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No Italian wine can boast a history that dates back centuries like Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

At the end of the Thirteenth century, it appeared throughout Europe on the tables of kings, popes and wealthy merchants. It is a white wine of a regal colour: “coppe, nappi, bacini d’oro e d’argento / Vin greco di riviera e di vernaccia” recited the poet Folgòre from San Gimignano at the beginning of the Fourteenth century. It is highly likely that the name Vernaccia comes from Vernazza, where wines from Liguria were embarked. And Vernaccia was the most exclusive and precious of these wines. The tax documents of San Gimignano documented it way back in 1276: a “salma vini de vernaccia ad mulum, soldi 3”; Salimbene di Adam described it as being made in the Cinque Terre in 1285, numerous French poets of the time sang of it being the most precious wine: “in truth, of all wines it is the non plus ultra” wrote Jofroi of Waterford and Servais Copale.

In the Fourteenth century, it attained outstanding success not only on the tables of the ruling classes. The history of literature reports a growing number of fans: from Cecco Angiolieri to Dante, from Boccaccio to Franco Sacchetti, from Frenchmen Eustache Deschamps and Jean Froissart to Englishmen John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer. The latter prescribed it to the old Januarie to face the night with his young bride: “He drinketh Ipocras, clarre, and vernage / Of spices hot, to encresen his corage”.

Its production spread: initially in Liguria and Tuscany and then, in the next two centuries, to almost all the winemaking areas of Italy. A red version also appeared in Calabria, Cilento and Lombardy. Whilst Vernaccia di Corniglia was the most sought-after in the Fourteenth century, later this was replaced in popularity by Vernaccia di Cellatica (Lombardy) and Santo Noceto (Calabria), with Vernaccia di San Gimignano being that which was to become characterised and most closely identified with the place where it was made.

In the areas around San Gimignano, which already produced widely acclaimed saffron, it immediately became a “leading” product together with the “Vino Greco”. There are documents dated 1321 that describe the vineyards: “Narduccio del fu Saladuccio acquista alcuni pezzi di terra nella vigna di Casale (…) riservandosi l’orto e il pastino vernaccie”. In 1330 a testament described the hill “dicta vinea vernaccie”. In the Florentine Cadastral Register of 1427, the price of Vernaccia di San Gimignano was 3.90 florins. In 1465 our wine shone in the goblets at the wedding of Bernardo Rucellai to Nannina Medici, sister of Lorenzo the Magnificent. In 1487 Ludovico il Moro [the Moor], lord of Milan, expected 200 flasks of Vernaccia from the Municipality of San Gimignano for the wedding of a member of the Visconti family to Isabella, daughter of the king of Naples. The demands of the “powers” were far from occasional and must have been taken into high consideration if the Municipality of San Gimignano took the pains, in 1477, to appoint two official tasters so that “ne provvedessero del migliore e ben condizionato” [they could procure the best].

In the Sixteenth century, production increased still further. All the most important families in San Gimignano and many Florentines who had bought land and farms in the area, planted new Vernaccia vineyards. This was testified to in the years immediately after 1553, by Sante Lancerio, the bottle man of Pope Paul III Farnese, who said that “nella partita che fece di Roma Sua Santità che fu nell’anno 1536 la sera alloggiò a Poggibonzi, dove qui erano ottimi vini di S. Geminiano (…) anche di buonissime vernacciuole, e di questa bevanda gustava molto S.S. e faceva onore al luogo” [His Holiness left Rome in 1536, spending the evening in Poggibonsi, where there were some excellent San Gimignano wines (…) including exquisite Vernaccia, which he drank in copious amounts, honouring the place].

The Seventeenth century was the “golden age” of Vernaccia di San Gimignano. In 1610, it did not escape comment by Francis Scott, author of the first “guide” to Italy for travellers taking the grand tour: “cittadina particolare, perché produce vina vernatica finissimi e si decora bene di Templi splendidi” [a particular little town, due to its production of superb wines and the fact that it is adorned by splendid temples]. Another great appreciator of the “dolcissimo licore” [very sweet liqueur] was Gabriello Chiabrera, a poet famous in the Italian and European courts, who highlighted the excellence of the wine in several of his works: “di vin qual ambra puro / voglio io ch’ella trabocchi, / che dolce, che maturo, / tosto che il’ versi ti s’avventa agli occhi i grappoli suoi furo / della vendemmia egregia / onde in Toscana Gimignan si pregia”. It was at the court of the De Medicis, Grand Dukes of Tuscany, that Vernaccia di San Gimignano reached the highest consideration. Giorgio Vasari painted, in the Salone dei Cinquecento of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, in the “Allegoria di San Gimignano e Colle Val d’Elsa”, “un satiro giovane che beve la Vernaccia di quel luogo” [a young satyr who drinks the local Vernaccia]. Almost a century later, in 1643, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger wrote the following verses: “ma i terrazzani altrui sempre fan guerra / con una traditora lor vernaccia, / che dànno a bere a chiunque vi giugne / e bacia, lecca, morde e picca e pugne”, in which he described the Vernaccia of the 17th century as a betraying wine, smooth and sweet on the lips but pungent, savoury and enveloping in the mouth; last but not least, Francesco Redi, in “Bacco in Toscana” [Bacchus in Tuscany] warned: “Se vi è alcuno a cui non piaccia / La Vernaccia / Vendemmiata in Pietrafitta, / interdetto, / maladetto, / fugga via dal mio cospetto” [If there is anyone who does not like Vernaccia harvested in Pietrafitta, he shall be banished and cursed and shall flee from my sight].

In the Eighteenth century, the years of a decline in production coincided with a change in taste. The arrival in Europe of exotic new beverages, tea, coffee and chocolate, along with the spread of liqueurs, which have been previously unknown or used mainly as medicine, created a new fashion which relegated Vernaccia (like Malvasia and the “Greek-style” wines) to the margins of the desires of society and the markets. However, albeit in reduced quantities, Vernaccia di San Gimignano continued to be made. In 1787, Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti wrote that Vernaccia had “tanto poco colore che pare acqua, e al palato riesce gentile, ma non risveglia una sensazione di gran sapore, sicché gustato pare vino leggerissimo ma nello stomaco mette gran fuoco” [so little colour that it seems to be water, gentle on the palate without awakening much taste, so that it would appear to be a very light wine, while lighting a great fire in the stomach]; in the same year, the Hospital of Santa Fina still boasted a “vigna delle vernaccie” [Vernaccia vineyard] among its assets.

In the Nineteenth century, the decline in production continued and the grape variety was found only mixed in vineyards of other varieties, used “to make common wine”. During these years, Canon Ignazio Malenotti, an intellectual belonging to the Georgofili, author of a best seller of the time entitled “Manuale del vignaiolo toscano” [Manual of the Tuscan winemaker], confirmed this situation, accurately describing the traditional methods used for the vinification of the old wine.

At the beginning of the Twentieth century, while the wave of pathologies was radically changing the face of the Italian vineyard, Ugo Nomi Venerosi-Pesciolini, founder of the Civic Museums and the Library of San Gimignano, noted that of Vernaccia “qualche raro possidente ne serba alcun poco, o per curiosità o per gratificarne gli amici, ma è cosa piccolissima e non si commercia; tiensi quasi come il rosolio” [the occasional owner keeps some, either out of curiosity or to serve to friends, but so little that it is not sold; it is kept almost like rosolio liqueur].

The rebirth began in the 1930s. Carlo Fregola, Head of the Itinerant Lectures on Agriculture [Cattedra Ambulante di Agricoltura] of Colle di Val d’Elsa, was convinced of the possibility to replant the old grape variety and found it, in 1931, scattered throughout the vineyards of almost every area in the Municipality of San Gimignano. “Gli agricoltori di S. Gimignano debbono comprendere l’importanza del tentativo di riconquistare alla Vernaccia l’antica considerazione. Lo scopo si dovrebbe raggiungere perché il prodotto è veramente pregevole” [The farmers of San Gimignano need to understand the importance of the attempt to regain the old consideration of Vernaccia. The aim should be reached because the product really is of the highest prestige]. The Second World War immediately quashed any hopes of renewal. However, the process had been triggered and it took off again strongly in the early Sixties.

The 1960s marked the rebirth of the wine. Having recovered the old grape variety from the confusion of the mixed vineyards, Vernaccia was replanted in the vineyards according to the dictates of specialised viticulture. In 1966, it was the first Italian wine to attain the “Denominazione di Origine Controllata” [Denomination of Controlled Origin]. In 1972, the creation of “Consorzio della Vernaccia”, later to become “Consorzio della Denominazione San Gimignano”, gave a new boost to production, which grew progressively in terms of quantity and quality, attaining the Docg [Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin], the highest acknowledgement of the Italian legislation currently in force, in 1993. The last twenty years have been marked by a further generalised increase in the quality of the wine and by the effort to ensure the healthy nature of the product, as well as work to achieve the particular characteristics of Vernaccia di San Gimignano through the “antique” awareness of the producers with regard to their interpretation of a “new tradition”.

The quotations are taken from the book by Marco Lisi, Sulle tracce della Vernaccia dal XIII al XXI secolo [On the traces of Vernaccia from the 13th to the 21st century], Nuova immagine, 2013.