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Vernaccia di San Gimignano can age amazingly – but are we ready to spread the news?

Vernaccia di San Gimignano is often called ‘The White Queen’ of Tuscany – a small enclave of white wines in a region known mostly for its reds, particularly Sangiovese. Filippo Bartolotta finds out what makes this area so special, and offers his top picks.
There are certainly other white grapes that grow in Tuscany: Vermentino or Trebbiano, Chardonnay of course, to name a few. But Vernaccia di San Gimignano is special for at least a bunch of reasons. This type of grape in fact has been cultivated continuously in this area since the 13th century and the wine produced out of it was known and appreciated by aristocrats and the powerful alike: the pope, the king, the Medici family, scientists, artists, even Dante mentioned it in the Purgatorio of his Divine Comedy. It was the first Italian wine to obtain the appellation DOC in 1966 and last, but not least, the soil is an ancient seabed, rich in tuff, clay and limestone that add sapidity and structure to the wine.
For hundreds of years wine represented the main agricultural and economical activity for this little piece of Tuscany: Vernaccia, San Gimignano and the producers have – in other words – build in time the terroir we all talk so much about.
So why is it not the most famous Italian white wine by now? It probably was – and still is – a matter of identity. During the 19th century producers started to mix the Vernaccia with other white grapes, thereby losing some of its authenticity. Then tourists started to buy it as a souvenir of the UNESCO World Heritage Site (yes, San Gimignano is a stunning hilltop village protected by the UNESCO). Along this path, most of the producers lost the purpose to “think big” and to truly understand the specific characteristics of the Vernaccia variety, studying and experimenting and, of course, risking. But fortunately, something has changed over the last two decades.
A new and passionate generation of winemaker along with a renewed and widespread awareness have led the appellation to consider a different concept of Vernaccia. The climate change has surely helped to rethink the agricultural practices and brought the farmers to find new (and scientific based) solutions in the vineyards, but the oenological buzz towards new methodologies that spread in the new millennium between the Italian wine cellars, helped – on the other side – to experiment also with the fermenting and ageing process of the Vernaccia.
Today you can taste a rich variety of different interpretations of Vernaccia di San Gimignano and, most important, a good part of the producers can tell you exactly why they decided to do so: to use oak barrel instead of terracotta amphora, to macerate the skins or not, to leave part of the grapes to dry on the vines or to use only fresh grapes perfectly ripened. It looks like the perfect creative storm you first need to find (again) a common identity, which is slowly leading to a shared awareness: Vernaccia can age amazingly.
This year’s masterclass, led by Gabriele Gorelli MW during the Anteprima Vernaccia 2023, was a good opportunity to recall another masterclass led by Ernesto Gentili (and yours truly) almost 15 years ago, where we were all very excited to prove how beautifully this Tuscan white grape can age, gaining aromatic stratification and flavour deepness along its evolution. Back in the day we started off with a smashing 1974 Vernaccia and during a blind tasting together with the wines of a group of famous French vigneron the 1990 Panizzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano was rated hands down the best wine of the day. But are the producers enough organized and ready to spread the news? And is the market ready to welcome it?
One of the most established and senior wine maker in the area, Walter Sovran, thinks so. “We believe the hard work during the last 15 to 20 years is starting to pay off. Wine journalists and trade are for sure excited and aware now whilst consumers still believe white wines should be drank young so that’s where we have to focus on”.
Meanwhile, the numbers of the appellations are positive. The production of Vernaccia di San Gimignano has been stable for the last five  years with its around 4,5 millions of bottles produced per year since 2018 (4,633,819 in 2022), with around 140 producers operating in the appellation, 79 of which are members of the Consorzio di Tutela. The value is around 13 million euros, sold mostly internationally (52%) with around half the remaining domestic sales (48%) still sold directly in San Gimignano.  Meanwhile the amount of grapes produced in 2022 in surprising, given the high temperatures that were registered in the the hottest year ever in Tuscany since 1800, and the drought. But this is another proof of how well the Vernaccia has settled in its territory, its characteristics and its challenges through the years.
After a hot spring and summer, some hailstorms and drying windy days, the few rainfalls in August 2022 have given the grapes the chance to mature regularly the sugar levels and the acidity. The same climate conditions have effected the development of grape diseases in a positive way, helping the producers to use a very low amount of  fungicides and insecticides and therefore to protect the environment. Hence, good quality grapes nonetheless, for very young but promising good wines, which could be tasted along with the Vernaccia 2021 and 2020, the Vernaccia Riserva 2021, 2020, 2019 and the old vintages served at the masterclass.

Tasting notes

1. Montenidoli, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Docg 1997

A deep golden color. On the nose is a majestical experience: sweet aromas of peach and yellow plum, cedar, melon, dried fruit, sweet spices, broom, acacia honey, saffron and finally flint! The palate is smooth and crunchy at once with a mineral and savory taste and a great lingering aftertaste reminiscent of the aromas enjoyed on the nose.

2. Tollena, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Signorina Vittoria Riserva Docg 2011

A decadently luscious oxidative style with an intense yellow/orange colour. Wide and calm, like a sunset. Very complex: flowers, fruit and sweet spices, honey, brine, saffron, hazelnut, roasted almonds. The palate is broad and warm but still reactive. Great velvet touch with a bitter sweet feel and some wonderful toasted bread and apricot jam on the fish.

3. Cappella Sant’Andrea, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Clara Stella Docg 2015

Strawberry blond color. The nose is more reserved than the mouth: it tastes of jasmine, citrus and pollen with a generous and very salty taste. It’s an almond feast together with medicinal herbs, light spices, cedar and mango and a slight metallic hint at the end. Later the fruity notes on the finish.

4. Il Colombaio di Santa Chiara, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Campo della Pieve Docg 2018

A very structured Vernaccia packed with smooth and round glycerin. On the nose there is flint together with the sweetness of acacia flowers and propolis, then the vivacity of gooseberry and pineapple. Even in the mouth it begins soft and decidedly sapid, almost salty, it has a large and “heavy” structure and closes up with some intense fruit flavors with some floral notes. A lovely lingering sour/citrine notes give this wine a great twist.

5. San Quirico, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Isabella Riserva Docg 2019

A spring sun, the bright one, almost angular, but warm. Wildflowers, lemon, vanilla and finally some sweet spices. The sip is delicate and graceful with an increasing sense of power and structure building up. The delightful citrus fruit complexity is complemented by a round gunflint touch and a great creaminess.

6. Marmoraia, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Antalis Riserva Docg 2019

Pleasant, clear, fresh and coherent in aromas and flavors. Citrus complexity, starting from the sweetness of tangerine to the juicy bitterness of grapefruit ending up with hints of lemon flowers. On the palate there’s some great vanilla notes and raw almonds at the end of the sip. An great structure and a refreshing finish.

7. Fattoria San Donato, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Benedetta Riserva Docg 2020

Metallic notes, flint, raw and wildflowers on the nose. Power and intensity on the palate with a distinctive mineral note and some pretty well designed fruit notes. As it lingers on the palate, it develops notes of broom flowers and dried tropical fruit.

8. Il Palagione, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Ori Riserva Docg 2021

Definitely citrine and floral both on the nose and on the mouth, simple and yet not simple and joyful. The palate shows some sweet notes of acacia honey, the sweetness of the juicy white melon and the sourness of the yellow plum.

9. Alessandro Tofanari, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Astrea Docg 2021

An intese golden color. Generous yellow fruit and flowers with contrasting aromas and flavors. On the one hand the juiciness of melon, pear and apple, then the delicacy of chamomile, the sweet-bitter-tart of pink grapefruit, with a touch of flint. In the mouth the sip is calm and full, very mineral, with almost a velvet tannic touch.

10. Panizzi, Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG 2022

A reserved, polite, almost shy nose at first . Very clear cut aromas and flavors: wisteria, lilac and lily of the valley to which is added the sweetness of ripe pear and white melon. Then clearly sapid in the mouth, light but warm in the finish. This is a false simple wine hiding a potential of a true fine white!

11. La Lastra, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Docg 2022

Very citrus version but in a delicate way: tt’s like tasting the white part of a Amalfi lemon.  The floral notes and the  gentle aromatic herbs (lemon balm, rosemary flowers, nepitella) add a lot of complexity. The mouth, on the other hand, develops a lot of character: sapidity, warmth and a certain peppery finish.

12. Cesani, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Cesani Docg 2022

The nose seems reluctant to open: you can recognize the white flowers, the mineral side and a hint of fresh almond. A completely different music plays in the mouth: intense, citrine, the flowers return again and the sweetness of pear juice closes this wine with a fantastic sweet refreshing finish,

13. Ternuta Le Calcinaie, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Docg 2022

Very intense in the aromas of delicate aromatic herbs – such as lemon balm, fresh oregano, lavender flowers, then citrus peel and white flowers, with a touch of vanilla. Perfumes that are reflected on the aftertaste with an intense mineral and white pepper finish.

14. Casa alle Vacche, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Docg 2022

Pear and white melon pulp with a hint of citrine and also a minty touch. On the palate the texture is reach but with a graceful movement: definitely salty with a citrus driven touch then yielding to a sweet finish.


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