In 1643, Michelangelo Buonarroti wrote that the white wine made from the Vernaccia di San Gimignano grape ‘kisses, licks, bites, slaps and stings’. These are familiar words. The 17th-century poet and diplomat Fulvio Testi wrote something similar about Chianti’s Sangiovese: ‘it bites and kisses and makes you shed sweet tears’.
Our modern wine tasting notes read like a shopping list of fruit and vegetables in comparison: ‘blackcurrants on the nose, a hint of asparagus on the palate’. Four hundred years ago what was more important was whether a wine had a sense of energy, that it was active in the mouth. Testi and Buonarotti’s notes suggest a far more intimate drinking experience.
Their words were on my mind when I attended the annual tasting of Vernaccia di San Gimignano in February. Vernaccia is Tuscany’s noble white grape, renowned since the Middle Ages. It was the first wine in Italy, white or red, to achieve DOC status, exactly 50 years ago in 1966. It is a variety that ripens later than most other white grapes, picking as late as October, and the white wines made from it are crisp yet surprisingly concentrated. Of course, it’s also a rare thing in Tuscany: Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a white wine in a red sea of Sangiovese from Montalcino, Chianti, Montepulciano and the Maremma. Like Moses.
Unlike Sauvignon Blanc or Muscat, Vernaccia is not especially aromatic or richly fruity in flavour. The Riserva wines have noticeably more intensity—the fruit tends to come from older vines with naturally lower yields that produce more concentrated grapes.
The wine may also spend some time ageing in oak barrels, which adds aroma and flavour. But, as Michelangelo also noticed, the white wine made from this grape variety, riserva and non riserva, has forma, body; it has presence.
The sea, or rather the lack now thereof, plays an important role in the production of Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Taking a walk through the organically farmed vineyards at Montenidoli, winemaker Elisabetta Fagiuoli points out marine fossils and shells among the chalky soils. Fagiuoli’s wines, particularly the ‘Fiore’ 2014, seem to move both horizontally and vertically in underwater currents and visible waves. A subtle saltiness fills out the centre of the tongue, and there is an immediacy, freshness and focus to the wine, a persistent note I can only express as ‘mineral’ that gives a sense of lift. The soil seems to be there, translated into wine. The soon-to-be-released 2015 Vernaccia from Cappella Sant’Andrea, immediately north of the town, is delicate and saline, a sublime match for raw fish. To the northwest, Letizia Cesani’s Riserva ‘Sanice’ 2013 is equally elegant, disarming maybe with its power in the mouth. Quite a kiss. With her Riserva 2012 Letizia easily convinces tasters that Vernaccia has the potential to age gracefully, to improve even with a couple more years.
At Fattoria San Donato a little further south from San Gimignano, I tasted Federica Manzieri Fenzi’s ‘Angelica’ 2013, a Vernaccia that spends about ten months in French oak barrels. But the typical oaky flavours of vanilla and toast are not present in this wine. It is much more intriguing; with one swirl of the glass arose the scent of porcini mushrooms, and with another swirl, saffron, which is perhaps less of a surprise given that the yellow gold is one of San Gimignano’s age-old cash crops. All these are structured and smart wines with the potential to match robust flavours. I’m happy to admit that I was surprised and maybe a little ashamed. Before my recent visit to San Gimignano I had considered Vernaccia to be the kind of white you knock back without care and without food. In his 2014 book Native Wine Grapes of Italy Ian d’Agata commented that no white wine has improved more in Italy over the last ten years, and I can only raise a glass of Vernaccia, say cin cin and agree with him.
How to taste Vernaccia
To enjoy the body of Vernaccia, really move the wine around in your mouth. When we sip the wine tends to slide straight over the centre of the tongue down the throat. It doesn’t come into contact with the rest of the mouth: the outer edges of the tongue and the gums (where you might detect a very subtle tannic grip). Literally give it a gargle. I don’t recommend gargling the whole glass of course, but a discreet gargle should switch things up a notch, emphasising certain characteristics that are hard to capture with just a sip.
Saffron or sausages
Vernaccia di San Gimignano would work beautifully with Emiko Davies’s pumpkin and saffron risotto. It could elevate even a plate of sausages. But don’t drink it too cold. The wine will quite rightly act dumb. Give it some time out of the fridge before drinking. Or start drinking and note how the exchange becomes less slap and sting, and more kiss and lick as temperatures rise.
Join the TF Wine Club!
The Florentine Wine Series continues this month with a wine tasting + aperitivo at Vini e Delizie (via dei Banchi 45r, March 23, 7pm).
Come and discover San Gimignano white wines selected by TF’s Emily O’Hare and meet top winemakers Letizia Cesani and Federica Manzieri Fenzi. See the Facebook event online.
All participants will receive our TF Wine Club membership card to stay up to date with our must-attend events and must-drink wine box offers. Bottoms up!