The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
To call it Tuscany's most important white grape may not be saying much. Vernaccia di San Gimignano certainly gets scant attention next to the sangiovese-based wines of Chianti, Brunello and Vino Nobile. But you've got to respect a light, crisp variety that can stay afloat for 750 years in a sea of red. There's much else to recommend it, too, not least the fact that, in these terroir-obsessed times, it evokes a very local and pretty place.
The grape is grown almost exclusively around San Gimignano, one of Italy's best-preserved medieval towns, distinguished by the presence of 13 towers on its hilltop. Back in the 14th century, there were in fact 72 towers (until the majority crumbled), most built as status homes by wealthy families. In a sense, San Gimignano had the Manhattan skyline of its day.
It may have helped vernaccia's profile to hitch its name to a pretty tourist town. But the point, at least initially, was merely to avoid confusion. For there are several other vernaccias in Italy, including, most notably, vernaccia di Oristano on the island of Sardinia, none genetically related to the one from San Gimignano.
Unlike most of Tuscany's reds, wines based on vernaccia di San Gimignano in most cases bear the same name as the grape. And while much has been written about the quality revolution of Chianti since the 1960s, the town with the medieval skyscrapers has the distinction of leading the charge for the entire country where wine standards are concerned. In 1966, vernaccia di San Gimignano became Italy's first wine to be awarded appellation status under the fledgling Denominazione di origine controllata, or DOC, quality-assurance laws, the Italian analogue to the French AOC and Canadian VQA systems.
Were those first DOC wines something special? I never tasted them, but I suspect that, like many Italian whites of their era, they left much to be desired. These days, though, I've got lots of time for vernaccia di San Gimignano (vehr-NAH-chah dee san geemee-NYAH-noh), which tends to range in price from $13 to $17. Ian D'Agata, author of the comprehensive and excellent Native Wine Grapes of Italy, writes: "There is probably no white wine that has improved more in Italy over the last 10 years."
That's saying much, because these days Italy's whites are very much in bloom.
D'Agata wisely cautions that one should not expect mind-blowing intensity from vernaccia di San Gimignano. Like most indigenous Italian whites, it tends to whisper, particularly in its most familiar, unoaked style. Zippy and lean, unoaked examples tend to be redolent of citrus and, more intriguingly, a heady floral quality along with bitter herbs and almond, perfect for lighter fare, particularly seafood. Some producers have had compelling results with barrel maturation, which can impart suggestions of vanilla and spice. But they walk a fine line, because vernaccia is easily robbed of its delicate essence when wood takes charge.
Good producers include Baroncini, Guicciardini Strozzi, La Lastra, Niccolai-Palagetto, Rocca delle Macie and the outstanding Panizzi (at $20-plus). That's just a smattering. You'd find many more at the cafés in the shadows of San Gimignano's 13 towers, which is where they would undoubtedly taste best.