My recent trip to Tuscany included a wonderful visit to San Gimignano. I had long wanted to see this place and it certainly lived up to my hopes – it is very beautiful and quite extraordinary. I loved the town, the sense of history, the dramatic, almost bizarre buildings and the feeling that I was in a complete medieval town with nothing of the 21st century around me.
As lovely as the place was, I was there to try the local wine and I did not really know what to expect. It is an oddity in Tuscany as it is white and made from a grape peculiar to this place – Vernaccia. Of course there are many other wines called Vernaccia dotted around Italy, but it seems that they are all unrelated to each other – indeed a couple of them are even red. One reason is that the word Vernaccia comes from the same linguistic route as the word vernacular and simply means local or indigenous. However, I have heard it claimed that the Tuscan Vernaccia and the rarely seen Ligurian Vernaccia may well be closely related.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano has been famous for centuries, the first written mention of it was in 1276 and in 1966 it was the first D.O.C. created in the whole of Italy and in 1993 it was awarded the first D.O.C.g in Tuscany – which seems a strange choice as the wine had been in something of a decline since the nineteenth century. Possibly it was an attempt to give this uniquely Tuscan wine a higher profile than the neutral Trebbiano and Malvasia blends that dominated white wines of the time?
While I generally rate Tuscan red wines highly, I have tasted quite a few examples of Vernaccia di San Gimignano over the years that were less than inspiring and I was keen to see if that was the norm or if this is a wine that can excite?
My voyage of discovery started at a delightful little estate called Cappella Sant’ Andrea, this is a family run winery and has been going since the 1950s, but had a completely new winery built in the 1990s and is now in its third year of being fully organic. The focus is whites made from Vernaccia, but the vineyards can also produce D.O.C.g. reds labelled Chianti Colli Senesi and D.O.C. reds labelled San Gimignano Rosso. Both of these are based on Sangiovese as you would expect, but in the San Gimignano Rosso it is blended with Merlot and in the Chianti with the local Canaiolo grape.
I was lucky enough to try most of their wines and started with their young fresh and most straightforward take on the Vernaccia grape:
2010 Vernaccia di San Gimignano
Cappella Sant’ Andrea
Slightly waxy gold yellow, clear and bright with a slightly oily look.
The nose was clean, mineral and waxy with some oily and fresh white stone fruit notes.
The palate had a nice succulent texture like a peach or nectarine, medium acidity, but is is noticeable and has a feel of freshness.
The touch of bitterness on the finish slightly spoils the lovely freshness, but apart from that it works well. The freshness is there, the minerality is there and the ripe fruit is there. When it warmed up a little the softness of the grape really showed and so did the length. Perfect with light cheeses, salads and charcuterie – 87/100 points.
I enjoyed this wine and would happily award it a silver medal at a wine competition. What it is not though is a complex white wine, but it is fresh, tasty and pleasurable to drink.
I next tried the 2008 vintage of the same wine and the bitterness had started to dominate the freshness, which for me destroyed the balance of the wine.
It seems that all winemakers strive to make more complex wines and Cappella Sant’ Andrea is no exception. They also make an oak aged version of Vernaccia with a little Chardonnay blended in. This wine is called Rialto and while there is nothing wrong with it, I think the Vernaccia’s bitter quality can be too dominant when it is treated in this way.
Next on agenda was a dinner partnered by a range of Vernaccias from different producers. Rather wonderfully the dinner was hosted at the Pietrafitta winery which is a stunning place with great views and also has an agritourism – or farmhouse bed and breakfast.
The aperitif came from the Pietrafitta estate itself:
2010 Borghetto Vernaccia di San Gimignano
Lovely aromatics here with hard ripe pear, hints of honey and herbs – including anis.
The palate is quite succulent with medium acidity, honey, apples, anis & sage.
Lovely balance between good fruit, nice acidity and weight.
This was very attractive, fresh and drinkable wine with none of the bitterness that so often bedevils Vernaccia. 10% Sauvignon Blanc blended in seems to have really given the wine balance and freshness – 89/100 points.
This was also a good accompaniment to the vast platter of salumi and peccorino cheese that was my starter.
The next course was a superb Pappa al Pomodoro – a humble peasant dish of a thick tomato and bread soup to which I have become addicted since being served it about 4 times in 3 days on this trip. With it I drank a wine from a producer that I have often been told is considered the best for Vernaccia di San Gimagnano:
2010 Panizzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano
This 100% Vernaccia was very pale and fresh looking with none of the oily honeyed colour of some.
The clean, fresh nose was of citrus and apple with a slight herbal and floral note.
The palate was slightly creamy and had a touch of spritz giving it good balance between richness and freshness. It had enough enough acidity and the bitterness on the finish was balanced pretty well. An enjoyable, clean, fresh style – 88/100 points.
Many of the producers sought to introduce complexity into some of their Vernaccias by fermenting and ageing in oak barrels. Personally I do not think the grape takes kindly to this unless extreme care is taken. It seems to me that Vernaccia is a grape that ought to be enjoyed when it is light, fresh and lively – much like Riesling.
However, no sooner had I decided this than a wine came along that really excited me and this did have some oak influence, but there was more to it than that, this wine was made in an extraordinary fashion.
2009 Cusona 1933 Vernaccia di San Gimignano
This fascinating wine was first made in 1933 and that year is celebrated in the name of the wine and the label is a reproduction of the original.
One third was fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures, one third in oak barriques and one third was made from Vernaccia grapes that were first dried by the passito process – which concentrates the sugars in the grapes.
The nose was rich honeyed and concentrated with lemon curd and cheesecake notes.
The palate has nice weight, richness and good balance with freshness and enough acidity. Beautifully balanced wine with great weight and loads of character, probably one of the two best Vernaccia I have ever tried and a really lovely wine – 91/100 points.
Whilst in Lucca I was able to purchase a bottle of the Cusona 1933 from the 2007 vintage and to my surprise that was also very good and still retained its balance and attractiveness.
On another occasion I was able to retry my other equal favourite Vernaccia to date:
2009 Le Grillaie Vernaccia di San Gimignano
Fattoria Melini – the Chianti producer.
This single vineyard wine is a very clever example that uses just the right amount of oak to enhance the wines richness and mouthfeel.
It is hugely enjoyable, very drinkable and perfect with all sorts of Mediterranean foods – 91/100 points.
This was an excellent experience and greatly helped in my understanding of the Vernaccia grape. It seems to me that it works best when kept fresh, it is not a rich grape, but neither is it best served being crisp and simple. At their best Vernaccia wines have a lovely rich succulent texture that balances perfectly with the freshness and acidity and where the winemakers achieve this balance – by whatever means – then it produces terrific wines.
Some examples do not try hard enough and are happy to just make simple, fresh, lively wines – which are perfectly drinkable and fine with local food, but they only give half the picture of what can be achieved. Others of course try too hard and over work the wine with too much oak and extraction of bitter characters, so there is no doubt in my mind that this is a variety that needs very careful handling – which luckily many get.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano is an Italian white wine that can be hugely enjoyable and perfect match with much of Italian cuisine, I hope more UK consumers discover its charms as at their best they do excite.