Italian wine lovers will no doubt be familiar with vin santo, the rich, nutty dessert wine with its date-like flavors that makes for a digestif fit for a king. Produced by laying freshly harvest grapes on straw mats to raisinate, concentrating their juices and sugars before pressing, the centuries-old vin santo was historically used as a sacramental wine—it’s name means “holy wine”—and is a traditional production of both Tuscany and Umbria’s wine-producing zones.
But in the Umbria’s Upper Tiber Valley, near Perugia, local families over the centuries developed a technique to make a unique version of vin santo. The bunches of grapes were dried in rooms filled with smoke from fireplaces or stoves, giving the final wine a distinct smoky note.
Historically the bunches (singly or tied together in pairs) a would be hung from the kitchen ceiling, allowing the smoke from the hearth to permeate the grapes. But in the 19th century this tradition became intertwined with an up-and-coming industry of the time: tobacco production. Wine producers would hang their grapes in the rooms used for drying the tobacco leaves, exposing them to the fire and smoke produced by large wood-burning stoves.
The link between the two products did not end there: When the farmers dug up the tins where they had stored some tobacco to hide it from the government monopoly, they would soften the leaves by sprinkling them with vinosanto. And the tradition of dipping a Tuscan cigar in vin santo before smoking continues today.
The grapes used are Trebbiano, Malvasia, Grechetto, Cannaiolo, Vernaccia and San Colombano, all picked before they become too ripe, so that the grape skins are still thick and resistant. They are dried for at least three months, pressed, and the must is left to ferment in wooden barrels with the natural yeasts kept by every family. After at least three years the end result is a sweet wine with notes of dried fruit and chestnut honey and an unmistakable hint of smoke evoking cigar tobacco.
In the past few decades, when the production of other crops—namely fruit and tobacco—became more profitable, families gradually abandoned their vines. Though many small vineyards still survive alongside farmers’ houses. The families who have preserved barrels, sometimes centuries old, and natural yeasts passed down from their ancestors, continue to produce smoked vinosanto, mainly for its sentimental value.
In 2014 The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity created a Presidium project to protect smoked vin santo from the Upper Tiber Valley. The project aims to convince more small-scale winegrowers to revive production on a larger scale, returning this traditional wine to the market. Returning to the production of this wine could represent an important supplement to farming activities in the Tiber Valley, where fruit and tobacco have lost their profitability and have too gradually been abandoned.
Find out more about Slow Food Foundation’s projects to protect foods at risk of extinction.