Unfortunately, being cast into the spotlight did little for the wine. Its sudden notoriety attracted enologists, who made what studies told them the public wanted, with the result that Vernaccia became a light, spritzy thing that was perfect for the millions of people who come to see the city's towers every year, and wanted to take home a couple of bottles as a souvenir. But it did little to excite the interest of serious wine drinkers.
However, even the spritziest of Vernaccia does have the capacity to age, as we discovered a couple of years ago at a tasting organized by the Consorzio della Vernaccia di San Gimignano: we worked back through a series of Vernaccia Riserva and similar, to wines made by Pietrafitta in the 1970s, when aging white wines was the last thing anyone had in mind: by the beginning of spring restaurateurs and wine merchants were already asking for the new vintage made in the fall, and whatever was left over from the previous year simply wouldn't sell. For some reason the folks at Pietrafitta set them aside, and 30 years later, they were still with us:
Fattoria di Pietrafitta Vernaccia di San Gimignano 1975
Golden yellow that brings certain bodily fluids to mind, with slightly greenish highlights, and very slight cloudiness. The nose is fairly bitter, with gunflint and some smoke, also some petroleum, and mineral overtones. On the palate it's fairly full, and savory, with a fair amount of bitter almond and some acidity as well, though less than in many others. It is in any case defter on the palate than I might have expected.
Fattoria di Pietrafitta Vernaccia di San Gimignano 1974
Deep yellow with golden reflections. The bouquet is distinct, with pungent cut flowers and fairly intense herbal notes, with some sea salt as well and some underbrush, and with time balsam. Interesting though more obviously gives an impression of greater age than some of the others. On the palate it's very much alive though obviously well along, with gunflint bitterness, and pleasing savory tannic underpinning. Long rather bitter finish, and it has quite a bit to say. It's rather like looking at an elderly woman and seeing flashes of her youthful beauty.
The Vernaccia Elisabetta Fagiuoli makes at Montenidoli is a very different animal.
She is from the Valpolicella, in the Veneto, and cheerfully admits that when she bought Montenidoli the late 1960s and decided to make wine, as far as she was concerned red was the only way to go. So her first was a Chianti di San Gimignano DOC. However, with the passage of time she found herself fascinated by Vernaccia, San Gimignano's traditional white varietal, and planted some; her first vintage was 1984, and, unlike many of her neighbors, she made it in purezza, without any of the "complementary" varietals that the Disciplinare allows. She liked it, and began a long voyage of discovery, which ultimately resulted in the three distinct Vernaccias she now makes:
- Vernaccia Tradizionale, fermented in cement tanks, with extended maceration of the skins to draw the most from the grapes. It's quite extracted, and tends to be a fairly deep gold, and can be quite charged, especially in a good vintage. It brings back good memories and is very nice with foods.
- Vernaccia Fiore, from free-run must (what runs from the press before it's turned on). It ferments in cement tanks, and though not as charged as the Tradizionale, does display beautiful concentration and great finesse, especially in good vintages. Of the three, my favorite.
- Vernaccia di Carato, barrel-fermented free-run must. As a barrel fermented wine it's quite successful, and Elisabetta keeps the oak on a tight leash, allowing the fruit to come through. It is quite elegant, and if you like barrel fermented whites you will find it most impressive.
This spring Franco Ziliani, friend and colleague, asked her to organize a vertical, something that never occurred to me, because Elisabetta and I are close friends, and when I visit (I put her website together) I prefer to sit at the kitchen table and talk. She happily agreed, inviting a number of journalists. We started with some barrel samples, and worked back:
Vernaccia Tradizionale 2007
Slightly cloudy gold. Intense bouquet with considerable gunflint and some very tart citrus. On p rich, full, with powerful minerality and underlying bitterness. Quite promising, in a very charged key.
Vernaccia Fiore 2007
Pale slightly cloudy brassy gold. Interesting bouquet, quite delicate, with floral accents and very fresh Great delicacy, and on the palate it's quite rich, with graceful citric fruit. Beautiful wine, will be worth seeking out. Greater acidity and deftness.
Vernaccia di Carato 2007
Pale brassy gold. The bouquet is delicate, with butterscotch and minerality. On the palate it's full, and softer than the Fiore, with clean elegant fruit. Softer than the Fiore, and this is also because of differences in the wood. Will be nice.
Vernaccia di Carato 2006
Brassy gold with brassy reflections. Deft nose, beautiful integration wood and minerality, quite promising. On the palate full and rich, again promising, though there's an underlying softness to it. Great potential, but it's very much in mid-stride.
Vernaccia di Carato 2005
Elegant brassy white The nose is elegant, with butterscotch, laced with gunflint and some citric accents. Quite fresh and a delight to sniff. On the palate it's full, and rich, though a touch lighter than the 2006, with clean savory mineral accents supported by clean acidity. Deft, and also very young. Leaner than 2004, and this is the vintage at work.
Vernaccia di Carato 2004
Brassy gold. The bouquet is powerful, and much more fully developed than that of the 2005 - a year makes a big difference - with elegant butterscotch mingled with bitterness and some gunflint. On the palate it's full, elegant, and quite rich, with ample white fruit and some minerality supported by clean rich citric acidity, which flows into a warm clean acidic finish. Very nice, and though it spent considerable time in wood the wood doesn't mark it at all. Very nice. Ernesto Gentili quietly says, Questi son bianchi che vale la pena -- These are worth-while whites. Extraordinary finesse and it drinks very, very well.
Vernaccia di Carato 2003
Brassy gold with brassy reflections. The bouquet is rich, and slightly caramelized, with butterscotch mingled with hints of gunflint and spice, also white fruit. Quite nice, in a rather rich key. On the palate it's ample and soft, with powerful white fruit supported by moderate acidity and some savory accents that carry into a clean rich savory finish with some sweet accents. Quite nice, though it does reflect a hotter vintage.
Vernaccia di Carato 2002
Brilliant brassy gold. The bouquet is beautiful, with bright acidity and rich gunflint aromas supported by some savory accents and sea salt. A tremendous lot going on, and very exciting. On the palate it's a little leaner than one might have expected, but very bright, with clean mineral fruit supported by gunflint laced acidity that flows into a clean gunflint finish with underlying bitterness. Delightful, and has a great deal to say. Gambero Rosso awarded this wine 3 goblets, its highest rating, and it amply deserves them.
Vernaccia di Carato 2001
Brassy gold. The bouquet is rich, with butterscotch and some caramel, supported by some gunflint and hints of marzipan. On the palate it's ample and soft, with fairly rich butterscotch and white fruit supported by clean slightly bitter gunflint acidity. It is rich, but by comparison with the 2002 lax -- a bit softer and not as bright. Vernaccia comes out best in cooler vintages.
Vernaccia di Carato 2000
Brassy gold. The bouquet is fairly rich, with caramel, and warmth mingled with some wood smoke and some hints of fg minerality with underlying sweetness. Hot vintage. On the palate it's ample and soft, with bright acidity supported by clean underlying bitterness that flows into a clean savory bitter finish. Pleasant, though a touch soft, and this is due to the searing temperatures we had in August that year.
Vernaccia di Carato 1998
Pale brassy gold with brassy reflections. The bouquet is powerful, with clean rich minerality laced with bitter gunflint and savory accents; it's very fresh, vivacious, and has a great deal to say. On the palate it's full, and rich, with powerful white berry fruit supported by savory accents and some bitter overtones, which flow into a clean savory finish. Very nice, and has a great deal to say. Exciting.
Vernaccia di Carato 1997
Brassy gold with brassy reflections. The bouquet is fairly rich, with caramel accents and some gold reflections; it's more charged than the 98. The bouquet is rich, with honeysuckle and some bitter accents with underlying honey and butterscotch. Quite powerful, in a rather muscular sort of way. On the palate it's ample and soft, with clean deft acidity, and it is elegant, but has begun to slide in a way that the 98 has not, and this is because it is from a hotter vintage. Not as good as the 98
Vernaccia di Carato 1996
Brassy gold with brassy reflections. The bouquet is clean, with pleasant bitter gunflint minerality and some savory accents. Graceful. On the palate it's bright, with lively rich white berry fruit acidity supported by clean savory accents that flow into a clean savory finish. Very nice, and quite pleasant to drink.
Vernaccia di Carato 1995
Brassy gold, with clean brassy highlights. The bouquet is eye-opening, with clean rich butterscotch aromas mingled with gunflint and some savory accents, also honeysuckle and hints of mint. A great lot going on, and very impressive. On the palate it's deft, with bright clean white fruit supported by savory accents, citric acidity, and clean underlying minerality that flows into a clean mineral finish. Beautiful wine, and a great delight to drink; you'll find yourself ignoring your friends and talking to the wine. Others at the table are also nodding their heads and smiling.
Vernaccia di Carato 1990
Brilliant brassy gold with brassy reflections. The bouquet is rich, with powerful butterscotch supported by clean rich savory accents and hints of menthol, with underlying alcohol. Very nice, and speaks to us over the bridge of years. On the palate it's full, rich, and elegant, with powerful savory citric fruit supported by clean acidity.
Vernaccia di Carato 1989
The first wine Elisabetta fermented in barrels
Lively brassy gold with brassy reflections. The bouquet is clean, with mineral acidity and some hints of gunflint supported by underlying bitterness. It's steely, in a way one associates more with reds than whites, and tremendously deft and exciting. On the palate it's full, and rich, with clean powerful honeysuckle fruit supported by some gunflint and rich minerality that flows into a clean fresh finish. Extraordinarily fresh, and a great delight to drink. One would never guess it's 18 years old.
This is Elisabetta's first Vernaccia; it's brassy gold with some greenish reflections, and one would never guess its age. The bouquet is bright, with clean minerality and underlying bitterness supported by some bitter accents. Great depth and the grapes show beautifully. Franco Ziliani is frothing at the mouth as he goes into ecstasy while tasting the wine. On the palate it's extraordinary, with bright citric fruit supported by citric acidity with beautiful mineral accents that flow into a clean almost creamy mineral finish. I'm running out of superlatives.
Brassy gold with brassy reflections. The bouquet is rich, with powerful clean gunflint supported by clean bitter accents; it's rich, and reveals greater understanding of the Vernaccia grape. On the palate it's full, and bright, with clean rich citric fruit supported by clean mineral acidity. Franco Ziliani is saying it's over the top, and he's right. Very, very nice.
Vernaccia Fiore 1990
Brassy gold with brassy reflections. The bouquet is bright, with rich gunflint laced with honeysuckle and bitter almonds with underlying savory accents. Impressive. On the palate it's full, and rich, with clean savory citric fruit supported by clean sweet acidity. It's quite elegant, but a little softer than the earlier wines, though nobody would guess it's entering its majority now. Most impressive.
Vernaccia Fiore 1991
Brassy gold with brassy highlights. The bouquet is impressive, with petroleum and minerality mingled with savory accents and some honeysuckle richness. Beautiful. On the palate it's extraordinary, with bright clean lemony fruit supported by clean slightly bitter citric acidity, and it flows into a clean savory citric finish. Extraordinary wine, and one would never guess its age were it to be presented blind. The stuff of dreams.
We tasted a number of reds during lunch, all of which were interesting and good. I only took notes for Elisabetta's first:
Montenidoli Chianti di San Gimignano 1971
Pale almandine ruby with almandine rim. The bouquet is haunting, with balsamic notes and warm acidity laced with savory accents and peppery overtones; this is quick to write but there's a great lot going on. Deft, elegant, and fully mature. Great finesse, and you would never guess it's close to 40 years old. On the palate it's full, and bright, with lively berry fruit supported by clean bright slightly bitter acidity that flows into a clean bitter finish, while the tannins are clean and smooth, with a slight angular burr that flows into a clean savory finish. Great depth, combining freshness with elegance and finesse, and (as I said before) you would never guess it's entering middle age. Franco Ziliani says it's the best wine of the day, adding that it's Fuori Misura, over the top, and displays finezza assoluta -- "absolute finesse." It was very good, I agree, but I found some of the Vernaccias to be just as exciting.
Bottom line: Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and especially Elisabetta Fagiuoli's, is a great delight young, but becomes even better if given time.