Tuscany’s Almost-forgotten Wines
Think of Italy and, without question, Tuscany is this country’s most globally recognized region. Michelangelo’s David, the birthplace of the Renaissance, the Medici (all associated with the city of Florence), the Palio horse race in Siena, the leaning tower of Pisa, rolling hills, country villas and, of course, the food are all at the forefront for tourists, gourmands, history buffs and art lovers.
The wines of Tuscany are also some of Italy’s most recognized. Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti, Carmignano and the ever-sought-after Super Tuscans (for which there is no real definition) find themselves on dinner tables and in the cellars of casual wine drinkers to three-star Michelin restaurants worldwide.
But two of Tuscany’s most historic wines are also often overlooked. Vernaccia di San Gimignano was Italy’s first wine to achieve DOC status and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was the first to have a DOCG sticker placed on its bottles. At recent tastings of the releases of the 2015 Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 2013 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, I had the opportunity to rediscover the wines and realize that perhaps it’s time for consumers and restaurateurs to take another look to ensure that these wines have a place on their dinner tables and wine lists.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG
The notoriety of Vernaccia di San Gimignano dates back centuries as it appeared on the tables of royalty and nobility throughout Europe. In 1966, the wine was the first (red or white) to receive DOC status (it received DOCG status in 1993). The main grape used to make the wine is also known as Vernaccia di San Gimignano (one of a number of grapes that are part of the Vernaccia group) with a minimum requirement of 85% and up to 15% other non-aromatic white grapes. The wine must be aged for a minimum of 11 months in stainless steel or wood with an additional 3 months of bottle age required before release.
The production zone is surrounding the municipality of San Gimignano, one of Italy’s most striking medieval towns, in the northwest part of the province of Siena. The area possesses a Mediterranean climate with warm, dry summers and moderate winters with vineyards located on the neighbouring hills on well-draining sandy soils at elevations of 200 to 400 metres. There are 170 producers in the zone, of which only 70 bottle and sell wine under their own label.
The typical characteristics of the wine tend to be a pale straw yellow colour, subtle fruity and/or floral aromas, mineral and savoury qualities. Of course, vineyard site, vineyard management and winemaking technique will all have an effect on the taste of the resulting wine.
The best wines, I found, were subtly fresh and crisp with a lovely minerality, slightly weighty mid-palate, a savoury quality and often a hint of blanched almond. The wine can handle a judicious and light-handed use of oak, but most of the Riservas seemed to be trying to be too important with an over-abundant oaky character. Excessively Sauvignon-like wines also seemed to lose some of the grape and region’s typicity.
Producers whose wines stood out for the relatively warm 2015 vintage include Casa alle Vacche, Cesani, Casale Falchini, Fontaleoni, il Palagione, La Lastra, Mormoraia, Palagetto, Panizzi, Rampa di Fugnano, Signano, Tenute Guicciardini Strozzi and Teruzzi & Puthod.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG
The first Italian wine to receive the DOCG in 1980, the name Vino Nobile di Montepulciano dates back to 1787, but viticulture in the region dates back to Etruscan times. The town of Montepulciano even possesses centuries-old cellars in the town centre.
The vineyards of the region range from 250 to 600 metres above sea level with soils mostly consisting of sand and sandy clay. The wines must contain a minimum of 70% Prugnolo Gentile (as Sangiovese is known locally) with a maximum of 30% other grapes authorized by the region. The wines have historically contained a small percentage of the Mammolo grape in the blend, providing a lovely perfumed character to the wines.
The use of Mammolo has been in the decline as the grape oxidizes easily, although there were several of the 2013 wines tasted that did contain a small amount of this indigenous grape. Other native grapes commonly used include Canaiolo and Colorino. There are many producers using Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, which can take away from the typical character of the wines, particularly with Cabernet, which has a tendency to dominate Sangiovese.
Typical characteristics of Vino Nobile tend to be cherry and plum flavours, dried floral aromas, spice and vanilla with firm tannins and high acidity resulting in wines that tend to have good ageability.
The 2013 vintage was cool and wet during the growing season, resulting in a slightly later harvest, but, according to many producers, a warm September allowed good ripeness. In general, I found the wines to be quite elegant and drinkable with fresh acidity, particularly those with minimal oak influence (the wines must be aged for a minimum of 2 years, of which 1 must be in oak).
Producers whose wines stood out during the tasting of the 2013 vintage included Avignonesi, Boscarelli, Triacca, Casale Daviddi, Dei, Icario, il Macchione, Lombardo, Le Bertille, La Ciarliana (although a touch heavy handed with oak), Lunadoro, Antico Colle, Montemercurio, Poliziano and Tenuta di Gracciano della Seta.