Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The 2010 Vernaccia di San Gimignano Anteprima

The producers of San Gimignano continue to march to a different drummer with respect to the producers of Tuscan reds: They have a day, and rather than spend it on the current vintage (2009 in this case), go on thought-provoking tangents. The first time, they scrounged old bottles hidden in the corners of the cellars, and assembled a vertical that went all the way back to 1974, a time when nobody in Italy even considered the possibility of making an age-worthy non-fortified white wine.

And yes, by God, the '74 was old, but it was still alive, and this caused all sorts of raised eyebrows. So then they began inviting producers from renowned French white wine appellations, showing a willingness to stand next to the stars of the Enological Firmament that few producers of reds have matched: A couple of years ago they showcased Thomas Jefferson's favorite, Hermitage, and this year was the turn of Pouilly Fuissé, a Burgundy made with Chardonnay in the southernmost section of the Burgundy production zone, just a few miles north of the Beaujolais Appellation.

The white varietal of choice in this region is Chardonnay, often planted to very high densities (8000 or more vines per hectare) and, since the climate is fairly cool, the flavor balance is decidedly mineral, with lemony fruit rather than the tropical fruit one gets from Chardonnay in hotter climates. Fermentation and aging are primarily in small oak barrels, which contribute butterscotch accents that are not cloying, thanks to the acidity of the wines.

They did things slightly differently this year, first featuring two vintages each from three French producers, and then six vintages from different Vernaccia producers.

The Wines:

Pouilly-Fuissé Chateau des Rontets Les Birbettes 2007
Pale brassy gold with brilliant golden reflections. The bouquet is intense, and quite mineral, with a fair amount of greenish gunflint that brings artichoke stems to mind. Considerable depth, and there are hints of bitter honey as well. Interesting. On the palate it's ample, with full rich lemony fruit supported by ample butterscotch laced acidity that flows into a clean vegetal vanish with bitterness and savory butterscotch underpinning. Appealing; there's nice depth, though it's still very young, and the oak it was fermented in still stands out some. It will drink very nicely in the ne3xt 3-5 years, and will be worth waiting for.
2 stars

Pouilly-Fuissé Chateau des Rontets Les Birbettes 2002
Brassy gold with brassy gold reflections. The bouquet is intense, and clearly mature, with petroleum laced picked lemon peel and a fair amount of sea salt. Quite harmonious and with more swishing the mineral elements emerge nicely, as do hints of honey derived from slight Noble Rot that came with the summer rains. On the palate it's ample, with rich bitter minerality supported by lemony fruit and acidity that flow into a clean citric lemony finish. Quite pleasant, with the rich acidity and structure that come from a cool vintage (no chance of overripeness), and it's quite pleasant to drink. Ample, and will work very well with white meats or hearty fish, and won't be at all bad with cheeses wither.

Viré-Clessé Domaine Valette 2003
Lively brassy gold with brassy reflections and hreenish highlights. The bouquet is very different, with clean spicy vegetal accents with menthol and powdery green apple bitterness that adds tantalizing depth. Intriguing. On the palate it's powerful, with fairly rich, fairly sweet dried apple fruit supported by bitter minerality more than acidity, which flows into a clean rather bitter finish. It is a hot vintage wine, one in which the acidity was knocked back by a great lot of sun. This said, it's quite pleasant in a hot weather key, and if you like the style, which is riper and less acidic, you will enjoy it. But you have to like the style. Note: It does develop considerably in the glass, especially on the palate, where intriguing iodine bitter accents emerge. Because of its development, several tasters found it to be the best of the French wines; while I agree with them about the development, it was a little softer and sweeter than I liked and that didn't change.
2 stars

Pouilly Fuissé Domaine Valette 1999
Brassy gold with greenish highlights and brassy reflections. The bouquet is decidedly mineral, with some hints of petroleum, and a fair amount of bitter minerality laced with underbrush and wet leaves. Mature, and pleasant, revealing considerable sea salt as it opens, and also intriguing honey accents, while the petroleum fades, and it becomes quite fresh. On the palate it's deft, and more about finesse than power, with clean minerality and deft savory bitterness that flows into a clean mineral finish. Quite pleasant, and nicely balanced, with harmony between mineral acidity and bitterness that flow into a clean savory finish that gains fullness form wood tannins that support but do not distract. Very nice, and very fresh; it has a vibrant and timeless beauty to it.

Pouilly Fuissé Domaine Guffens-Heynen 1996
Brassy gold with brassy reflections. One wouldn't guess it is 14 years old. The bouquet is fairly intense, with considerable bitterness that is mingled with overripe blossoms and bitter black pear accents; as it opens the overripeness gives way to butterscotch. Nice balance and quite a bit of depth. On the palate it's ample, with rich fairly sweet savory minerality and mineral acidity, supported by vanilla-laced tannins that flow into a clean fairly sweet mineral finish with bitter vegetal underpinning and vanilla-laced tannins from the oak. Pleasant, and graceful in a full lacy sort of way, and though it is quite ready to drink, it also has the potential to age well for another 5-10 years.
2 stars

Pouilly Fuissé Domaine Guffens-Heynen 1993
Brassy gold with brassy reflections and gold highlights. The bouquet is elegant, with slight pickled lemon acidity supported by petroleum and clean savory accents. Very pleasant to sniff, and with considerable depth. Lots to discover here. On the palate it's ample, with rich savory pickled lemony fruit supported by tannins from oak, and flows into a clean savory oak-laced citric finish. Very pleasant, with haunting distance that confers depth, and has a great deal to say. A wine one can converse with.

The Vernaccia:

Cappella Sant'Andrea
Vernaccia di San Gimignano Cappella Sant'Andrea Rialto 2007
Brassy gold with brassy reflections and white rim. The bouquet is bright, with considerable greenish bitter almond blossoms mingled with minerality and some butterscotch. Quite young. On the palate it's bright, and rich, with fairly intense minerality supported by bitterness and some butterscotch underpinning that flows into a bitter savory finish. It's quite young, and zesty, with a peppery underpinning that is a bit of a surprise, while there is also an aromatic languid richness that's from the Chardonnay the wine also includes -- yes, there is 10% and it has a considerable impact. Quite approachable and quite drinkable.
2 stars

Tenuta le Calcinaie
Vernaccia di San Gimignano Tenuta Le Calcinaie Riserva Vigna ai Sassi 2006
Brassy white with brassy reflections and white rim. The bouquet is muted with respect to the 2007, with deft bitter almond blossoms mingled with minerality and some citric acidity. Lesser key, somehow. On the palate it's ample, with fairly rich lemony fruit supported by some mineral acidity that flows into a clean finish that has hints of butterscotch to it, and also some mineral citric accents. Pleasant, and quite young; it brings to mind a teen who still has some baby fat to her. Nice, but still developing and needs to tighten some.
2 stars

Vernaccia di San Gimignano Fontaleoni Vigna Casanuova 2005
Brassy gold with brassy reflections and white rim. The bouquet is deft, with bitter minerality mingled with greenish accents and hints of bitter honey and lemony minerality with underlying gunflint bitterness. Nice, and has quite a bit to say; it's a cooler vintage wine and there is more acidity to it. On the palate it's ample, with bright lemony minerality supported by languid hints of sweetness and minerality, with underlying peppery accents that flow into a clean bitter peppery finish. Quite pleasant, and very fresh; it's a wine that will drink well with white meats or hearty fish now, and also has the legs to age well for many more years. A fine expression of the vintage.

San Quirico
Vernaccia di San gimignano San Quirico Riserva Isabella 2004
Brassy yellow with brassy reflections and white rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with slightly bitter butterscotch mingled with hints of petroleum and minerality. It's less acidic than the 2005, and this is an effect of the vintage, which was warmer and drier. On the palate it's ample and fairly mineral, with bitter citric accents supported by some tannins with slight vanilla accents that flow into a clean rather savory finish with pleasant warmth that reflects the warmth of the summer. It's not as complex as cooler vintage are, but does have a sunny minerality to it that is quite pleasant. It grew upon me.

Poggio Alloro
Vernaccia di San Gimignano Poggio Alloro Le Mandorle 2003
Brassy yellow with brassy reflections and white rim. The bouquet is rich, and herbal, with a mixture of rosemary and oregano mingled with clover honey and spice. Quite rich, and somehow nebulous. On the palate it's ample, with rich herbal minerality that flows into a warm clean fairly savory finish with bitter underpinning. Pleasant, and a good expression of a very hot vintage -- it's not overripe, and there is acidity, though the tannins have a cedary accent to them, and have more of an influence than they would in a less hot year. Pleasant in any case, and a fine expression of hot vintage Vernaccia. This is their only barrique-aged Vernaccia.
2 stars

Vernaccia di San Gimignano Panizzi Riserva 2002
Pale brassy gold with brassy reflections and white rim. Looks quite young. The bouquet is powerful, with slightly pickled lemony acidity supported by greenish vegetal accents and mentholated spice. Quite pleasant, and quite rich; it has a lot to say and is very fresh. On the palate it's full, and more languid than I expected, with ample bitter lemony fruit that has some butterscotch overtones mingled with gunflint, which carry into a decidedly bitter slightly greenish finish. Nice balance and depth, with wood contributing considerably to the wine, but finding enough sour fruit and acidity -- 2002 was one of the coldest and wettest vintages in memory -- to balance well and work. It has quite a bit to say, and will also age nicely for another decade or more.

General impression: Two very fine flights; the French wines reveal cooler temperatures and as a result have more of an interplay of minerality and acidity than the Vernaccia, which is -- with the exception of 2005 and 2002 -- a child of a hotter climate that results in greater ripeness and as a result richer fruit and less acidity. Both are quite successful, however, and offer a great deal to think about and ponder. In short, different terroirs, and different climates.

There's no denying it; the French do have a head start, and very few 1993 Vernaccias could hope to match the 1993 Pouilly Fuissé Domaine Guffens-Heynen. But things are changing with Vernaccia, and now the gap is much narrower -- if it still exists, and to reach this conclusion one would have to taste more wines from both Appellations. In short, Vernaccia is striding forward, and the wines are displaying a capacity to age that few would have expected from an Italian white.

And that is, alas, unappreciated by Italian consumers, and to a greater degree by Italian restaurant owners: Giovanni Panizzi said he is now having a terrible time interesting buyers in his 2008 Vernaccia, which is just barely beginning to enter its adolescence, because they all want the 2009. What for, one wonders, considering how much more depth the older vintages display, especially the 2005 and 2002.

In other words, if you come across a well stored bottle of Vernaccia from years gone by, especially cooler summers (in this decade, 2005 and 2002). Take a chance. It will likely make you very happy!

Last thing: I will taste through the current vintage in June, when the wines have a few months of bottle age.

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