A little about Vinsanto
On the island of Santorini they grow a small variety of grapes. Most of these have names that can be quite difficult for people like me to pronounce. Names like Xinomavro, Moschofilero, and Agiorghitiko do not exactly roll off of my tongue with ease. Then again, my native English has been known to desert me at times. If you want to learn more about the grapes of Santorini, with pronunciation keys and audio clips, the folks at All About Greek Wine have an excellent page up for that. For today, however, I will be sticking mainly to the island’s most important grape, Assyrtiko [ A seer’ tee ko ].
Assyrtiko is used in 3 of the better styles of wine produced on Santorini, but for me the rock star among them is the sweet wine known as Vinsanto. Not to be confused with the Italian Vino Santo, Vinsanto is made from at least 70% Assyrtiko, with the rest made up of any combination of Aidani and/or Athiri grapes that have been dried in the sun for a couple of weeks. Many of these are still made by being crushed under the bare feet of nubile young women. At least it appeared that way in the photos I have seen of it, as well as in in my imagination.
Vinsanto must be aged in oak barrels for at least two years, but most is kept much longer. On our first night on Santorini we had the distinct pleasure of barrel tasting samples at Estate Argyros that ranged from young and fresh stretching back to 40 years. I became a dedicated Vinsanto lover that evening. Over the next week we tasted many more of varying ages and quality. While there certainly were a few examples that were overly sweet to the point of being cloying, for the most part I really enjoyed the portions of our tastings when our hosts broke out their sweet wine.
When young, good Vinsanto has a fresh, lighter taste with a finish of honey and raisins. But as it ages it can become glorious! Think creme brulee, figs, chocolate and exotic spices. This stuff is world-class dessert wine in my opinion, but at a bargain price. It is especially affordable on the island, but most of the prices here in the states seem to be about $30 or under.
That last fact has led me to try it in some unconventional ways recently. Here are a few of them:
Vinsanto for breakfast!
Yesterday I was looking around for something to make for breakfast but nothing was really clicking. There was bacon and eggs, but no bread for toast. Cereal sounded too boring, and when Amy suggested oatmeal as the mercury was already pushing 90 my stomach did a few flips. While rooting around in the pantry I found a package of dried figs. Remembering the container of Greek yogurt in the fridge I started to think about reconstituting the figs, but what to use? Hot water? That would work, but diluting such a rich fruit didn’t seem right. Balsamic vinegar? Nah, not for breakfast. Then it hit me. Vinsanto!
I took a handful of figs and cut them in quarters, put them in a coffee cup, covered them with some Gavalas Vineyard Vinsanto and popped them into the microwave for 30 seconds. I let them steep for about 20 minutes. While that was going on I mixed in a few squirts of honey into the yogurt and sorted through a package of blueberries for the best, freshest looking fruit. Then I fished out the figs and a few extra drops of the wine and mixed everything together. What a wonderful way to start off your morning!
Vinsanto Blueberry Syrup
The above concoction left me with some fig-infused Vinsanto that had to be disposed of somehow, and I damn sure was not pouring it down the drain. I poured the leftover liquid into a small saucepan and added more Vinsanto until I had about a cup in the pan. I tossed in a few more figs, a couple allspice berries, a clove, and all of the blueberries that hadn’t passed muster (about half a pint). I turned the heat to low so that it was less than a simmer.
When the liquid was almost completely reduced I added a cup of water and let it continue to cook very slowly until it was reduced by about half. I then poured it into a mesh strainer held over a bowl and used a spatula to smash and smush around the solids, making sure to scrap the goodies hanging off the underside of the strainer before discarding the rest of the stuff inside. I returned all of the strained liquid to very low heat and added a few more splashes of Vinsanto, cooking for about 20 more minutes until syrupy. All in all it took a few hours to cook, but very little effort. I was rewarded with a deliciously rich and sweet syrup that will be perfect on anything from pancakes or waffles (again with breakfast) to ice cream. Notice anything odd about the process? I did not add any sugar at any time. I’m glad that I didn’t, it came out very sweet, but not at all cloying. I can’t wait to use it on something.
Vinsanto Poached Pears
Sitting at Gavalas Vineyard one morning, our second tasting of the day before lunch, I decided that their Vinsanto would probably be an amazing liquid for poaching pears. The photo to the right likely captures that exact moment of genius brought on by a combination of having had wine for breakfast and being hungry for lunch. Here is the recipe I came up with.
4 Bosc or similarly firm pears, peeled, cored and quartered lengthwise
1 1/2 cups Vinsanto
1 split vanilla bean
2 dried figs
1 cinnamon stick
1 black peppercorn
The juice of 1 orange
2 curls of mostly zest from the orange peel
1 allspice berry
3/4 cup of sugar
water (enough to keep pears covered)
This recipe couldn’t be much simpler. Take all of the ingredients and add to a saucepan big enough to hold them. Place over very low heat and poach until the pears are soft. Remove the pears when fully cooked, probably after about 30 minutes, and then reduce the liquid until thick and syrupy. While still hot, strain the solids out of the syrup. Unless the pears are destined to be eaten warm, these are best if the fruit is placed back in the syrup and stored in the refrigerator for awhile. The pears and the syrup begin to interact wonderfully after a while.
There are only a few things to be concerned with when making this recipe. One is to make sure that you use a firm variety of pear. Softer varieties like Bartletts will get mushy and taste mealy. The other is to not let the pears rise out of the liquid. This will cause uneven cooking and oxidation-induced browning. One of those collapsible metal vegetable steamers laid on top, or a piece of parchment cut to fit and pushed down works well if your pears keep trying to poke out of the poaching liquid. Also, keep the temperature nice and low, never going over a simmer. Take your time, it will be worth it.
This can be served with ice cream, to garnish other deserts, over some sweetened yogurt or marscapone cheese, mixed with your breakfast cereal, or just by themselves with a little syrup. A dollop of creme fraiche on top never hurts either. Nor does a glass of Vinsanto on the side!
Gather all of your ingredients. Mise en place is everything. You never know when Bourdain might show up and mock you mercilessly for being such a meez loser.
Get everything prepped. Pears peeled and quartered, figs sliced, vanilla bean cut, etc. What do you mean that looks like more than four pears? Okay, I lied to you. These suckers are so good we are having them for brunch and dinner and probably with some Greel yogurt in the morning. I needed more. Really. 4 is just how many I thought YOU wanted.
Prepare to meet your destiny!
All this needs is a few gold chains and a couple of ‘ludes to make it a great ’70’s hot tub party. Has anyone seen Barbi Benton? Just like back then, a little patience will pay off. Let them simmer until they are perfect, sweet and tender.
Brunch was pancakes with poached pears. There were three types of syrups to choose from; blueberry/Vinsanto, orange/Vinsanto, and pear/Vinsanto. Sensing a theme here? There is also some candied orange peel. Maybe we’ll cover how to make those and the orange sauce sometime soon.
Tonight is poached pears over ice cream or honey sweetened marscapone…or maybe both. Mmm, Vinsanto sauce, with a glass on the side. Oh look, a glass!