San Gimignano: reputations old and new
San Gimignano is one of those places that is too beautiful for its own good. Set in the steeply rolling hills on the western edge of Chianti, it is said to have four million visitors a year – and it is not difficult to see why. The thirteen remaining medieval towers and the lavishly restored old town have become a ‘must see’ sight along with the leaning tower of Pisa and the sculpture of David in Florence. If you are here for the wine, you might spend as much time avoiding the town as visiting it. Nowadays it is encircled by car and bus parks in a way which might compete with any mediaeval siege.
The area has also been famous for wine for centuries going back to positive mentions in the city archives in 1276. More recently Vernaccia di San Gimignano was honoured in the world of Italian wine as the recipient of the very first DOC (appellation) in 1966. (It duly became a DOCG in 1993.) In a way it is surprising that the DOC system started with a white wine from a small area given the overwhelmingly greater importance of the red wines of Chianti in the twentieth century, but you shouldn’t expect Italian wine law to be terribly logical. The point is that the white wine made here is both made from a distinctive grape variety and from a defined area. These factors, perhaps helped by Italy-wide fame for those towers, were enough for it to lead it to the top of the queue.
The USP of Vernaccia di San Gimignano is that it has more character than the standard Tuscan white blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia. And while this would not be difficult, the former being a hugely productive grape much given to dullness, this special Vernaccia can be just as pedestrian. Thus the problem for Vernaccia is to live up to its supposedly lofty reputation. The towers might soar into the Tuscan sky, but the wine rarely gets above the banal The great majority of the production is inexpensive and intended to be sold quickly to tourists.
In recent times the Consorzio has been working hard on the uniqueness of the grape variety, now shown to be distinct from the other Italian Vernaccia. The Consorzio has commissioned a research company related to the University of Siena to carry out a project to enable the genuine Vernaccia di San Gimignano to be traced according to its DNA profile. (click here for the Italian article, downloaded 28.7.12). While this seems very worthy, it might be better to put their efforts into getting the general quality level up to the standards near the very best. That would really get the world to take note of Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
On our visit of late July 2012, Janet and I had the good fortune to visit two top producers, both in the località of Santa Margharita. This is a surreal experience in itself. You leave the town just by the office of the Carabinieri and one of the numerous car parks and go down a ‘white road’, ie an unadopted road which can change from tarmac to dust and back again every few metres. In minutes you leave the bustle of the modern tourist resort and come first to the conventional winery of Panizzi and then to the farm and home known as Montenidoli. At the latter you are in another world of ancient landscapes, steep tracks, vineyards and forest, and a highly individual wine maker, Elisabetta Fagiuoli. She will claim that the land is her wine maker but there is no doubt her imprint is on every bottle.
On one side of the hill of Montenidoli, the soil is white and, in this drought period, dusty, and contains many fossils from the time it was under the sea; on the other side it is red and granular, punctuated by the remarkable, Triassic-period (pre-Jurassic) stones which have been found in the course of making new vineyards. Apart from vineyards Elisabetta’s plan is to have two settlements here for the young and the old to experience the wildness and the silence. While the plans for that are being drawn up there is time to taste the wine:
Tradizionale, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG, 2009 - made from 100% of the local grape variety this is ‘traditional’ in that it is fermented on the skins, as you would today for a red wine, giving greater texture and some grip to the wine. Be that as it may, this wine is perfumed (unlike many traditional wines), with stone fruit on the palate, with some saltiness and noticeable tannins. Elisabetta served delicious tempura vegetables and anchovies with this (run up by her Neapolitan cook) and wine stood up well to this robust food. It is immediately obvious that we are a long way from the dull whites made from the same grape variety.
Vinbrusco, Bianco di Toscana IGT, 2009 – having been critical of the poor quality of many young Trebbiano / Malvasia bends, it is inevitable that Montenidoli make a superb, characterful example which we tasted as a three year old. It is made from free run juice and is given some more character by lees stirring. It is always good when quality growers have a go at the old white wine of Tuscany. While this is creditable, there is less fruit than the Vernaccia, but a lean, mineral quality to the wine; as always with the wines of Montenidoli, there is some earthiness here.
Fiore, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG, 2010 – made from Vernaccia like the first wine noted here, but in this case made in the modern manner by pressing the grapes and fermenting off the skins, here from the best, free-run juice. Fresh, quite intense, floral and some pleasant green leaf notes, then stone fruit and quince, complex and elegant.
Il Templare, Bianco di Toscana IGT, 2007 – the age is probably a hint that this has been made in oak and is designed to be drunk after some years in the cellar. The blend is 70% Vernaccia, 20% Trebbiano and 10% Malvasia. The oakiness is quite apparent on nose and palate but there is good fruit too; the mineral notes are less, and this has become a wine of real substance and structure. (Compare Panizzi’s Evoé below.)
Finally, after the reds listed below, we returned to Carato, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG, 2007, an ideal cheese wine according to our host. This is a rich, concentrated version of Vernaccia, made from the selected grapes of two top vineyards and given a year on the lees in barriques. The wood here is well integrated, rounding out the fruit (lemon, apricot) with some subtle honey and smoke touches. A substantial, complex conclusion to a highly characterful series of white wines.
And of course, even in San Gimignano, this being Tuscany, there are red wines too.
Il Garrulo, Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG, 2009 – served chilled, this is an old fashioned Chianti blend with a smidgen of white-skinned grapes in the mix, as recommended by Baron Ricasoli: 75% Sangiovese, 20% Canaiolo, and then the whites: 3% Trebbiano, 2% Malvasia. Aged briefly in large oak barrels, it is a bit like a fine, light Beaujolais – fine cherry fruit, modest body, persistent on the palate, good acidity, easy drinking.
Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG, 2007 –
the more serious wine does without the white grapes and becomes 70% Sangiovese and 30% Canaiolo, more like the Montepulciano blend than Chianti Classico with a big role for Canaiolo, which fleshes
out and softens Sangiovese. Very traditional in style, dry and savoury rather than fruit-led, pleasantly fragrant, sour cherry fruit on the palate, lively fine tannins. Intended of course to be drunk with quite substantial food – wild boar, sausages and the like.
Sono Montenidoli, Rosso di Toscana, 2001 – 100% of the best Sangiovese, barrel aged for 18 months, this was a real treat: leather, herbs, tobacco and dark cherry fruit on the nose and palate, this wine really opened up in the glass and showed a fine evolution from its decade in the bottle. Excellent, slightly bitter finish.
With many thanks to Elisabetta and all at Montenidoli. This is genuinely one of the special places of Tuscan wine making.
Panizzi: realising potential
The recent story of Panizzi
is one of rapid expansion from the farm (Podere Santa Margherita) bought by Giovanni Panizzi in 1979. In a relatively short time Panizzi created both of a quality standard for Vernaccia di San Gimignano and an influential, stylish label design which still stands out today. Here we will focus on the excellent white winess. In a few years’ time we will be able to taste Brunello from the new company’s expansion in the Montalcino area, under the leadership of the local new owner, Simone Niccolai.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2011 – 100% Vernaccia di Sangimignano variety and made and briefly aged solely in stainless steel. Given that this is the entry level wine it would be easy to skip over it in the rush to the top wines to follow but that would be a mistake. This is in many ways the standard bearer for Panizzi as it is made in larger numbers. For a wine made from pressed grapes with no maceration on the skins, this is surprisingly complex, with striking lemon, herbal and vegetal aromas, a well structured palate and substantial mineral, salty finish. Not surprisingly we saw it being offered in some excellent restaurants both in the town and further afield.
Vigna Santa Margharita, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, 2010 – a single vineyard Vernaccia, part of which is aged for 5 months in used barriques and part in stainless steel. A very different nose with hints of oak with the barrique treatment being surprisingly obvious on the palate too. This is perhaps a testament as much to the freshness of the fruit in the simpler wine above, as to this wine itself. Longer, rounded and more structured in the mouth.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva 2008 – by contrast this wine, made from the selected best grapes, has spent a whole year in new barriques. But with the extra bottle age (the wine is now four years’ old), the integration between oak and fruit is very successful. Caramel notes on the nose, very good depth of fruit with those vegetal hints heading off in the direction of green olives. Well structured with a some wood tannins evident on the palate.
Evoé, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, 2007 – a markedly different colour, gold rather than lemon, which you can see in the fourth bottle above. This is a second example of ‘tradizionale’ in that it the must has been left on the skins for four weeks and then on the lees for 10 months to extract every last drop of richness and concentration from the fully ripe grapes. Pronounced nose of both fresh and dried fruit, excellent concentration, fair length if with a slightly drying finish. As the Italians say, ‘particolare’.
As we noted above, the reputation of the wine of San Gimignano goes back at last to the thirteenth century. The good news is that today at least some of the pioneers of modern Vernaccia di San Gimignano are producing wines of real character and note. The great majority of good to great Tuscan wines may be red, but this Vernaccia shows that Tuscany also has an indigenous heritage of really worthwhile whites, to complement its natural and manmade beauty