A late winter morning with bright sunshine and clear skies is perhaps the perfect time to visit San Gimignano and the short drive from town to reach Le Calcinaie gave us a new vantage point from which to appreciate the famous towers. When owner, winemaker and chief cook and bottle washer, Simone Santini, came out to greet us he was wearing a Chicago baseball cap; it was a nod to my background he said but in fact I don't think Simone knew how appropriate a Chicago cap was for him because there was a book written in the 1970s, that was subsequently turned into a film, about Chicago native Colonel Conroy, titled ‘The Great Santini’. After our visit to his winery and then drinking all his fabulous wines back in Lucca I can think of no more fitting sobriquet for Simone than ‘the Great Santini’.
Furthermore, Simone seems to possess more American DNA than any other Italian winemaker we’ve met in the sense that he understands that making good wine these days is only half the job; it won’t sell itself because there are lots of other equally good wines. It needs to be constantly promoted and marketed and Simone’s outgoing and immediately likeable personality equips him well for that task. He’s clearly a born salesman because I rarely see an Italian wine of the quality of his Vernaccia so widely available in so many retail stores across America.
Simone also knows instinctively that you can talk all day about soil, grapes, vinification and a hundred other related topics but none of that matters if what is being poured into your glass doesn’t immediately grab your attention.
Accordingly, it didn’t matter that it was barely past 10.00 am on a Sunday morning. After a quick handshake he sat us down and started opening wine straight away - the wine is what matters, everything else is just detail and noise. I’ve missed that direct no-nonsense business approach after eight years in Italy.
It’s been a 40 year journey for Simone since graduating from the Siena Agrarian Institute with a degree in wine technology. Ever since childhood he's had a passion for growing plants and as there was no family vineyard to inherit Simone had to do everything the hard way; rent then buy the land piece by piece, plant his first vines in the late 1980s and wait for years until he could make a tiny quantity of his first commercial Sangiovese wine in 1993, followed by his first Vernaccia di San Gimignano in 1995.
Simone's wines have been organically farmed and produced since that first Vernaccia harvest and after acquiring more acreage in the intervening years, Simone’s enterprise now extends to 30 acres under vine producing 80,000 bottles per annum, about half of which is his bread and butter wine, the Le Calcinaie Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG.
The predominant characteristic of the vineyards of this area is the presence of limestone (calcare in Italian) from which the name of Simone's winery is derived. Marine fossils from the Pliocene epoch abound in the soil and interspersed with the limestone are layers of clay and sand. This is ideal soil for producing mineral laden white wines with structure and sapidità. Vernaccia is not one of the more naturally acidic native Italian grapes so its fresh and savory characteristics need to be allowed to express themselves through neutral vessels like stainless steel and by the blocking of malolactic fermentation.
In doing so the acidity profile of the finished wine is usually perfectly sufficient but with climate change in the form of hotter and drier summers the subject of acidity will be one to watch in San Gimignano, also because the vineyards in this area are not particularly elevated as they are further east in the Chianti Classico zone. Simone's Vernaccia vines have the advantage of north-easterly exposure and his vineyards near the river are also afforded some heat protection. In addition, earlier harvesting can be another tool help ensure sufficient acidity before fermentation.
With regard to his red wines, the presence of sand in this area is beneficial in softening the natural tannins of the Sangiovese grape and more often than not gives Chianti Colli Senesi red wines an early approachability that Chianti Classico lacks. The Italian wine writer and critic, Ernesto Gentile, has been very complimentary about Simone's red wines for this reason and even from the very young tank sample that Simone extracted in the photo below, the fresh elegance of precocious Sangiovese from the San Gimignano terroir was immediately apparent.
Simone has been making wine for 30 years now and he knows what works for Vernaccia and what doesn't, often having found out the hard way, so after suffering a stuck spontaneous fermentation years ago he's happy to stay with the more reliable selected yeasts. He prefers to block malolactic conversion by the use of filtration to preserve freshness and acidity and he lets the wine age on its lees for several months or in the case of his Riserva for up to two years. We've never been fans of the use of wood for Vernaccia Riserva and nor is Simone, preferring stainless steel, and his Riserva is simply an outstanding wine as a result.
Simone is a winemaker whose philosophy is to make clean, organic wines which allow for the fullest expression of the grape and the terroir and as a result you won't find any overpriced cloudy and slightly orange wines here, something that we seem unfortunately to encounter more frequently these days. But that doesn't mean that he isn't always looking to improve and recently he has been experimenting with zero (added) sulfite wines and the new equipment in his cellar is to enable him to do this while at the same time ensuring the stability and durability of these wines.
His sophisticated new bottling machine seen in two of the photographs below uses an inert gas injection system to eliminate any oxygen in the bottle between the wine and the cork. This completely prevents any risk of oxidation of the wine and will be especially important in ensuring the soundness of his zero sulfite wines if and when he decides to pursue that route in commercial volumes.
Winemakers come in all shapes and sizes in terms of their personalities and enthusiasm and those like Simone are the ones who make visiting a winery an essential part of understanding their wines. Many people writing about Italian wines seem to either sit in New York or London and wait for their free samples to arrive or go to a mass tasting event put on by the local Consorzio and the wine gets a couple of minutes of their time and a one sentence review.
That’s not our style and when you visit someone like Simone and follow him around the cellar as he opens different tanks and lets you taste his brand new wines as well as the ones already bottled you will understand why ours is the better approach. It’s not only more fun but much more informative and educational. The running commentary from Simone as you taste his wine is an essential component of understanding the entirety of the process.
Our final two questions for Simone were as follows:
1. Favorite wine from another Italian region? Answer: Barolo
2. Favorite dish? Answer: Spaghetti alle vongole
Hard to argue with either of those two responses.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2018 - DOCG (13% alcohol)
(100% Vernaccia, fermented for 3 weeks in stainless steel and aged on its lees for several months, also in stainless steel, 40,000 bottles produced)
The bottle we bought from Simone was actually the 2021 (above photo) but seeing as we have older bottles at home (being regular buyers) we thought we'd keep the 2021 and instead write a tasting note on the 2018 plucked from our cellar. Quite pale in color it has a lovely deep rich nose of white flowers, fresh apple and pear. There is good crisp acidity on the palate supported by some real structure and a lingering sapidity. A very easy wine to drink but there is also a lot going on here. Exceptionally good value at 10 euros.
Vigna ai Sassi Riserva 2019 - Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (14% alcohol)
(95% Vernaccia, 5% Chardonnay, fermented in stainless steel and aged on it lees for 2 years in stainless steel - no wood used, 7,000 bottles produced)
We're not fans at all of Vernaccia Riserva aged in wood and in fact had never come across one before that was aged in stainless steel. This was a complete revelation. Not yet 3 years old it's an astonishingly good wine. A beautiful golden yellow color in the glass this is very rich and deep both on the nose and on the palate with notes of citrus, quince, mature Kaiser pear and aromatic herbs. It is brimming with flavor supported by perfect acidity and a long persistent finish. At 16 euros it's worth every penny.
Chianti Colli Senesi 2020 - DOCG (14% alcohol)
(mostly Sangiovese with Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo and Vernaccia also present, aged partly in steel and partly in oak and then blended together, 20,000 bottles produced)
This is an immediately appealing and very approachable Chianti. A delicious expression of the lighter soils here, the tannins are already soft and unobtrusive and the acidity is fresh and juicy. It's medium bodied and elegant with scents of geranium and very fruity redcurrant on the nose which follow through on the palate. Even without food this is a young Sangiovese with a remarkably pleasant finish, leaving no tannic dryness in the mouth. Really quite impressive for such a young Chianti. Simone also gave us a tank sample of the 2021 and it too was fresh, lively and very drinkable, even early on a Sunday morning. Very good value for 9 euros.
Santa Maria Riserva 2016 - Chianti Colli Senesi - DOCG (15% alcohol)
(95% Sangiovese, 5% Canaiolo from a 43 year old vineyard near Monteriggioni, aged for 4 years in oak and a further year in bottle, 3,900 bottles produced)
Rich, spicy nose of dark fruit is followed by a range of complex flavors on the palate from the herbaceous to more intense notes of walnut, tobacco and hints of dark chocolate. At over 5 years of age this wine is in fact just hitting its stride and I would guess that there's plenty more to come but it makes for a lovely dinner wine now. Another great value wine at 18 euros.
Ingredienti: UVA 2020 - Rosso Toscana IGT (14% alcohol)
(100% Sangiovese, fermented and aged in stainless steel, 5,000 bottles produced, no added sulfites)
This was the only wine we didn't actually buy as Simone gave us the half drunk tasting bottle to bring home and by the time we could drink it, it had already been open for 3 days. In spite of the extended aeration or perhaps because of it, we were pleasantly surprised by how much life it still had. Quite a powerful nose and more dark fruit than cherries there was plenty of flavor left with good acidity and quite fine tannins. A little peppery also. We've noticed elsewhere that very often 'no added sulfite' wines tend not to deteriorate quickly after exposure to air and this wine was certainly in fine shape after 3 days. 11 euros seems a very reasonable price.
Gabriele 2013 - Rosso Toscana IGT (13.5% alcohol)
(100% Merlot, aged for 3 years in Austrian oak barrels and a further year in bottle, 3,000 bottles produced)
This is a fabulous Merlot with lots of very mature dark fruit on the nose and a little spice and some interesting tertiary notes developing on the palate. Very velvety tannins, but still good acidity and a lovely long finish. Excellent value at 17 euros for a wine with 9 years of age and it's a great thing to be able to buy these older wines at Simone's winery because once you're in your mid-sixties having to wait 9 years for a wine to mature is not something I want to do anymore.
Teodoro 2017 - Rosso Toscana IGT (14.5% alcohol)
(75% Sangiovese, 20% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in large oak casks for 2 years, 3,000 bottles produced)
As soon as you pull the cork and are greeted by a powerful aroma of mature red fruit you know you're in for a treat and so it turns out. Lots of rich flavors of red fruits and aromatic herbs here and quite soft on the palate but no real sign yet of any tertiary notes so it may continue to develop. Long finish. Another one of Simone's small production handcrafted wines that represents excellent value at 18 euros.