Vin Santo. Its name means "saint wine" or "holy wine" and if you enjoy a good dessert wine -- or good wine, period -- this Tuscan specialty is definitely a drink to explore. To me, this is the essence of Florence, the essence of Tuscany. It's traditionally served at the end of a meal alongside a plate of cantucci, the rock-hard almond biscotti made slightly more chewable by dipping them into the vin santo. The flavors blend wonderfully as well. What are more specifics of the sweet wine itself? It's usually made from white grapes like Trebbiano and Malvasia, though sometimes Sangiovese (the chianti grape) can be used to make the rose' style vin santo called occhio di pernice, or "eye of the partridge." The grapes are dried out on either straw mats (hence the term sometimes used to describe vin santo as a "straw wine") or hanging on racks indoors. The finished product usually ranges from 14-17% alcohol, so stronger than traditional whites but not quite as potent as distilled liquors.
The name itself indicates its likely origin, which was use in religious mass. One of the earliest references to the vino was found in Florentine wine merchants' logs in the renaissance era, as the wine was marketed to Rome and environs specifically for religious ceremonies. Another theory of the origin of its name states that the tradition of fermenting the wine starting around All Saint's Day and bottling it around Easter lent the wine its "holy" appeal.
Eventually this style of wine was produced on the island of Santorini in Greece when it came under Ottoman rule. Their biggest audience was the east: Greek vin santo was widely exported to Russia and became the standard wine used in Russian Orthodox mass.
Like other dessert wines, vin santo gets its sweetness from the dessication, or drying process, as mentioned earlier. This concentration of the sugars in the grapes creates its signature sweetness. Sometimes a madre, or mother (starter) is used, taking a bit of previously-produced vin santo and pouring it, with all its wild yeasts, into the new bottling to jump-start the fermentation process.
This is thought to give the wine complexity and a bit of continuity in character from harvest to harvest. The flavor profile of vin santo is heavy on nutty and/or raisin notes, with some cream and honey in the mix as well. Most wine producers in Tuscany tend to produce Chianti for the masses, but they squirrel away a barrel or two of vin santo to enjoy in famiglia (with the family)...Proof again that Italians know a thing or two about keeping the good stuff among loved ones.