Consumers can be excused if they have no familiarity with Vernaccia di San Gimignano. A well-respected California-based wine writer (who shall remain nameless) recently admitted to me that (s)he didn’t even know that Vernaccia was a grape, let along that Vernaccia di San Gimignano was considered one of Italy’s great white wines. Indeed, it was the first wine to be awarded DOC status. That’s correct: Vernaccia di San Gimignano received Denominazione Origine Controllata (DOC) status in 1966, before such recognition was granted to the big names of Barolo, Barbaresco or Brunello. It was further promoted to Denominazione Origine Controllata Garantita (DOCG) status--the highest accolade for Italian wine--in 1993.
There are compelling reasons to learn about this wine. It’s versatile, ranging from a light crisp invigorating white ideal for summery fare to a Riserva style that has more body and oomph that makes it a good choice for more intensely flavored dishes. Oh, and it’s not expensive, because, like the California-based wine writer, few people know about it. Three-quarters of the 2013s from the producers recommended below cost $15 or less. Indeed, the most expensive one costs only $22.
Tuscan Town with Towers
Though the wine may be obscure, the town of San Gimignano, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has good name recognition because its medieval towers have made it a popular tourist attraction amidst the rolling Tuscan landscape. By the end of the 13th century, there were roughly 70 towers (some as tall as 200 feet), built by families trying to outdo one another. Currently 14 remain, giving this walled hilltop enclave a distinctive skyline. Even those who have no interest in architecture will be dazzled by the collection of well-preserved Romanesque and Gothic buildings that line the streets and surround the piazzas. On a more modern note, there’s also a fabulous place for ice cream, Gelateria Dondoli, on the Piazza della Cisterna in the center of town.
The Grape and Soil
Though there are many types of Vernaccia grown throughout Italy, Vernaccia di San Gimignano is not related to any of them. Indeed, the name Vernaccia, comes from the Latin, vernaculus, which means local, native or distinctive, as in vernacular.
The DOCG area for Vernaccia di San Gimignano is small, only about 1,700 acres. (By way of comparison, the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley is about 1,400 acres.) Renato Spanu, winemaker and owner of the top-notch La Lastra winery, emphasizes that, though the area is small, the diversity of soil in San Gimignano is critical in determining the character of the wine. Similar to the cone of soil underpinning Sassicaia in another part of Tuscany, the soil of San Gimignano is volcanic. According to Spanu, erosion over the millennia accounts for the diverse layers as the soil that has swept down the hillsides and imparts complexity to the wine.
Vernaccia is well suited to the unusual--for Tuscany--well-drained sandy clay soil, which probably explains why the grape thrives in San Gimignano and nowhere else. Sangiovese, in contrast, prefers the stony galestro (schist-like) found in the Chianti Classico region, although that soil type exists, to a far lesser degree, in and around San Gimignano as well.
This area of Tuscany experiences a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and dry, hot summers with little rain during the growing season. The growers take advantage of the hilly terrain with vineyards planted up to about 1,500 feet above sea level, which allows the grapes to retain acidity and the resulting wines, freshness.
A Range of Styles
Vernaccia di San Gimignano has a range of styles, which is both a blessing and a curse because while it gives consumers choices, it also has the potential to confuse them. But, to put the range into perspective, it is no broader than the spectrum of Chardonnay that extends from unoaked and lean (Chablis-like) to opulent and rich (think Meursault). The vast majority of Vernaccia di San Gimignano wines seen in the U.S. convey vibrancy with crispness and energy from mouth cleansing acidity. There’s often a subtle citrus or nutty nuance in the finish. At the other end of the spectrum are the Vernaccia di San Gimignano that have been aged in oak barrels and have a rounder, more full-bodied profile. Fortunately for the consumer, the wood-aged ones are easy to identify since they are almost always labeled Riserva.
A Comparative Tasting
At this year’s tasting of the new vintage, the Consorzio della Denominazione San Gimignano, to their credit, did what few growers’ organizations do. They continued their tradition of holding a blind tasting comparing wines from Vernaccia di San Gimignano to wines from another appellation to allow the journalists from around the world to put their area into perspective. The producers know that it is not sufficient merely to claim having great wine. They must prove it. And tastings like this one do just that. Last year, it was a comparison of Vernaccia di San Gimignano with Grüner Veltliner from Austria. This year, it was a comparison of Vernaccia di San Gimignano to white Burgundies from the Côte Chalonnaise. Despite the breath-taking setting--the frescoed main chamber of the 1,000 city hall in San Gimignano--the comparison of these two appellations was the star of the afternoon.
The powerful--and surprising--message from this year’s tasting was how similar the wines from the two areas were despite enormous differences in grapes, winemaking and terroir. Five of the six Burgundies were made from Chardonnay, while one came from Aligoté. Five of the six Vernaccia di San Gimignano were made exclusively from the Vernaccia grape while one had a touch of Sauvignon and Riesling included in the blend. (Regulations permit up to 15% of other varieties). Five of the six Vernaccia di San Gimignano tasted were made in stainless steel or cement vats and saw no wood aging, while all six Burgundies spent time in barrel either during fermentation or aging. Burgundy’s climate is continental, not Mediterranean, and the soil is primarily limestone, not sandy clay. But the wines had shockingly similar structure, minerality and salinity. Most--but not all--of the journalists correctly distinguished the wines from the two appellations, but all of us came away remarking about the similarities.
There are, literally, scores of producers of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, ranging from small growers who produce little else, to larger firms who are not located primarily in San Gimignano, such Cecchi, a fine producer based in Chianti Classico. My favorite Vernaccia di San Gimignano producers who are based there include Casa alle Vacche, Il Colombaio di Santa Chiara, La Lastra, Montenidoli, Panizzi, San Quirico, Tenute Guicciardini Strozzi, and Teruzzi & Puthod.
In addition, I highly recommend the following ones, also based in Vernaccia di San Gimignano, as well: Casale Falchini, Cesani, Fattoria Abbazia di Monteoliveto, Fontaleoni, Fornacelle, Le Fornaci, Palagetto, and Tenute La Calcinaie,.
But my most powerful recommendation is to start exploring Vernaccia di San Gimignano--order it the next time you’re at an Italian restaurant or pick up a bottle on your next visit to the wine shop.
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E-mail me your thoughts about Vernaccia di San Gimignano at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein