Irrefutable proof of the ancient origins of some wines and especially the unequivocal sense of belonging between certain vines and Italian soil is sometimes found in books, but not necessarily in treatises on oenology. This is the case with Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a Tuscan white wine which owes part of its name to the town famous for its towers, located a short distance from Siena.
In a wine region like Tuscany, which is recognised and celebrated for the elegant character and long-lived intensity of its red wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano seems like a happy white island in an ocean of red grapes. Vernaccia di San Gimignano is one of Italy’s oldest indigenous wines, and even in the Middle Ages its production was of great importance, although it had to wait until the second half of the twentieth century to rise again and regain its glory and success. While some sources claim that its name derives from the Latin word“Vernaculum”, which means “home”, as if to indicate the typicality of this vine and its link to the land where it was grown, history suggests that in all probability the name Vernaccia derives from Vernazza, the beautiful village in Cinque Terre where the grape seems to have originated around 1200.
What is certain is that at the dawn of the fourteenth century Vernaccia began the ascent that would consecrate it to fame far beyond the city walls of San Gimignano. This celebrity is testified by illustrious Italian and foreign poets and storytellers, including Cecco Angiolieri, Dante, Boccaccio, Franco Sacchetti, the Frenchmen Eustache Deschamps and Jean Froissart and the Englishmen John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer. However, the most famous quote involving Vernaccia is that of the “supreme poet” Dante Alighieri, who in his Divine Comedy placed Pope Martin IV, born Simon de Brion, in the sixth terrace of Purgatory among the souls of the gluttonous, along with the poet Bonagiunta Orbicciani in verses 19-23 with these triplets:
Sì disse prima; e poi: “Qui non si vieta
di nominar ciascun, da ch’è sì munta
nostra sembianza via per la dïeta. 18
Questi”, e mostrò col dito, “è Bonagiunta,
Bonagiunta da Lucca; e quella faccia
di là da lui più che l’altre trapunta 21
ebbe la Santa Chiesa in le sue braccia:
dal Torso fu, e purga per digiuno
l’anguille di Bolsena e la vernaccia”.
(Purgatorio, Canto XXIV).
So said he first, and then: “Tis not forbidden
To name each other here, so milked away
Is our resemblance by our dieting. 18
This, pointing with his finger, is Buonagiunta,
Buonagiunta, of Lucca; and that face
Beyond him there, more peaked than the others, 21
Has held the holy Church within his arms;
From Tours was he, and purges by his fasting
Bolsena’s eels and the Vernaccia wine.”
(Purgatory, Canto XXIV).
What is interesting is Dante’s choice of when to talk about wine: he does not mention it in Hell, the realm of eternal damnation, nor in Heaven, where the inhabitants are immersed in divine grace, but only in Purgatory, where the characters are sketched in their deepest humanity as sinners waiting for salvation. Pope Martin IV was not the only pope to have a weakness for Vernaccia di San Gimignano, however. His successor, Pope Paul III, the famous Alessandro Farnese of the Council of Trent, elected pope in 1534, was a great consumer of this wine. In his treatise “On the Nature of Wines and the Travels of Paul III,” his personal bottler Sante Lanceriomentions a letter ordering 80 bottles from the Municipality of San Gimignano, complaining of excessive rarity of this wine, saying “it is a perfect drink for lords and it is great pity that this place does not make enough.”
Before him, Lorenzo the Magnificent was also a known admirer of this wine, so much so that he used this wine to pay homage to the popes of the fifteenth century and wrote to the Florentine ambassador in Rome, referring to the Pope “…for the transport of twenty flasks of Vernaccia sent to as a gift to Lorenzo de Medici, Il Magnifico. If the sample of Vernaccia that I sent you pleased our Lord, I will send the rest by post or a carrier.” In fact the following centuries saw the decline of this wine because of the arrival of new varieties such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, which are easier to grow and more productive in terms of yield. It was only following the two world wars of the twentieth century that the old vine was recovered after having been left to grow in random rows, and 2016 will mark 50 years since 1966, when Vernaccia di San Gimignano was the first Italian wine to obtain the Controlled Designation of Origin status, before being listed as DOCG (Controlled Designation of Origin Guaranteed) in 1993.
A key role in the preservation and revival of this precious treasure of Italian wine has been played by theConsortium of the San Gimignano Designation, which has been responsible for encouraging the improvement of the wine’s quality and supporting the producers in promotional activities since 1972. Certainly, Vernaccia di San Gimignano is a wine worth discovering that has found a new way by rewriting its tradition within its more recent history. This is thanks especially to the careful work of the small-medium producers, who have found the consortium to be a way to bring together a critical mass to promote itself abroad. Overseas, the wine is greatly appreciated for its deep profile, which is rich in freshness, with a strong and balanced savoury taste with a fine note of bitter almonds. It also has an impressive longevity, especially in the Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva.
For those who have not yet had an opportunity to taste this wine, among the many interesting productions we recommend those of three companies in particular, who in their way represent three styles of interpreting the territory of San Gimignano. One young company that has been able to define its identity by cultivating vineyards with great care and creating wines of absolute excellence is Colombaio di Santa Chiara, whose “Campo della Pieve” label is pinnacle of balance between typicality and elegance. A fresh and delicately pleasant wine with slightly tropical notes of lychee, sage and white peach, with a harmonic power on the palate that surprises with its mineral precision and supple fullness. (€12)
Azienda Cesani is a historic family company from these parts, and in the 1950s it decided that its destiny lay in the revival of the terroir of San Gimignano and the promotion of Vernaccia. Today Letizia Cesani leads the family business with a fully female energy, and produces a Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva named after an anagram of the company: “Sanice,” a wine with strong floral notes and a strong and mature profile with the distinctive notes of almond and a pleasant savoury quality. (€10)
A company with a timeless style, the name Montenidol is essentially linked to Elisabetta Fagiuoli and the more traditional interpretation of Vernaccia di San Gimignano. It reveals all its beauty in the label “Fiore”, however, a great classic that pays homage to the past in its slightly rustic notes evocative of a field of flowers. It has suggestive nuances of saffron, which anticipates a rich and intense sip, capable of elegant persistence on balsamic notes. (€14)