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The Mysteries of Vin Santo: Reflections on Autumn's Divine Vino da Meditazioni

When you really get down to it, drinking wine seasonally is all about heat.
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View of Stongfjorden. (Or, A Pretty Close Approximation of What Drinking Quality Vin Santo Feels Like.) Courtesy of The County Archives of Sogn og Fjordane.

When you really get down to it, drinking wine seasonally is all about heat. External or internal. Avoided or sought. Complimented or created.

This seasonal wine-to-heat relationship is easy enough to understand in summer, when the external warmth of sunshine is balanced out by a chilled Chablis or Albariño, whose brisk snap on the palate provide the vinous equivalent of a dive into the ocean. Likewise in winter, when the inevitable turn from outdoors to indoors causes our tastes to seek the likes of Barolos and Zinfandels, wines capable of creating a kind of internal heat to both replicate and enhances the warmth of a good old fashioned wood fire on the hearth.

But what of the turn itself?

Shorter in length and far less predictable it terms of heat, autumn wine selection requires--as all things in autumn seem to require--a bit more in the way of thoughtful consideration. The whole layering process in dressing for autumn neatly mimicking how we select the appropriately weighted wine. Near the top of this very short list of autumnal wines sits Vin Santo, the amber Italian dessert wine and vini da meditazioni ideally suited to savoring those last evenings outdoors, and those first wood fires of the year, simultaneously.

Like all wonderfully Italian wines (not necessarily the same thing as wonderful Italian wines), Vin Santo has a deep and mysterious history, a widely disputed name origin, a medieval production method that involves tools not necessarily found in your typical modern winery, is overproduced within Italy, underappreciated outside of Italy, includes examples so bad they can only be described as somehow unholy, and at its peak expression is so divinely pleasurable and life-enhancing as to restore one's faith in just about anything. Including the weather.

For those who have yet to experience this pleasure, the best and most cost-effective place to try Vin Santo would be a restaurant, preferably Italian, where one trusts whoever is in charge of the wine. A good tell in this regard would be to look for dessert wine lists featuring multiple Vin Santos. A single Vin Santo likely represents the we-should-have-a-Vin-Santo slot, as well as indicates a restaurant where Vin Santo is not exactly in demand. This does not mean their Vin Santo is not good, or even great. But it does present the question of how long it has been since this good-to-even-great Vin Santo has been sitting loosely-recorked behind the bar.

Now then, every article you will read on Vin Santo including this one will tell you that its traditional serving/pairing is as accompaniment to an after dinner biscotti, which you then dip into the Vin Santo. Which is true. Which is absolutely a good idea. Which has all sorts of interesting overtones suggesting the dunking of other small wafers into other tiny glasses of holy wine along with a very different kind of worship than typically goes on around a dinner table very late at night. However, the better the Vin Santo, the more it deserves to be served by itself. For reasons that get back to what is meant by the term vino da meditazioni.

To start with, vini da meditazioni (or, meditation wines) should not be confused with wines that certain sommeliers and wine merchants refer to as contemplation wines. Typically big, tannic midwinter wines that gradually open up over the course of an evening and therefore invite contemplation. That is to say, contemplation of the wine. Even though at a certain level this applies to Vin Santo as well.

For there is an interplay of tastes in Vin Santo that might be missed if one does not take the time to quietly consider/contemplate both. There is the sweetness; a warm gold, toffee-tinted sweetness that somehow ignites a slightly broader sweet spot on the palate than other dessert wines. This the dusky, bittersweet, late-September fading tan side of Vin Santo. But with this there is also a subtle, almost background acidity; a mysterious product of that unique production method that never quite cuts the sweetness and yet, when one really takes the time to mind the details, is always there. The way your breath is always there but you only really notice it when the sun goes down early in November. And it is the interplay between the two--a warm sweater over a tan, your visible breath disappearing before an outdoor fire--that makes Vin Santo a true October wine, well worth contemplation.

What makes it vini da meditazioni, is that this interplay encourages meditation not about the wine, but through it. This same mysterious counterpoint of sweetness and acidity becomes the medium through which we are encouraged to meditate over that turn of season when light and bodies and thoughts all slowly rotate inward, indoors, collapsing down in search of largely internal heat. This is meditation not as contemplation, but reflection.

All of which is to say that Vin Santo is a wine best suited for solitude. Not necessarily a wine to enjoy alone; but certainly a wine best enjoyed in a place one can be properly left alone. Alone with a glass of Vin Santo. Alone with those slightly dormant and secretly introverted spaces on one's palate. Alone, more than anything else, with one's thoughts.

Only then is there time to meditate over the faded memories, cherished or regretted, lingering along the tan lines of another warm and all-too-brief summer. Only then does the wine open up the proper introspective space that anyone who lives in a snowbound place really actually desperately needs in order to brace the psyche and soul for another cold and oh-so-very-long winter. And only there, in those quiet autumnal spaces--between days, between seasons, between mysteries presented and discoveries made--can one truly linger over a glass of Vin Santo, and through its dusky amber sanctity outlast the dying fire over meditations of a more deeply personal nature. Be they divine. Or otherwise.

Knoefel Longest writes for Eater Boston, where he interviews sommeliers who know far more about wine than he ever will for his column, The Cellar. He can be reached with comments, questions, seasonal wine suggestions and invitations to champagne and/or bourbon tastings at

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