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Vernaccia di San Gimignano

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San Gimignano in late afternoonVernaccia di San Gimignano's origins are shrouded in the mists of time: Some even suggest that the grapes used to make it were brought by the Etruscans. In any case, over the centuries the vines adapted superbly to the soil around San Gimignano, and by the Renaissance Vernaccia was considered Italy's finest white wine, fit to fire the imaginations of poets, artists and Popes. In part because of its renown, it was the first Italian wine to be awarded DOC status, in 1966.

The enological revolution that is sweeping through Tuscany has reached San Gimignano as well; Vernaccia producers are returning to their roots, improving their grapes, reducing their yields, and vinifying with care. As a result we are seeing a return of the wine that garnered so much acclaim in the past: Powerful and full-bodied, with a rich, heady bouquet and a crisp clean taste that lingers long on the palate, a golden-hued wine that both warms and inspires. "Vernaccia is really a red wine made from white grapes," observes Montenidoli's Elisabetta Fagiuoli, who has been making it the traditional way for 30 years and is now one of the driving forces behind the wine's rebirth. She makes three kinds of Vernaccia, which illustrate the major styles currently being made by San Gimignano's better producers:

  • Tradizionale, made with extended maceration of the skins to draw the most from the grapes. This is, as its name implies, the traditional Vernaccia, and has a deep golden color produced by compounds in the grape skins. Indeed, the color was so important that in the old days producers used to add caramel to achieve it in off years. The wine has a rich floral bouquet, good fruit, and is full bodied; it goes very well with the local cuisine, and could also be an interesting accompaniment to a Chinese meal.

  • Fiore, from free-run must. Free-run must is the juice that runs from the press before it's turned on -- this is the reverse of Tradizionale, a delicate wine that is much lighter on the palate, and which will complement rather than overwhelm subtly flavored dishes such as steamed fish.

  • Carato, which is barrel-fermented. Almost every Tuscan producer who makes white wines now ferments some of them in barriques. The wood tannins from the barrels give the wine a more international character, with hints of vanilla on the nose, and added body and complexity on the palate. However, the influence of the wood is carefully controlled to keep the wine from being oaky -- this is still very much a Vernaccia. It will be a fine accompaniment to crustaceans or white meats.

In addition to Vernaccia Montenidoli produces Cannaiuolo, a rosé that makes for a delightful aperitif; Vinbrusco, a surprisingly rich and flavorful blend of Malvasia and Trebbiano; Il Garrulo, a red wine made following the traditional formula for Chianti, which includes both red and white grapes, and is a nice, undemanding wine that is good when drunk young but ages surprisingly well; Montenidoli, a more full-bodied red, and, in great years, Sono Montenidoli, a red table wine made from Sangiovese.

These wines are all made from traditional Tuscan grapes. Montenidoli believes firmly in them, in part because of the estate's long history (the woman who owned the property in 1404 donated it, "with vineyards, woods and orchards," to the Hospital of Santa Fina for the salvation of her soul), and in part because a thorough understanding of the traditions of the past will make it possible to draw the best from them, thus providing a key to continued success in the future.

Logo Elisabetta will be happy to talk wines with you (or almost anything else - she has led an extremely interesting life), though you must call ahead, on 0577-941565 (email: montenidoli@valdelsa.net). Drive up to San Gimignano, circle past the Porta San Giovanni towards the parking lot, and take the dirt road that goes down the hill, just to the left of the entrance to the lot. It's about two kilometers, though the peace you will find upon your arrival will make you think you have gone much further.

Montenidoli also owns La Fidanza, an excellent base from which to explore Tuscany.