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Vernaccia di San Gimignano: A Medieval Wine for Modern Times

Vernaccia di San Gimignano: A Medieval Wine for Modern Times

Vernaccia di San Gimignano, prized in the Middle Ages, is still prospering in the heart of Tuscany

It’s fitting that Vernaccia, Tuscany’s most historic white wine, should come from a place like San Gimignano. A medieval wine warrants a medieval town.

Without question, San Gimignano is a spectacular spot. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and drawing 3.5-million visitors annually, it’s among the best-preserved medieval villages in Europe. Girthed by imposing stone walls and crowned by 14 towers, the town has narrow, curving backstreets that invite one to wander and imagine what life was like during San Gimignano’s glory days, before the Black Death closed its fatal grip in 1347.

Vernaccia vineyards with a view of San Gimignano's famous towers

Vernaccia vineyards with a view of San Gimignano's famous towers

Until the plague decimated its population, San Gimignano was a boomtown, being a popular stop for pilgrims heading to Rome and the Holy Land on the Via Francigena. Wine bars were almost as common then as now, providing wayfarers with a place to rest and refuel—happily for them, on some of Tuscany’s finest wine.

By the 1200s, Vernaccia was already widely esteemed, and town administrators were issuing edicts to maintain its standards. For the next two centuries, Vernaccia was purchased by Popes and nobles, served at royal weddings, presented as calling card and classy gift, and offered as an ‘inducement’ for favors or protection. It was even given to workers in lieu of salary.

Vernaccia with fresh pecorino cheese.

Vernaccia with fresh pecorino cheese.

Vernaccia’s most famous fan was Pope Martin IV, whose boundless appetite for eels cooked in Vernaccia was immortalized by Dante in the Divine Comedy—though none too favorably. Wagging his finger at the Pope’s eating habits, Dante stuck him in Purgatory among the gluttons.

Though Vernaccia’s prestige during the Middle Ages is well documented, its origins are unknown. Some believe it’s an indigenous grape, and its name derived from vernaculus, Latin for ‘place’ or ‘locale’—meaning ‘of this place.’ Others speculate that the grape originated in Liguria, specifically the town of Vernazza in the Cinque Terre. Certainly, in the glass Vernaccia seems a kissing cousin to Vermentino, a Mediterranean grape that flourishes in Liguria, Sardinia, and along the Tuscan coast. But when winemakers have tried to grow Vernaccia elsewhere, they’ve failed. Vernaccia covets its native soil, a unique mixture of clay, sand, volcanic tufo, and calcareous soil found in the hills immediately surrounding San Gimignano. Created from eroding seashells left behind during the Pliocene period, when Tuscany lay under the sea, this calcareous soil offers the potential for lovely, multidimensional, mineral-inflected whites.

Vernaccia typically has a pale straw color and delicate bouquet (technically it’s considered non-aromatic). In the mouth it’s often citrusy, offering notes of lemon, lime, or green apple. It has good acidity, though producers are pushing this lower as they increase grape hang-time in order to boost sugar and flavor components, creating a rounder, richer style of wine. Vernaccia’s hallmark is a slightly bitter note on the finish that’s reminiscent of almonds or quinine.

Today there are 80 to 90 wineries bottling Vernaccia. Several have been making wine since the Middle Ages, such as Pietrafitta and Guicciardini Strozzi, both located in stately Renaissance villas that are the quintessence of Tuscan elegance. Some say it’s because of its long and storied history that Vernaccia di San Gimignano was declared Italy’s first DOC wine in 1966 and elevated to DOCG status in 1993. The inference, of course, is that this honor wasn’t due to Vernaccia’s quality.

To be sure, there are plenty of Vernaccias on the market that are no more than simple summertime quaffers. To be a superior white wine, Vernaccia demands aconcerted effort in the vineyard and cellar. But with 3.5-million tourists eager to buy a souvenir bottle, good Vernaccia hasn’t been a high priority among many local producers; adequate sells just fine.

Early morning mists in the hills around San Gimignano

Early morning mists in the hills around San Gimignano

Fortunately, top-notch Vernaccia is being made, thanks to some serious winemakers who are pushing the grape to its fullest potential. The first efforts began in the 1970s, when Riccardo Falchini and Enrico Teruzzi installed modern temperature-control equipment. Now the largest producer of Vernaccia, Teruzzi & Puthod has done more than any estate to commercialize this wine, both through its widely distributed Vernaccia di San Gimignano and its Terre di Tufi, a succulent oak-aged blend of Vernaccia, Malvasia, Vermentino, and Chardonnay, dubbed “the white Super Tuscan” in full-page ads.

Another important innovator is Giovanni Panizzi, president since 2003 of the Consorzio della Denominazione San Gimignano. Previously a businessman in Milan, he acquired property in San Gimignano in 1978 simply for weekend getaways; winemaking was an afterthought. His first vintage of Vernaccia, done for a lark, was a disaster. Nonetheless, Panizzi caught the winemaking bug. In 1989, his winery released its first commercial bottling. In the years since, Panizzi has doggedly pursued his goal of making the best Vernaccia possible, trying out various vinification techniques. He was the first to ferment Vernaccia in small French oak barrels and was among the pioneers who tried aging the wine in barrique and prolonging contact with the lees. When applied judiciously, such techniques add dimension to the wine, transforming Vernaccia’s summery citric character into something mellower and richer, with layers of pear, pineapple, broom, and vanilla.

Panizzi now makes three types of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, each a benchmark in its respective style: traditional; an old-vine cru called Vigna Santa Margherita, which is fermented and aged five months in barrique; and a Riserva, aged one year in barrique with weekly battonage. Panizzi also makes a 70/30 blend of Vernaccia and Chardonnay, called Il Bianco di Gianni. And last year he began another experiment, based on traditional vinification methods: The grapes are harvested at the end of September (relatively late), pressed, then fermented using only natural yeasts. Juice and skins remain together in a large, conical oak vat until December, much like in the old days. After racking, the wine is returned to the vat, where it remains until bottling in July.

Cesani and Panizzi, two leaders in quality Vernaccia

Cesani and Panizzi, two leaders in quality Vernaccia

Clearly, Vernaccia has many sides to its personality. In fact, most wineries today offer at least two styles of Vernaccia. Cesani, a boutique family estate, makes two of the best versions around: a basic Vernaccia di San Gimignano and a barrique-aged selection called Sanice. Other wineries worth seeking out are Montenidoli, Falchini, and Vagnoni.

The experiments haven’t stopped. One newly posed question is the aging potential of top-quality Vernaccia. Panizzi, for one, is betting on it. Two years ago, he helped the consortium organize a special tasting in which six Vernaccias from various producers were compared to six Chablis. Going head to head, with vintages ranging from 2004 to 1990, the Vernaccias did remarkably well. The highest scorer, in fact, was Panizzi’s own 1995 Riserva, outpacing its competitor by two points, a 1995 Chablis Raveneau Grand Cru from Valmur.

But it seems the best of Vernaccia is yet to come. In 1993, the consortium began a research project investigating Vernaccia’s most promising clones. Now studying 15 clones in total, they’re looking for plants that rein in Vernaccia’s characteristic vigor, resist disease, ripen grapes more evenly, and address other inherent problems. “After 15 years of this research, we can look to the future with great optimism,” says Panizzi. “Vineyards with these new clones are already being planted, and these should contribute to the improvement in grapes’ quality. This just adds to improvements already made through greater attention to vinification. Together, these should help us make a leap in quality.” Undoubtedly, the greatest century for this medieval wine still lies ahead.

Published in the July/August 2008 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.

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