Though frequently dismissed as an easy drinking holiday wine to enjoy in the Tuscan sun, preferably in San Gimignano itself, we like a few of these wines quite a lot. That means of course that there are more than a few that we don’t like so let me expand on that first. Several years ago we went to a well organized and very comprehensive tasting of Vernaccia di San Gimignano wines and it turned out to be a big disappointment.
The problem was that most of the samples were riserva wines that had all been aged in small oak barriques for 8 of the 12 months maturation period stipulated by the DOCG regulations. These rules however don’t speak to the type of container, merely that the wine has to be aged for 12 months, including four months in bottle, prior to release. The choice is stainless steel, French oak barriques (225 liters), larger oak tonneaux (500 liters) or even larger botti (1,000 liters minimum), the last of which used to be the traditional wood vessel for wine maturation in Tuscany for just about any sort of wine.
I’m not sure why so many producers choose oak, especially small barriques, other than habit or inertia, but we haven’t yet had a riserva that we particularly enjoyed. It doesn’t mean they are bad wines, but they are just not to our taste and I know we're not alone in that opinion.
However it certainly doesn’t prevent us from enjoying the Vernaccia di San Gimignano wines because all the riserva producers also make a regular bottling which we prefer and which is always significantly cheaper so we’re content to just ignore the riserva category of this varietal.
In our opinion Vernaccia di San Gimignano is at its best as a fresh young wine no more than 3 years old. Other than coastal area Vermentino there is no other type of Tuscan white wine that is worth drinking and anything made with the unfortunately widespread Trebbiano Toscano grape is best avoided. (This grape is known as Ugni Blanc in France and is distilled to make Cognac rather than left as a drinkable wine so on this occasion I find myself agreeing with the French).
Unusually Vernaccia di San Gimignano is the name of the grape as well as the wine and it's strange that it is confined to no more than 2,000 acres around this town and nowhere else in Italy. There must be something unique about the soil and the micro-climate that makes the wine a success here and not even worth trying in other places. Less than 5 million bottles of Vernaccia di San Gimignano are produced annually and a lot of them are drunk by visitors to the town because when you're here why would you drink anything else? The US market accounts for a 16% market share so there should be some bottles always available at certain retailers.
A typical young Vernaccia di San Gimignano has floral and citrus aromas often with some tropical undertones reminiscent of mango. It’s generally quite crisp and refreshing on the palate with good but not searing acidity and typically quite full bodied. It’s definitely not one of those light, pretty feminine wines that quench your thirst and are instantly forgettable; this can be a very good table wine and a good match for many types of food but it’s not a sin to drink it by itself either. The finish is quite long and there is a hallmark almond flavor or slight bitterness at the end that we personally like. I would describe it more as a slight sourness that instantly removes any suggestion of sweetness.
Vernaccia di San Gimignano from the right producer tends to be a reliable and consistent wine and we buy some every year without having to check weather conditions or harvest reports to ascertain the quality. The good news is that the regular bottling of Vernaccia is generally around 10 Euros in Italy, a very fair price indeed. If you are visiting San Gimignano, Enoteca Corsi is our preferred place to buy the local wine and they have an extensive selection of other Tuscan wines, as well as providing a shipping service to the US.
However at total shipping and tax cost of $10 per bottle delivered to your door (quoting their website for a purchase of 36 bottles) buying direct might represent cost savings for wines priced over $30 but not for Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
In the US some of the wines tasted below are available at Saratoga Wine Exchange in NY which seems to be something of an Italian wine specialist from the number of times their name crops up in searches. In the UK you will find many places that sell Vernaccia di San Gimignano, including supermarkets, but not many that sell our preferred wines below. Farthinghoe Fine Wine Limited is one that does and has the excellent Le Calcinaie 2018 available at a reasonable price of £9.67 per bottle.
Panizzi is one of the producers we particularly like and they have an extensive range of red and white wines available for tasting on their pleasant agriturismo estate a few miles north-west of San Gimignano at Larniano. Their 1,000 year old Longobard tower (above) speaks to the extremely long history of the Vernaccia wine in this area.
If you visit Panizzi for a tasting don't buy any of their wines on site afterwards but go to Enoteca Corsi instead because, notwithstanding our admiration for Panizzi's wines, I think it's outrageous of them to charge 30% more for many of these wines at their tasting room than the prices at Enoteca Corsi in town. Panizzi also makes a lovely DOC Pinot Nero, the only one in the entire San Gimignano zone and not that common elsewhere in Tuscany. The vineyard altitude at 1,350 feet probably helps by providing a better diurnal range. At 12 Euro (at Enoteca Corsi) this is great value.
The following short video of the Panizzi Vernaccia harvest shows what a beautiful color these grapes are when fully ripe during the manual harvesting that is typical of this area.
Panizzi - Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2018 - Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG
(fermented and aged in stainless steel with 5 months on lees, 13.5% alcohol)
Some candied fruits and floral notes on the nose here and rich and full in the mouth with good acidity that keeps it refreshing. Intense and long finish with the classic slight bitterness or sourness at the end. Much more going on here than in the very young 2020 equivalent bottling below. We think a couple of years after the harvest is the sweet spot for most of these wines. A lovely wine and again a bargain at 10 Euros.
Panizzi - Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2020 - Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG
(fermented and aged in stainless steel with 5 months on lees, 13.5% alcohol)
This is the first year for a completely organic wine from Panizzi as displayed on the label above (biologico is Italian for organic). This is not 100% Vernaccia and seems to benefit from the small amount of Manzoni and Trebbiano varietals in the blend because it's a really enjoyable wine. It has a very fresh, full nose with lots of apple and a touch of tropical fruit (mango) underneath. It's very clean and precise with crisp acidity and quite full and round in the mouth. This is the youngest, freshest Vernaccia we've ever had and the first 2020 wine from anywhere in fact. It carries it's 13.5% alcohol lightly and there's a lot to like here. A great value at 10 Euros.
Panizzi - Vigna Santa Margherita 2018 - Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG
(fermented and aged 50% steel and 50% barriques, 13.5% alcohol)
A step up from the regular bottling and some limited use of barriques here where half of the must is separated after the yeast inoculation and fermented separately in wood and then they are reunited six months later and given a year to age. This is a single vineyard wine from Panizzi's original vineyard, starting in 2003.
Straw yellow with green reflections it's a little more complex than the regular bottling with salinity, tangerine and peach notes. Some vanilla and saffron flavors also, perhaps from the limited amount of wood exposure. This is quite a full wine, chewy even with lots of freshness and acidity and lovely to drink right now but the winemaker swears that it will also be great in 10 years. We're not sure why you would wait that long. Another decently priced wine at 17 Euros, but is it worth the extra versus the previous wine? It's not clear that it is.
Panizzi - Pinot Nero 2018 - San Gimignano DOC
(fermented in steel and aged for 10 months in barriques, 13.5% alcohol)
This red wine doesn't really belong in this tasting but as we just drank it we'll talk about it. It's hard to find a good Pinot Noir anywhere in the world for 12 Euros so I think Panizzi has done a very good job with this difficult varietal. Stays true to type and does not seem like a 15% alcohol wine. Lots of cherry flavors with good depth and sufficient acidity. Fills the gap for us in Italy in this category.
Casa alle Vacche - I Macchioni 2019 - Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG
(fermented in stainless steel, aged on the lees but container not specified, 13.5% alcohol)
This is a very small producer with only 15,000 bottles of annual production but they clearly know what they're doing. Lovely intense bouquet straight out of the gate with pear, dried apricots and a little iodine. Some noticeable salinity and full, mouth-coating flavors but there could be more to come here. Nice long finish with just a hint of sourness. A very good wine and one to buy every year we think. At 9 Euros it makes me happy that I live in Italy and it's not even their lowest priced entry level Vernaccia.
Tenuta Le Calcinaie - Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2018 - Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG
(fermented and aged in stainless steel with 5 months on the lees, 13% alcohol)
Extremely pale color but it has a lovely deep rich nose and lots of crisp acidity and structure. Not as much viscosity perhaps as the i macchioni above but has precision and is clean and refreshing. A very easy wine to drink but also well made with lots going on here. Another exceptionally good value 9 Euro wine.
Fontaleoni - Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2019 - Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG
(fermented in stainless steel and then briefly aged in bottle for 3 months, 12.5% alcohol)
Much different style here. Very subdued on the nose and very light, even a little bland, lacking flavor and oomph. Not recommended. Disappointing because this is one of the more famous estates in San Gimignano.
Falchini - Vigna a Solatío 2019 - Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG
(fermented and aged in stainless steel, 13% alcohol)
Again, a very subdued nose but perks up a little in the mouth, there's some nice flavor here and body but not particularly complex. Strangely a little flat in the finish without any of that attractive bitterness. With three great wines above already, no need to struggle with this one. Give it a miss.
Conclusion: you can't go wrong with Vernaccia di San Gimignano from either Panizzi, Casa alle Vacche (I Macchioni) or Le Calcinaie. Seek them out wherever you live.