Vernaccia di San Gimignano: an excellent white wine from Tuscany

Falling in love with San Gimignano is all too easy: the vision of its skyline glimpsing amidst rolling hills covered by vineyards leaves you in awe even if you are accustomed to it. 

Often referred to as the New York of the Middle Aged for its high-rise constructions , San Gimignano is known for being a place stuck in time: its position along the Via Francigena, the road that connected Central Europe to the harbors in Puglia the crusades would start from, allowed it to prosper during the Middle Ages. However, San Gimignano lost its independence in the late 14th century and became a feudal town under the rule of the Florentine republic, falling into a five-century-long dormant period. 

The lack of hydric resources also made it impossible to build factories in its surroundings after the industrial revolution, and that is why its appearance has remained unaltered over time. The second gilded age began with the upsurge of tourism in Tuscany from the 1950s onwards: hundreds of thousands of international visitors flock to San Gimignano every year to see the region’s only intact medieval old town with its towers, fortified houses, thick defensive walls, and Romanesque churches – all against the backdrop of the immaculate landscape of Central Tuscany. 

But San Gimignano is also known for being the cradle of the so-called “rebel queen”, the only prominent white wine in the red ocean of Central Tuscany. The Vernaccia di San Gimignano grape finds itself at home on the ridges surrounding the town, giving the namesake wine. You can discover more about the long and well-documented history of Vernaccia at this link. 

These hills range between 250 and 400 meters above sea level, and boast completely different soils from neighboring areas – mostly consisting of sandy marine sediments, gray clay, and tufa. You can often spot oyster fossils right below the plants! 

The climate is a bit milder than in other parts of Central Tuscany, with constant ventilation downplaying heat waves but also a moderate amount of rainfalls. While I was there, the sun shone above the vineyards but I could see dark clouds looming over Chianti Classico, which lies about a half-hour drive away. 

Like many high quality native grapes from Italy, Vernaccia is almost completely neutral and devoid of a specific varietal character. “It’s a wine that hardly ever shines on the nose – remarked Nadia Betti, the owner of La Lastra – the aromas may be a bit shy but on the palate it often stands out for its textural depth and balance”. To be honest, the fact Vernaccia is an especially vigorous variety means the wines can taste a bit light and diluted, and the tourist appeal of the city has incentivized some producers to focus on extremely light and simple versions meant to be enjoyed while watching the sunset from the terrace of a trattoria or a cafe in town. Frankly, however, Vernaccia is nowhere as immediately-pleasing as perfumed and delicately aromatic Vermentino from the coast, which eroded some of its market share in recent years, encouraging many wineries to pursue higher quality. 

The age-worthiness of Vernaccia di San Gimignano

A good Vernaccia boasts lovely textural depth and richness while retaining good – if not exceptionally high – acidity allied to savory and spicy hints that make for a great combination of richness and energy. While attractive in its youth, it needs more time to show best. 

We have already discussed the topic of age-worthy white wines while covering Cortese, Timorasso, and Verdicchio, and Vernaccia di San Gimignano is yet another wine that excels with longer cellaring. But it ages in a different way from most other white varieties. “ Vernaccia is characterized by moderate acidity but the substantial mid-palate weight is its armor to defy time” explained Gabriele Gorelli MW in a Vernaccia retrospective held last year. 

After two or three years, the best examples start taking on earthy and salted caramel aromas mixed with quince, orange marmalade, and dried fruits. Because of their tertiary and oxidative complexity, they recall either red wines or a great Vino Santo ( although Vernaccia is not suitable for sweet wine production because of its thin and fragile skin). They represent a distinctively Central Tuscan take on premium white wine, displaying a subtle saline character and a pleasant grippiness from phenols that support the rich and creamy structure, making you crave poultry, liver patè, rabbit in wine sauce, mushrooms, and truffle. 

Vernaccia’s ageability was evident early on. In fact, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG was the first Italian appellation devoted to white wine to allow the Riserva category. In the age of internationalization, producers tried to mimic rich and creamy styles of Chardonnay by aging Riserva in new oak barrels. Some even added a dollop of other grapes – most notably Chardonnay or Sauvignon blanc. While such styles are still existent to our day, most quality-oriented producers are now opting for 100% Vernaccia and favoring elevage in used barrels or larger oak for their Riserva. Some even carry out long aging in stainless steel, and the outcome is very similar. The lack of oxygenation means that stainles steel-aged Vernaccia takes longer time to gain full aromatic breadth but its performance in the long run is almost the same.

The Annual “Regina Ribelle” en primeur tasting is always a great opportunity to taste new releases alongside back vintages. This year I wasn’t able to try anything nearly as old – and pristine –  as the pristine 1995 Montenidoli Carato poured at a respective last year but the 2008 San Quirico Riserva was in great shape and the 2014 Rialto by Cappella Sant’Andrea also fared well: it  reminded me of the fact that Vernaccia is less affected from vintage variation than many other whites. Examples from weak vintages often exceed expectations in the long run. 

I was also impressed by the 2013 Tenuta Le Calcinaie – an entry-level wine that is still alive and kicking after 10 years, with attractive aromas of hay, chamomile and saffron, followed by a gently oxidative palate with plenty of uplifting minerally verve.

Discovering the Vernaccia di San Gimignano producers

If you imagine large estates owned by aristocratic dynasties as those in Chianti Classico, you are astray. The countryside of San Gimignano is studded with tiny and intimate family run poderi (rural holding), most of which span no more than 15-20 hectares. There is a big divide between estates run by farmers who have always focused on the local market – and perhaps lack proper knowledge of what is happening in the rest of the world – and those that are managed by vignerons with a more cosmopolitan background. But the intimate and laid-back atmosphere is a common denominator among all the estates. Despite lying right next to one of the most touristy places in Italy, they still feel extremely authentic.

I was impressed by these three producers: 

Cappella Sant’ Andrea – The FIVI (Federazione Italiana Vignaioli Indipendenti, Italian Federation of Independent Winegrowers) symbol on the bottles hints at the indie spirit of Flavia della Seta and Francesco Galgani, the owners of this small farm in a magnificent setting on the northern end of the appellation . They work closely with two of the masters of Tuscan wine: Ruggero Mazzilli, one of the region’s leading agronomists, who oversaw the conversion of the vineyard to organic farming, and winemaker, Paolo Salvi, who helps them to conduct thorough experience. One of their three wines, Primaluce, ferments on the skins in clay amphorae, while the other undergo extended aging on the lees in stainless steels. They are also among the few producers who keep an extensive archive of old vintages.

Terre di Sovernaja – A stone’s throw from Cappella Sant’ Andrea, Federico Montagnoni follows a similar approach and produces eloquent wines – almost in spite of the winery’s low-key profile. Biodnyamic farming, old vines and spontaneous fermentations are the pillars of his no-thrills, outright low-intervention style.

Signano – Pietro Pagini is one of the most talented and enthusiastic young producers in San Gimignano. He owns awe-inspiring old vineyards overlooking the town from the southern quadrant of the appellation, where the north-east exposure of the slopes and the presence of large woods slow down the ripening of Vernaccia and allow it to boast especially bright acidity. Pietro also runs Il Casolare di Bucciano, an charming, intimate countryside resort with a panoramic swimming pool, where you can also enjoy a tasting or dinner with homemade cold cuts and traditional Tuscan dishes. 

The Burial of Santa Fina by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Visiting San Gimignano 

When in San Gimignano, make sure to stroll through the picture-perfect Piazza Grande and visit the Santa Maria Assunta cathedral, which contains magnificent 14th century frescoes and the Esequie di Santa Fina, one of the masterpieces of renowned Renaissance painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio. If you are into contemporary art, then I recommend also stopping by Galleria Continua, which regularly hosts exhibitions by some of the most famous living artists. 

The town is a hotspot for foodies, too. Right in the middle of the main square, Gelateria Dondoli is considered one of the best gelato shops in Italy: don’t miss their crema di Santa Fina gelato with “Oro di San Gimignano”, Italy’s most ancient variety of saffron. Ristorante La Stella is the right place for those who are looking for hearty Tuscan fare, and DiVinorum Wine Bar boasts an extensive selection of Tuscan wines. Il San Martino 26 is a fancy bistro with a cosmopolitan allure, and Michelin-starred restaurant, Linfa, is the ultimate fine dining destination in town. Chef Vincenzo Martella blends top-notch ingredients from the Tuscan countryside in dishes that are at once flavorful and refined. His second restaurant, Cum Quibus, is another address to keep in mind, offering Tuscan recipes with a contemporary twist.

The tasting report

The 2023s on display hint at a rather anomalous vintage with rainy and a wet spring, followed by an extreme heat wave in mid-July and hotter than average weather in August and early September – although noteworthy diurnal swings slowed down the ripening process. The grapes were normally picked between the first and second week of September, and the resulting wines are often crisp and refreshing, with lower alcohol levels than in 2022, when milder but longer heat waves pushed the accumulation of sugars. High disease pressure also resulted in a less generous crop and in more concentrated grapes, so the wines rarely lack mid-palate weight (which can be a problem with entry-level Vernaccia).

The Riservas always generate mixed feelings: the best wines in show always belong to this category but there is hardly ever any shortage of perplexing examples. In the challenging 2022 vintage this situation was brought to the extreme: while the most successful examples are downright terrific, the least attractive ones show signs of overripeness or precocious oxidation. 

Check out the tasting report with the best 10 Vernaccia di San Gimignano to try

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