Someone asked me recently if there was a special wine associated with Easter. After mulling it over for what seemed like three days and three nights, I could think only of the Last Supper. So I said, “Red wine.”
Then I thought of vin santo, which translates as “Holy Wine.” This Italian dessert wine, identified primarily with Tuscany and biscotti, is made from grapes harvested in late summer or early autumn and spread out on mats or hung in large clusters in farmhouse attics that are well ventilated to keep the grapes dry. The grapes slowly shrivel over the winter months, losing moisture and concentrating their sugar. The raisins are pressed in the spring and the wine is aged in small casks for several years. Italian farmers would traditionally press the grapes and begin fermentation during Holy Week, the days leading up to Easter, thus the name vin santo — or so I was told on a visit to Tuscany several years ago.
The technique of making wine from dried grapes is not unique to vin santo. Amarone, the powerful dry red wine of Veneto, is also made from juice pressed from raisined grapes. French vin de paille, or “straw wine,” refers to the straw mats on which the grapes dry before pressing. There’s even a vinsanto (one word) from Greece, referring to sweet wine from the island of Santorini. Wine writer Jeremy Parzen, a specialist in Italian wine and history, attributes this name to Venetian traders shortening “vino Santorini,” as well as their penchant for blasphemous wordplay. And the original dried-grape wines may have been made in ancient Crete, where vintners would twist the stems of grape bunches to deprive the berries of sap and dry them on the vine. So says the Oxford Companion to Wine, a.k.a. “The Great Big Book of Everything.”
Vin santo as we know it today — the Tuscan version — is definitely a niche wine, if for no other reason than we don’t drink many dessert wines nowadays. There isn’t much vin santo in the market, and it can cover the range of dry to sweet, much like sherry. (Vin santo is not fortified, though its extra alcohol, up to about 16 percent, comes from the concentration of sugar.) The best versions are notably sweet and taste of roasted nuts and dried orange peel, often with a bit of citrusy sourness on the finish. They are generally made with trebbiano and malvasia grapes, though there’s also a rare rosé version made from sangiovese called occhio di pernice, or “eye of the partridge.”
That was the model for Sashi Moorman when he and District chef Peter Pastan made a vin santo-style wine from sangiovese grapes harvested in 2006 in Santa Barbara County. Moorman gave me a taste of it when I visited his winery in Lompoc, Calif., in early 2010, and I begged him to release it and sell me a bottle. He declined, and still does, intending to release it in 2017 under his Piedrasassi label.
Luca Paschina, winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards north of Charlottesville, Va., uses the vin santo method to produce his award-winning Malvaxia Passito wine. He uses moscato ottonel, a grape of the muscat family, along with some vidal blanc, a French-American hybrid grape that gives the wine a Virginia accent. After the grapes are dried over the winter, they are gently pressed to extract their essence; the wine is aged in old oak barrels before bottling. The 2008 vintage won a gold medal at this year’s Virginia Governor’s Cup competition and has medaled at several national competitions. The wine also ages well; Paschina says he’s currently enjoying the 2001 vintage.
Barboursville’s Malvaxia Passito was the happy result of Paschina’s frustration in trying to make a dessert wine by other methods in Virginia’s variable climate.
“After several inconsistent vintages, I gave up on trying to make a true late-harvest wine,” Paschina says. “I finally realized the passito [raisin] method was more logical. A key decision was then to blend moscato for intensity of flavor with vidal for freshness.
“The method is ancient and simple. It just requires a lot of man-hours,” he says. “The yield is low, but the reward is high.”
About those biscotti: A dunk in vin santo improves the dry cookie more than it helps the wine. Vin santo and other raisined wines such as the Barboursville (in the accompanying recommendations) are excellent with ripe cheeses or custard-based desserts. Sometimes these holy wines are best considered dessert by themselves, what the Italians might call vini di meditazione.