Meet Vinsanto: An ancient winemaking tradition of Santorini, Greece.
Just ask any Santorini winemaker -- Vinsanto (spelled without a space) isn’t a holy wine from Italy, as you may have previously thought.
Throughout history, Santorini rule changed hands, and names, many times.
In the Middle Ages, it came under the control of the Venetians, who used the island as a major Mediterranean commercial hub. Despite the island’s resurgence as a well-known trading port, however, Santorini’s volcanic soils offered little potential for producing valued goods, with the exception of a few.
Wine was a commodity during these times, especially on Santorini, as it was viewed safer to drink than the water itself. In fact, the visiting seamen were instructed to drink a glass of Vinsanto in the morning, due to its alcohol and sugar content. As a result, it was decided that Santorini’s major contribution was to be wine and a focus on vine-growing ensued.
Goods transported from Santorini were labeled “Santo,” denoting its geographic origin from the island of Santorini and wines were labeled “Vin” or “Vino” to denote the contents; thus the name “Vinsanto” was born. These packages were transported throughout the ancient world and, of course, brought back to Italy, where Vinsanto found a home in the Catholic church. Historians speculate that Vinsanto came to be known as Italy’s holy wine through a series of misunderstood statements uttered by the Pope, coupled with the Italians’ use of Vinsanto in religious ceremonies such as first Communion. The Italians adopted many Greek winemaking styles, including that of Vinsanto, and it’s easy to make an obvious correlation between the Italian and Greek styles of the wine.
In 2002, EU legislation ruled that there was enough substantial evidence to prove Vinsanto’s origins, in fact, lay in Santorini. It was then ruled that Santorini be the only appellation able to label its sweet wines as “Vinsanto.” The Italians may only use "Vin Santo" or "Vino Santo" to denote the winemaking style.
Whether you’re familiar with Italian Vino Santo or not, it’s important to understand the differences. Both are incredible wines, but the substantial similarity between the two in modern times is the fact that both wines are made from dried grapes. Ultimately, the two are very different.
Santorini Vinsanto has very specific regulations under the appellation laws of Greece. Vinsanto must be predominately made from the Assyrtiko grape (at least 51%), while for the remaining 49% only two varietals are allowed: Athiri and Aidani, and some small amounts of locally grown native white varieties. Vinsanto is crafted vin doux naturel, meaning it has not undergone any chaptalization -- no added sugars or acid here, it's simply natural. Vinsanto is made from late harvested grapes that have been dried in the sun for 12-14 days. They are then crushed, fermented and then aged for a minimum of 24 months in oak barrels and must achieve a minimum of 9% ABV, though many Vinsanto wines contain more alcohol, typically up to 13%.
Vinsanto is known for its golden-orange to dark amber coloring, with a complex bouquet of dried apricots, golden raisins and other dried fruits, combined with sweet spice and an underlying minerality. Although it is classified as a dessert wine, the high acid of the Assyrtiko and other indigenous grapes grown on the island balance the sugar content to produce an extremely palatable drink that can be paired with a variety of foods.
Despite the never-ending debate over Vinsanto’s origin, it is safe to say that this ancient winemaking tradition isn’t going anywhere. So, what are you waiting for? Pick up a bottle today and taste a little bit of history.
Constance Chamberlain is an avid wine enthusiast working to promote up-and-coming regions such as the wines from Greece and Austria through Brand Action Team, a marketing-consulting agency. She is an active participant within the wine and beverage-alcohol community and frequently attends many tastings and events. Constance was first drawn to wine through her interest in all things cultural, which explains why you can often find her exploring first-hand the terroir of vineyards around the world, including those in Australia, Austria and Greece. She has earned her WSET Advanced Certificate and is a proud member of the Wine Century Club.