Vernaccia di San Gimignano – ancient wine rediscovered

“A white island of wine in a sea of red,” some describe the Vernaccia white wine of San Gimignano, surrounded as it is by red Chianti vineyards. When young, it’s fresh, floral and pleasant – a cool kiss on a warm summer’s day. When older, its mineral notes mature and become more complex without losing its freshness. It’s one of the few Italian white wines I actually like, since this sun-kissed country is better suited for robust reds.

It was almost forgotten, though, because the last few hundred years have favoured the reds of the region. Only a select few vines remained in some estates, and Vernaccia wines were produced more as historic curiosities than for their sales potential. And to only think that this wine, at the edge of extinction, was once one of the oldest and most revered in Italy.

Preferred by popes, praised by poets

Back in the 13th century, the Vernaccia achieved huge success at the tables of kings, popes and nobles. Boccaccio mentioned the wine no less than eight times in his Decameron. Even Dante gave it a prominent role in his Divine Comedy, where Pope Martin IV repents for his mortal sin, gluttony, that apparently was fueled by Bolsena eels and Vernaccia wine. In the Renaissance, all the noble families of San Gimignano had vineyards of Vernaccia and the wine was served at the tables of the Medici family.

Then came hundred years of decline, and this once great grape went into hiding. It was only in the beginning of the 20th century that a professor of agriculture, Carlo Fregola, convinced the farmers to cultivate more of the ancient variety. After WWII, production techniques were modernized and became more suitable for the Vernaccia. The end of sharecropping also changed the features of farming in Tuscany and gave way for winemakers to work dedicated with the Vernaccia.

A white star

In 1966, Vernaccia di San Gimignano was the first wine to obtain the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) classification. These last years have seen an increase of quality and spiked interest in this celebrated wine.

And it’s exclusive too: the grapes destined for Vernaccia are only allowed from the San Gimignano area. A Vernaccia di San Gimignano allows up to 15% of other grape varieties to be added, but not just any grape you fancy. And the addition must come from the Province of Siena. Quite a puzzle, one must solve in order to make the perfect wine.

The best of the wines have the potential to become Riserva: to spend minimum 11 months in a wooden barrel or steel tank and then be caught at least 3 months in a bottle before it’s released for sale.

Taste of History

What better way to make history come alive than on your taste buds! On the top of the hill that is San Gimignano, next to the ruins of Rocca di Montestaffoli, the old fortress, and watching over the hills and vineyards of the surrounding area lies Vernaccia di San Gimignano Wine Experience – La Rocca. This new museum not only tells the story of the Vernaccia, it lets you taste it too.

Through its multimedia show you encounter the centuries-old history, the territory, grape harvest and agriculture methods. You meet the winemakers of the region and get acquainted with the other products of the region.

“What grows together, goes together,” and while the museum is for free, a tasting of wines is not. You can either try the different wines per glass or treat yourself to a Masterclass, that lets you try 4 different wines and also includes a taste of the local olive oil together with toasted bread as well as a savoury, local fennel salami.

Andrea; connoisseur, sommelier and orchestrator of your Vernaccia wine tasting will make it an enlightening and entertaining experience. To sit outside in the warmth of the afternoon with a view to the vineyards, to the cry of the swallows and enjoy a crisp, cool glass of Vernaccia in its natural habitat is bliss.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano has evolved past its history. It’s not just a memory of a glorious past, but a promise for high quality white wines in Italy in the future.

More info

To learn more about San Gimignano, check out our guide to this Medieval Manhattan. To go swimming in “the sea of reds”, why not follow us on our Wine Tour of Tuscany; to Montalcino, Montepulciano and Chianti.

If you’re looking for a place to stay, the rental agency We Tuscany can help you with that.

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