Holy undrinkable

Drink - Victoria Moore tells the truth about vin santo

I feel like a schmuck. For ages now, I have been fashionably ordering a glass of vin santo along with mandatory cantuccini in restaurants in place of dessert - partly, I admit, as an excuse to have another drink after the last dregs of wine have been poured out of the bottle, but mainly because I thought it was delicious. And I have only just realised that most vin santo is wretched stuff that creaks around the jaw tasting like some primitive wine that's been exhumed from a Renaissance crypt.

I wish this hadn't happened, I really do. Ever since the notion entered my head that vin santo might not be all it's cracked up to be, I have been trying to enjoy it anyway. But I can't, and now Italian dinners just aren't the same.

Tuscany's "holy wine" is made in a range of styles from the very sweet to the very dry. Its quality varies just as wildly. Virtually all the vin santo you are ever offered falls in the very sweet, very horrible category. If you don't believe me, then take the trouble to taste, rather than simply admire, the next time you drink. What flavours do you get? I get a sort of mongrel sherry-fruity wine taste against a backdrop so sweet that you can almost feel the sugar crystallising on your tongue. It's not amber coloured, it is rust coloured, and is usually at its most poisonous when decanted directly from a small wooden barrel.

The cantuccini are another matter. These hard little almond biscuits, dipped into vin santo, absorb just enough alcohol to soften without going soggy. Nothing to shout about on their own, they are delicious when steeped in sweet wine. It used to be that my vin santo would run out before I had finished them, and I had to order more wine for dunking. Then the cantuccini would run out. More cantuccini! Then more vin santo. And so on.

But the bitter reality is this: if vin santo were at all nice, would you be prepared to drink it with stale biscuit crumbs floating on top? Certainly not. No one would dream of deflowering a delicate Sauternes in this manner.

In Florence last week, vin santo was hard to avoid. Goodness knows I tried, but the waiters bring great complimentary tumblerfuls of it to your table at the end of a meal. The Florentines, inured to its flavour, were swilling it down all right ("e buonissimo," claimed the shoe manufacturer at the table next to us, even as he moved swiftly on to the taste-bud-killing grappa), but then, in Tuscany, vin santo is traditionally offered as a courtesy to visitors, much as poor-quality sherry is in England. And I really do not think it counts in any wine's favour to say that the locals drink it. Of course they do. Greeks drink ouzo and Peruvians drink pisco - and you wouldn't dream of allowing either of those unfortunate spirits on to your chichi dinner table.

Perhaps part of the problem is that, traditionally, the wine has been made by any Tuscan peasant with a bit of land and a space under the rafters in which to dry the grapes. This sort of practice can easily accustom people to poor-quality wine, and encourage the noble taste of tradition to eclipse that of the alcohol itself.

To make vin santo, you pick the grapes (trebbiano and malvasia) and then lay them out to dry on straw mats in a warm place for several months, before crushing the raisins. The wine is then aged in barrels (the traditional chestnut ones have, in the past couple of decades, been replaced by oak) for at least three years. Good vin santo is often aged for longer, but not all vin santo that is aged for longer is good.

So I have a suggestion to make. Trattorias should start serving vin santo with cantuccini in the same way that Chinese restaurants serve little dishes of soy sauce with spring rolls - as a dip, not a drink.

Meanwhile, I'm going to buy myself a bottle of the most expensive vin santo I can find and rediscover my affection for it. If I manage to hit on the good stuff, I certainly won't be dipping anything in it.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture