Mon 7 Feb 2011
Vernaccia di San Gimignano has roots way back in history, being cited (as a billion wine-writers repeat) as the favorite wine of Michelangelo. Was it precisely the same Tuscan wine that was awarded, in 1966, the first DOC classification? That we’ll never know, since, as far as can be ascertained, Michelangelo never took notes on the wines he drank. The situation is interesting for a white wine that had almost disappeared by mid-century from this area of chalky hills and San Gimignano, its famous hill-town of jutting slender towers northwest of Siena. Farmers neglected the vernaccia grape in favor of trebbiano and malvasia. In a sense, the bestowal of the DOC revived the fortunes of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, though that’s not supposed to be the motivation of the official classification; it’s rather like the manner in which Academy Awards are given for an actor’s minor work because he didn’t get the Oscar when he should have years ago. One could list a dozen wines that should have been first to receive DOC classification, but that hardly matters now. Promotion to DOCG status came to Vernaccia di San Gimignano in 1993.
These observations are inspired by a group of wines that I encountered in New York on Jan. 25. The event was a tasting, at VINO 2011, of wines from 30 Tuscan properties that had been included in the 2010 Selezione dei Vini di Toscana Awards. I didn’t get to try many of these wines because I had been in a seminar on social media that ran at the same time that afternoon, but the tasting was supposed to go on until 6 p.m. so I still had more than an hour, except that after a few minutes hotel staff started flashing the lights. A wedding was going to occur later that night and the room had to be prepared, chairs set up and so on. Good planning there.
Anyway, the wines that absolutely knocked me out were whites from Montenidoli, the “mount of the little nests,” a small organically-run estate near San Gimignano founded by Sergio and Elisabetta Fagiuoli in 1965. Senora Fagiuoli herself, 46 years later, poured wines at VINO 2011. She offered one rose and five whites wines, though the estate also produces reds, two Chianti Colli Senesi and a Toscana I.G.T., all three of which I dearly long to try, because matters are handled in the old-fashioned way at Montenidoli. The wines are labeled “Sono Montinidoli,” meaning that they are made completely from estate grapes.
Some of the wines of Montinidoli are brought to our shores by various importers, including Artisan Wines Inc., in Edison, N.J.
The Canaiolo 2009, Toscana Rosato, is made from the canaiolo grape, traditionally a minor portion in Chianti wines (to soften sangiovese’s tannic edge) but largely relegated to oblivion these days, except for producers that cling heroically to the past. This is an extremely attractive and totally dry rose, sporting a pale copper-peach color, aromas and flavors of strawberries, peaches and dried red currants, and a finish of dried thyme and damp limestone. On a frigid day in New York, it brought to mind a pleasant early summer in Tuscany. Very Good+. About $18.
Montinidoli produces three levels of vernaccia wines. The first, in the current vintage, is the straightforward but surprisingly layered La Vernaccia Tradizionale 2007, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which receives more skin contact than the estate’s other vernaccias to extract all of the grape’s natural spiciness and elements of bee’s-wax and camellias and touches of leafy citrus. This Vernaccia Tradizionale 2007 is far better than the simple refreshing knock-it-back quaff typical of most examples of the genre. Very Good+. About $20.
Next is the Montinidoli “Fiore” 2007, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, made from free-run juice, fermented in stainless steel and allowed to rest “long” on the lees in tank. My first note on this wine was “Wow, so great!” I’ll come right out and say that not only have I never tasted a Vernaccia di San Gimignano filled with so much character but I never expected in this lifetime that I would. (We can talk about other lifetimes in, you know, another lifetime.) The purity and intensity, the sense of presence — by which I mean the wine’s authority in the nose and mouth and its sense of “thereness” — are amazing, yet the grape’s innate delicacy, its crisp, lively acidity keep the wine buoyant and animated. Roasted lemon, almond and almond blossom, bee’s-wax, a touch sage, a hint of freshly-mowed grass all combine for a feeling of sensual appeal and completeness. Drink now through 2013 to ’15. Excellent. About $23 and definitely Worth a Search.
Third is this roster is the Carato 2006, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which ages 12 months in barriques, that is, small barrels of French oak. Instead of being limited to three sips, I would love to try Carato ’06 with a wild mushroom risotto or a piece of swordfish marinated in lemon juice and white wine and seared to just beyond rare at the center. The wine is boldly spicy, deeply luscious with fresh and dried citrus and stone fruit, and, yes, one feels the influence of the oak aging in the wine’s supple texture and sandalwood-like “blondness,” yet a powerful acidic structure asserts its crystalline authority and a whole topography of limestone and chalk provides unassailable foundation. How strange and gratifying to encounter a world-class wine made from a grape whose wines are usually dismissed as “merely drinkable.” I suspect that Carato 2006 has five or six years of aging ahead, so drink now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $35.
The tradition in the vineyards around San Gimignano — so I have read — is that the workers would harvest the white trebbiano and malvasia grapes first, press them and use the free-run juice to make vin brusco — brusque wine — and then when the sangiovese and canaiolo had been picked for Chianti, that juice would rest on the skins of the white grapes. Montinidoli’s Vinbrusco 2005 — yes, 2005 — is no winsome little quaffing wine; no, friends, this is a wine of tremendous body and character, made all in stainless steel and resting on the lees for an unspecified time. I would urge you to drink it with white meats like veal and rabbit or with grilled trout, but it is not imported to the U.S., so I’ll keep this short. Excellent, and if available it would cost an astonishing $20.
Finally, we come — at the risk of mindless repetition — to another amazing wine, the Montenidoli Il Templare 2006, Toscana I.G.T., a blend of trebbiano, malvasia and vernaccia grapes that sort of blew my mind. (San Gimignano was a way-station for the Knights Templar.) This ages in wood, and you feel that structure, that woody spiciness and slightly spare austerity, that dryness, yet the wine is, as all these are, superbly balanced, thoroughly poised and integrated, a model of two forces that wed here in sweet synergy as they should in all wines that deserve our attention: integrity and individuality. From the color, which is radiant medium gold, to its aromas of roasted lemon, lemon curd and lemon balm imbued with dusty acacia and a hint of briers and brambles and thyme, to its spiced and macerated citrus and pear flavors supported by the triumvirate of bright acidity, keen limestone-like minerality and subtle wood, this is a world-class wine. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About — gasp! — $23.
I hope that I’m not overselling these wines, but it’s probably pretty evident that I loved them, not only for their inherent qualities but for the blessed amalgam of geography, vineyard, hard work, tender care and individuality that they seem to embody. I hope that My Readers can track down a few bottles.