Is there anything more satisfying at the end of an Italian meal than an almond-studded biscotto (or two = biscotti) and a glass of Vin Santo?
Hard biscotti become sweet and moist after being dipped for a short period in the sweet late harvest wine. It’s not dessert, not too filling and just right when followed by the perfect coffee.
The subtly sweet, crisp almond biscuits take their name from the ancient Latin, biscoctus, meaning twice baked. It is this twice baking that gives the biscuits’ typical dryness, meaning that they can be stored for long periods of time. A staple of Roman legions, Christopher Columbus also carried them on his various voyages.
Historically, the ‘modern’ version of this biscuit - known as ‘cantucci’ or ‘cantuccini’ in Tuscany - was perfected by the baker Antonio Mattei in Prato, whose recipes are included in Pellegrino Artusi’s seminal work, ‘The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well’, published in 1891. (Now, there’s a cookbook!) Artusi, however, doesn’t actually suggest dipping the biscuits in Vin Santo.
Vin Santo, or holy wine, is a style of Italian dessert wine, produced from raisined, air-dried grapes. In Tuscany, home to the style, the wine is made from white grape varieties such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, although occasionally, Sangiovese is also used and there is also a rose style called ‘Occhio di Pernice’, or ‘eye of the partridge’. Vin Santo is technically a dessert wine, though its production process can give rise to varying degrees of sweetness, from virtually bone dry, like an amontillado sherry, through to extremely sweet.
After raisining, making Vin Santo requires fermentation and maturation in small oak casks. Called ‘caratelli’, these casks traditionally were 118 litres capacity and made of chestnut instead of oak, this contributing high wood tannins and the porosity of the chestnut allowed for significant evaporation. So, adding to the mix of flavours was (and is) oxidative characters. The barrel was filled leaving a significant headspace for the fermentation to ensue and sealed shut (sometimes with cement) for at least four years before broaching. Some would say, it’s called ‘holy wine’ because if it was still drinkable it was a miracle!
The reality of the situation however is this - if the first season of maturation was warm, there could be considerable sugar consumption during the fermentation before it stopped with the coming of winter; another warm season and a quick start to the next fermentation could see a relatively dry wine sitting in oxidative conditions for the next two years or so - and the reverse applies.
Another factor in determining Vin Santo style is the ‘madre’ - the yeast lees deposit in the barrel that was used to ‘kick start’ the next year’s fermentation, the year after and so on. In older times, this was done barrel by barrel, nowadays it’s more common for a producer to blend the residues to a homogenous mix before re-distributing equally amongst the barrels preparatory to the next vintage, thereby helping to standardise the effect and characters.
So, the permutations and combinations of making quality - and consistent style - Vin Santo are manifest.
Enter Felsina, one of Tuscany’s leading producers, both of wine and oil. Giuseppe Mazzocolin and his team have applied the same painstaking processes to making their Vin Santo as they have to their wines and biodynamic extra virgin olive oils.
We’re talking standardized same size (oak) barrels made by the best cooper in Modena, who normally only makes barrels for the balsamic vinegar producers; a cellar whereby the temperature and humidity can be monitored; a ‘madre’ that is controlled, in terms of activity and volume per barrel; extended maturation - up to 7 years - for perfect refinement and an exacting balance between sweetness, richness and clean finish.
The current release - 2004 vintage - is Vin Santo at its peerless best and the only one to try if you want to investigate the style.
It’s good, really good and it might be best to embrace Artusi’s philosophy - enjoy it and enjoy the biscotti, but no dipping; rather, enjoy each as intended.