Umbria’s Vin Santo: Ah, That “Holy Wine”
I hadn’t seen Giuseppa in many months, for I haven’t been guiding visitors through the wonders of Umbria in many months due to global travel restrictions.
Perugia/Deruta was always a much loved tour – and lunch at the farmhouse near Deruta of Paolo and Giuseppa was a highlight of that day.
We’d often have a taste of their vin santo after our luncheon feasts, offered to us by a beaming Giuseppa:
After those banquet luncheons, Giuseppa would take us to see their animals and the prosciutti hanging in a cellar to age, and then perhaps on to the stall where the grapes for their vin santo (“holy wine”) dangled:
Pino and I dropped in to see them recently, with masks on (for any “maskless” photos in this note, I was a good distance away and zoomed in with my cell). Paolo was out wild-boar hunting but we chatted with Giuseppa as she served us their precious vin santo.
A divine wine, their “holy wine.”
Various legends affirm the appellation of “holy” to this sweet dessert wine. An age-old Sienese legend recounts that a Franciscan friar cured those ill with the Black Plague in 1348 by having them drink the wine used for Mass. All were convinced that the wine had had miraculous attributes and was therefore a “holy wine.”
In 1439, a council of the Greek and Roman churches convened in Florence. According to another legend, the Bishop of Florence proudly served his communion wine to a Greek bishop who marveled at the wine, exclaiming in Greek, “It’s xantho! (yellow).” The Florentines, mis-hearing the Greek adjective as “santo” (“holy”), were delighted with this affirmation of quality rather than colour and the wine has since been known as “vin santo”.
Grapes generally desired for vin santo here in Umbria are the malvasia, pecorino and trebbiano but other varieties may also be used: all depends on what the vineyard offers. The grapes are hung on trellises or beams and left to dry until around Christmastime (a “holy” time) when the grapes are pressed, sugar content of the grapes now maximized. The vin santo is first sipped around Eastertime (another “holy” moment of the year).
For the pressing of the”holy wine,” small presses are used like the 19th-c ones in the Museo del Vino (“Wine Museum”) of Torgiano (not far from the Deruta area where Giuseppa and Paolo live). Near the vin santo wine presses you’ll see the small casks, called “caratelli,” where the sweet wine is stored before bottling. The corker with bottle ready for corking sits just below the small casks:
Giuseppa and Paolo use their trebbiano, malvasia, and san colombano grapes for vin santo, although this year due to all the rains in September, the quantity of these grapes is insufficient for vin santo – and Giuseppa will use the sweet grapes in her cakes this year.
Before leaving, Pino and I headed with Giuseppa to the stall to see this those grapes dangling in the stall:
Paolo returned from the hunt just before we left – and smiling, he reached up to offer me a taste of the grapes, asking “Anna, vuoi provare l’uva?” (“Anna, care to try the grapes?”)
After de-stemming the grapes, they were put into our steel vat – and Pino took the grapes out a few at a time to press…..
…pushing them gently – almost lovingly – into the small wine press
He then turned the screw pian piano (“slowly, slowly”), the grape juice flowing out into a blue plastic tub:
After all the grapes were pressed and the juice about to go into the steel vat for aging, Pino filled me a glass to taste the succo d’uva (grape juice)…..
….raising his glass with a “salute!”
Mille grazie, Pino – and “salute” to you, too.
To celebrate the conclusion of our wine-making, we enjoyed vin santo with tozzetti (or “little chunks,” a tasty anise cookie – called cantucci in Tuscany).
A good vin santo but not a rival to Giuseppa and Paolo’s.
Read more here about our vino di Pino (Pino’s wine)
Read about ancient uses of wine
Read about the Assisi-to-Montefalco Sagrantino wine quest
Click here for rural wine lore
Read about feasting with Giuseppa