Winning formula

  • Friday 20 January 2006

Vernaccia di San Gimignano was the first ever DOC wine.
Small wonder, then, that its producers are reluctant to change a system that works, says ROSEMARY GEORGE MW

We were in a medieval loggia under the Palazzo del Podestà, just off the main square in the hilltop town of San Gimignano. Outside, crowds of tourists passed by, and wedding guests cheered a newly married couple emerging from the church opposite. Amid such theatre, it was a challenge for our powers of concentration to assess the current vintages of Vernaccia di San Gimignano and San Gimignano Rosso. But, happily, the wines held our attention.

In some ways, it is curious that San Gimignano is known for its white wine, for it is surrounded by a sea of Chianti and other red wines. The fact that Vernaccia is the principal grape variety, rather than the ubiquitous Trebbiano and Malvasia of Tuscany, is also enigmatic. No one can explain why it is that Vernaccia is grown here. Nor does it bear any relation to the other two DOCs that bear the name of Vernaccia. Vernaccia di Serrapetrona, from the Marche near Pescara, is a red wine, while Vernaccia di Oristano, from Sardinia, could be described as Italy’s answer to sherry. There is a suggestion that the word derives from the same root as ‘vernacular’ and, therefore, it may have been a way of describing a local wine. However, there is no doubt that the soil composition of the vineyards around San Gimignano favours white wine, with tufa and yellow sandstone, which is sometimes mixed with clay.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano prides itself on being the first wine to be recognised as a DOC, back in May 1966, and in 1993 it was elevated to DOCG status. The regulations recognise Vernaccia as the dominant grape variety, and for some producers, it is the only variety. Elisabetta Fagiuoli at Montenidoli is convinced it is a mistake to add other varieties. ‘It isn’t smart to change what we have been doing for 200 years,’ she says. ‘Adding other grapes is market driven, done just to please the modern taste – the wine will end up tasting like Coca-Cola.’

As is often the case with Italian wine laws, producers can add up to 10% of complementary grape varieties; this could be Trebbiano and Malvasia, but is more likely to be Chardonnay. As president of the consorzio, Giovanni Panizzi believes that the addition of another grape can be useful. Personally, I found the addition of Viognier made the wine earthy and clumsy, while the blends with added Chardonnay assumed a broader flavour, and lost the sappy mineral notes typical of Vernaccia di San Gimignano. That was not to say that they were not good wines, but they were no longer truly Italian.

Fattoria di Cusona, as the property of the Strozzi Guicciardini family, has made its mark in the British press for hosting Tony Blair’s Tuscan holidays, while Casale Falchini is the creation of Ricardo Falchini. His recollection of San Gimignano in the 1960s shows just how far the town and its wines have come since those days.

‘There were no cars in San Gimignano then,’ he says, ‘just one policeman. At Casale, there were 22 cows, and the hay was kept in what is now the office. The first thing I did was to buy a tractor.’ Then, in 1976, a chance meeting with one of Tuscany’s gurus, Giacomo Tachis, resulted in some useful consultancy advice: ‘Get rid of those old botti.’ And so he bought an insulated tank for cooling the wine, recalling his neighbour’s observation ‘for that crazy guy from Prato who is spending money on electricity’.

Large botti – the traditional casks of Tuscany – are now a thing of the past in San Gimignano. Instead, new barriques have made their mark over the last decade or so. The DOCG allows for a riserva quality, which not only implies a selection of the best grapes, but also entails an extra year’s ageing in tank, barrel or bottle before sale. Often, that ageing will take place in small, and usually, new barrels. Here again, I must admit to being something of a purist. I am not convinced that Vernaccia always has the depth and weight of flavour to assimilate new oak. The oak tends to dominate the flavours of the fresh, young wine, and again gives it an international flavour that belies its Tuscan provenance.

Take the two wines from Cesani, from a family who arrived in the region in the 1950s but only began bottling their wine in the 1990s. The 2004 Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a pure Vernaccia, had appealing, smoky mineral notes on the nose, with fresh fruit on the palate. The 2003 oak-aged wine, Sanice, had spent six months in oak after fermentation in barrel, and tasted rich and nutty on the palate, but there was no escaping the oak. Similarly, Giovanni Panizzi’s 2001 Vernaccia Riserva had a spicy, oak flavour, which contrasted with the delicate mineral notes of his simple Vernaccia from the 2004 vintage.

Sometimes, instead of a riserva, a grower may opt to make a selezione of the best grapes, which may come from a particularly good vineyard. At Palagetto, the Santa Chiara selection is just that – a pure Vernaccia, with some attractive herbal notes and a mineral intensity.

There is a growing number of new producers. Some are old family estates where the owners have decided to make something of their vineyards and bottle their own wine. Others have changed hands recently, such as Il Palagione. Its white wine, Hydra, has a richness that makes you think it has spent time in oak – but no. The wine spends six months on the lees, with regular lees stirring.

But San Gimignano is not white alone. The original DOC for red wine was created some 10 years ago, but then, in 2003, the regulations for San Gimignano Rosso were modified to allow a more international flavour. Originally, it was hard to distinguish from the surrounding Chianti Colli Senesi, with its preponderance of Sangiovese. Nowadays, you are allowed the so-called alternative grape varieties, namely Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir, and if there is as much as 85% of one variety in the wine, the label may say so. However, there appears to be a confusion of different blends; there are no minimum or maximum percentages, so producers may do as they please. We tasted pure Sangiovese, Sangiovese with Merlot, pure Merlot, Sangiovese with Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, all in varying proportions. The common theme, their origins in San Gimignano aside, seems to be oak ageing, in small barrels, giving the wines a sweet vanilla flavour. Most are still too young to have proved their bottle-ageing worthiness.

Another seemingly illogical regulation is the requirement to bottle the wine in a Burgundy-shaped bottle. I enjoyed Il Palagione’s Antajr, a blend of 60% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot, with its cedary fruit and sweet, long finish, but an IGT Toscano Rosso. Why not San Gimignano? I asked. Giorgio Comotti explained, ‘I want to use the high-shouldered Bordeaux bottle, but that disqualifies me.’ So, although the DOC may have given the producers of the IGT from San Gimignano some legal framework, and enabled them to put the San Gimignano name on their labels, many still prefer to retain the flexibility that IGT offers. However, for me, benchmark San Gimignano is white Vernaccia, with the fresh, mineral flavours that I found in the wines below.

Cesani, Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2004 ****

The Cesani is full of pleasant surprises, characterised as

it is by a rounded, mineral nose and palate, with good, smoky fruit, and some depth of flavour. £5.91; L&S

Enotria La Lastra, Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2004 ****

Another one of our favourites, this warms you with its delicate nose, elegant fruit and rounded palate. A very stylish wine. £8.50; Bianco 01244 372660

Il Palagione, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Hydra 2004 ****

A pure Vernaccia, benefiting from six months on lees, which gives it an unusual richness and weight on the palate.

N/A UK; +39 0577 953134

La Mormoraia, Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2004 ****

Marco Bernabei, son of one of Tuscany’s leading oenologists, is following in his father’s footsteps here. The 2004 has elegant, mineral fruit, and a spicy finish. Nicely nderstated. £6.99; Maj

Palagetto, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Selezione Santa Chiara 2004 ****

Firm, herbal notes, a rich, mineral palate and good acidity. N/A UK; +39 0577 943 090

Panizzi, Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2004 ****

Delicate, mineral notes, with spicy undertones. £10.92; Evy

Vagnoni, Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2004 ****

A light, fresh nose, with fresh acidity and firm, mineral fruit. N/A UK; +39 0577 955077

For a list of UK stockists, turn to page 103.

Rosemary George is author of Treading Grapes: Walking through the Vineyards of Tuscany (£7.99, Bantam).

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