Everyone has heard about the Twelve Days of Christmas, but did you know there is a hidden season eight days earlier? From December 17 through the evening of December 23, churches once echoed with special Vespers antiphons that begin with a different invocation of the coming Messiah each day: “O Wisdom,” “O Adonai,” “O Root of Jesse,” “O Key of David,” “O Dawn,” “O King of the Gentiles,” and “O Emmanuel.” This unique week of O Antiphons was the inspiration behind the the popular Christmas hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel;” and so enchanted was this last leg before the Big Event that medieval monks would greet each other on these days with a friendly “Keep Your O.”
Another thing monks did to keep their O was to enjoy a glass of Vin Santo. Vin Santo (also spelled Vinsanto) is the generic name for an Italian dessert wine that is linked closely to the region of Tuscany. Vin Santos are usually white, made from local grapes such as Trebbiano and Malvasia—although Sant’Ántimo’s Occhio di Pernice is a rosé Vin Santo made from red Sangiovese grapes. The range of Vin Santo is considerable, from the very dry to the extremely sweet, which may be why they have been called the “sherries of Italy.” In Tuscany, almost every fattoria or farm has its own specialty Vin Santo, as small landowners still keep the tradition of making their own to offer guests as a gesture of hospitality and esteem.
The process of making Vin Santo includes drying the grapes, crushing them, and fermenting and aging them in small barrels for three to ten years. Because the barrels are sealed and never topped up, oxidation occurs and the wine develops a lustrous amber color. Traditionally, home winemakers dry the grapes on straw mats under the rafters, which is the hottest and best ventilated part of the house. Similarly, they store the barrels in a part of the attic called a vinsantaia and wait for the summer heat to exhaust the unfermented sugars in the wine that still remain.
Vin Santo is Italian for “holy wine,” but it did not earn its sobriquet from being the monastic choice for a late Advent refreshment. According to one theory, these were the wines preferred for use at Holy Mass; according to another, fermentation traditionally began around All Saints’ Day on November 1 and bottling occurred during Easter Week. Either way, a cross is typically found on the chestnut or oak barrels used for aging.
There are dozens of wineries that make Vin Santo, with bottles ranging from $20 to over $300. Among the most affordable yet delicious options exported to the U.S. are , Villa Puccini’s Santo Vino, and Badia e Colitbuono’s Vin Santo del Chianti Classico. Equally tempting is a Vin Santo named San Gimignano DOC, which comes in a sweet white or a rosé. You can also try to track down a bottle made by Antinori on its Santa Cristina estates, a six hundred year-old Italian winery with an impressive worldwide distribution.
Today, the tradition of drinking Vin Santo during the week before Christmas is kept alive at the Monastery of San Benedetto, a community of traditional American Benedictine monks in Norcia, Italy. “Although our fast continues throughout Advent,” their website states, “in the O-antiphon week, following an ancient monastic tradition, we have a special glass of Vin Santo each night after Vespers, heightening even more the sense of joy to come. The Church and Refectory combined help us to live the truth of our Faith in body and spirit.” When these monks aren’t drinking Vin Santo, incidentally, they are busy brewing their own beer.
For Christmas shoppers whose body and spirit are starting to flag, there may be no better remedy than drawing from monastic wisdom and rediscovering these fabled Italian wines.