age for over 10 years, result in a productive ration of a little over 10%!
From another perspective these equations are very the yields per plant for an average wine is 3/4 bottles; for a fine wine is 1 plant=one bottle, for a fine Vin Santo is 1 plant = 1 glass!
WILD WINE PRODUCTION
For the simplicity that Vin Santo has mistakenly been portrayed as, the production proves that it is in fact, completely the contrary. Producing Vin Santo is a long, labor-intensive process that begins with the typical end of summer harvest, but only ending after at least 10-15 years.
During this great amount of time, the development of the wine stems from a a few key contributing factors: the drying period, the grape varieties used, the mother yeast, the type of barrels, where these barrels are kept and for how long. And the most amazing part of it all is that it is the wine where the winemaker has got the least chances to intervene. This is where winemaking is left to the wild and to time.
The focus of the drying process is to concentrate the sugar though water evaporation, hanging the bunches in the cellar or placing them on bamboo mats after harvest through January (and in some cases through April), before fermentation.
Here, even with something as seemingly simple as drying grapes, the winemakers decisions can very notable impact the end product. Variations can include the winemakers waiting for noble rot (a magical fungus that is responsible for producing wines such as Sauternes, Tokaj or Auslese Riesling, to name a few) to attack the grapes to concentrate and release more enzymatic reactions and therefore more aromatic and flavor complexity.
Once months have passed and the grapes are dried in their specific manner, the grapes are pressed a few times to allow all the juice to be separated form the skin and the free run juice goes into the caratelli where the fermentation will finally start. From this moment on everything is out of the winemakers hands!
Tradition wants the fermentation to be carried out by the yeast from this year, the last year and the previous year and…all the way down to the inauguration year of each winery, which could go all the way back to hundreds of years! Every caratello’s bottom has a jelly rich in yeast, enzymes and sediments from the previous vintages which will kick start the new fermentation each year. This is called the madre. This is where stuff really starts to go wild.
ACETO BALSAMICO SIMILARITIES
As seen in the methodology for producing Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, every small barrel (caratello) which will carry out a different kind of fermentation. The barrels’ location is the same: under the rooftops exposed to the heat of the sun and the cold of the winter where the fermentation starts and stops several times.
On top of this one has to consider the different evaporation rate of each caratello, slower for the Northern facing ones, faster for the Southern ones. Also, just like balsamic vinegar, caratelli are made of different wood (oak, cherry, juniper, chestnut, etc.) with different grains and hence different evaporation rates, flavors and textures.
Lastly, but not least importantly, is the very unique tradition to seal off the Caratelli with cement, thereby making it impossible to top up the wine in the barrel. After five years or so, this will result in the barrels being only about 2/3 full, allowing for oxidative style aromatics and floors will be embedded in the wines.
The Grape Varieties
And if this wasn’t enough to make Vin Santo an extremely complex wine to fathom and love, there is still the variable of the varietal composition.
As mentioned before, Trebbiano and Malvasia are the two main varietals of Vin Santo. Trebbiano giving relatively non-aromatic and leaner style wines, Malvasia giving way fatter, greasier and aromatic notes. But on top of this, some winemakers will add a wee bit of Sangiovese or Canaiolo to give he wine more color and even tannic structure.
This is common enough that the DOC has included and regulated this practice in its laws, stating that if if the blend has an 80% minimum of Sangiovese, that it can be called “Occhio di Pernice” (the eye of the partridge).
Although the above are the wild methodologies that many winemakers choose to take, other winemakers may opt to control some of these variables. For instance, a winemaker could choose to: let the fermentation start with selected yeast prior going into caratelli (which may or may not have a madre), and/or choose to reduce the oxidative style locating the caratelli in the cellar with colder temperature to slow down evaporation.
As previously mentioned, Cantucci (the local toasted almond biscotti) served alongside a small dessert glass of Vin Santo is considered a traditional pairing which I actually like a lot provided that you are not dipping and just enjoying it as a typical food and wine pairing!
Given the unbalanced amount of sugars they have, the sweeter versions are very good with all sorts of dessert: from luscious cakes, chocolate mouse, and cheesecakes to ice cream (yes…ice cream or our beloved gelato)!
But these sweeter versions can also be paired just as you would treat a Sauternes, Spatlese or Tokjai Azusi! Vin Santo loves to play like in a perfect “duetto” with blue cheese or with the classic chicken liver pate (often cooked with a dash of Vin Santo); Vin Santo lacquered sweetbreads; Venison stuffed tortellini and… the list goes on!
And should you ever come across a dryer Vin Santo (unfortunately the only parameter to tell is the alcohol: the higher the % on the label and the dryer the wine), then a perfect pair is with ham, salame and charcuterie or even as a fantastic summer drink with toasted nuts while enjoying sunset on your favorite armchair!
Vin Santo is one of those unexpected guests who manage to turn an ordinary dinner into a memorable experience. It’s unique story, the diversity of styles and the complexity in aromas and flavors become stimulating topics of conversation.
It’s wild wine making techniques where the human hand has to give way to nature also is a breath of fresh air which offers not only a delicious tasting experience but also a great opportunity for exploration of the most enquiring minds!