San Leonardo Vertical
"It is here that a family produces what is arguably the greatest Cabernet-based wine of Italy, and one of the last classic Bordeaux."
Italy's Finest Taglio Bordolese!
Somethings are simply surprising. Snakes on planes for example, or the popularity of animated mice.
You have to wonder why these things are in fact surprising. In the abstract, many of us tend to dislike both snakes and mice. Put them on a plane and they become scary, animate them and they are endearing. It seems that context plays a bigger role here than content.
Often with wine, it is much the same. If you really get down to the bottom of things, and lets just limit out discussion of Bordeaux blends today since we are on this Meritage kick, different wines are simply different mixes of the same old things. Throw in a little Cabernet, some Merlot, Carmenere and maybe a bit of Cabernet Franc, each well represented as varietal wines, but mix them together and they are sometimes surprising.
Of course with wine the context is always important, but with many of these so-called Bordeaux blends, you can’t fully ignore the content.
Take the San Leonardo of the Guerrieri-Gonzaga family. Here we have a most curious anomaly. Wedged into the base of a narrow, steep valley, rather firmly between the lands of Pinot Grigio and Teroldego to the north and Soave and Bardolino to the south, lies this grand estate. It may not in a global sense fit among the grandest of estates, but in this neck of the woods it is the grandest.
With decent alluvial floodplain and hillside slopes, a winery was created not to make wines that would just please the local palate, but wines that are suggestive on a much grander scale. It is here that a family produces what is arguably the greatest Cabernet-based wine of Italy, and one of the last classic Bordeaux.
I know what you are thinking, “there he goes again” or “what a quack.” The truth is that the wines of San Leonardo are special. They grow in a special spot, lean of soil and sun, the high valley walls limiting both early morning and late afternoon sun. It does not seem to be a great place to grow grapes and particularly not a grape as unforgiving as those known as Bordeaux varieties, with their tendency to be weedy when under-ripe.
So why do these wines continue to win praise even though they might actually embrace their inner weediness? To be clear, these are only weedy in contrast to today’s more modern Cabernet-based wines which for the most part have excised weediness from the wines, the vocabulary of the wine and the appraisal of the wine. Weediness is looked on today as a character flaw as opposed to one of the defining traits of Cabernet.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for wines that taste green and ripe. I am advocating for wines that show their true nature, fruit and herbs, all innate detail not concealed behind layers of extraneous oak, creamy fruit and other affectations of modern wines.
That is San Leonardo, stoic and resilient, a glimpse of how things were. Even though the wines have undoubtedly changed over the past decade, they continue to be as much a backward-looking wine as one that represents the future. That’s not to say these wines are rustic, but rather they embody ideals that seem passé today: elegance and an expression of the character of the grape as it is, rather than as the market wants it to be.
It is a bit of an uncompromising strategy and tricky at that, but as always only one thing counts in the end. What is in the bottle and the glass. San Leonardo has consistently been able to produce wines with finesse, elegance and a lovely, subtle complexity. At times the market, and particularly the critical market, tends to overlook this style and these wines in favor of the “next great thing,” but if you ask people who know which could be Italy’s greatest Cabernet-based wine, San Leonardo is often the response.
You can scoff, as many might, but if you are looking for a wine that recalls Bordeaux of a certain age with an undeniable Italian aspect to it, this is your wine! The vertical I put together was far from comprehensive, but I’ve had enough San Leonardo to recognize its beauty. Both the 1993 and 1996 vintages in this tasting were indeed knockouts. In fact, the ‘96 seemed to be cut from the same cloth as the ‘93, only perhaps a little more robust, deeper and of course fresher.
The 1995 on the other hand seemed to under-perform slightly, as did the recently released 2005, which showed better at the estate last year. Both 1999 and 2004, a terrific vintage, seem capable of repeating the success of the previous grand vintages.
My notes of course follow. Considering the stability of the pricing here, often $40 or so a bottle across multiple vintages, you might want to check out something with a bit of age on it to experience the true character of San Leonardo.
No matter what your personal opinion of the wine, I’m sure you will agree that this is a special wine with a distinctive character that deserves to be better known. The downside here is that with fame comes demand and with demand, inevitable price increases. Perhaps keeping quiet is a more prudent course of action. Quiet and with a full glass that is!
A Vertical Tasting of San Leonardo
1993 Guerrieri Gonzaga San Leonardo
On the nose this shows lightly herbal black currant, candied black fruit, cedar. Gorgeous weight and balance, so fresh with succulent bright cherry fruit, red currant, a touch of herb on the back end followed by lovely mineral notes, light brothy top note. a slight ashy top note. Bright and juicy, silky tannins, drying out just a bit on the back end, moderate long finish. Bright and tense, almost angular, linear and super fine, great length, lean mistress. A gorgeous silky maturely sweet wine. Fantastic wine. 93pts
1995 Guerrieri Gonzaga San Leonardo
Very finely focused, nice ringer for Bordeaux. Very perfumed, Cab Franc notes, red fruit tomato leaf, candied. St. Emilion with a lightly roasted character. Little mint and nettle. Soft and almost lush with very soft tannins, dries out a bit on the back end, fine length, cigar wrapper, sweet/sour wild berry fruits, a touch diffuse but with really nice berry fruit. Shorter, chunkier than the ‘93, but still attractive. Bit of chocolate pops on the finish. 89pts
1996 Guerrieri Gonzaga San Leonardo
Heady, smells bright, big handfuls of dried wild thyme, black currant, mint, minerals, tobacco. This is intense, incense. Rich, almost voluptuous, silky and bright, pinpoint balance for a relatively large-scaled example. Lovely black raspberry fruit, succulent acids, such detail, shows slight oak shadings, then the fruit returns on the finish with an elegant vengeance. Long, sneak raspberry of cigar wrapper finish. Great potential, but already a winner. 93pts
1997 Guerrieri Gonzaga San Leonardo
This is classic San Leonardo, peppery with black currant fruit over loamy soil notes. The tannins and acidity are a touch soft lending this a broader appeal than many other vintages, but this is ready to go with a richly fruity, silky finish that shows just a hint of cedary wood spice and a nice herbal edge to the black cherry fruit on the moderately long finish. 88pts
1999 Guerrieri Gonzaga San Leonardo
Beefy, bit of caramel, much younger, caramel and spice oak. Choco-cherry, nice spice note, zesty red fruit. Bright, juicy, very lively. Still showing some significant wood tannin up front, edge of caramel, soft fruit lurking underneath, nice acid and spice on the finish, good length, wild cherry fruit, lovely. This is dense and youthful, tight wine. Slowly begins to open, lovely depth here, shows real style if a touch more modern. A lovely innate sweetness with an incipient herbal red fruit emerging on the back end. 91pts
2000 Guerrieri Gonzaga San Leonardo
This is still youthful but it’s showing the signs of maturity with a huge core of black currant, black berry fruit topped with lovely olive, herb and green pepper notes as well as finely integrated cigar box spice notes. In the mouth this has unusual weight but remains superbly balanced with plenty of almost chewy tannins lurking under the rich, smooth fruit. The finish is long and rich with olive, tobacco and red currant fruit that plays off the wine’s juicy acidity. A great San Leonardo. 93pts
2001 Guerrieri Gonzaga San Leonardo
This has a lovely tea scent on the nose along with some green olives and cigar box notes adding complexity to the bright red berry fruit. In the mouth this is lightly structured yet remains a bit on the tough side with obvious wood tannin in a decidedly medium weight frame. The fruit on the palate is juicy and bright, red cherries and raspberries framed with hints of sage and a lovely loamy underlay which really shines through on the moderately long finish. This needs a bit more time in the bottle to fully blossom. 89pts
2003 Guerrieri Gonzaga San Leonardo
Lots of almost pruny dried strawberry, chocolate, green pepper, cigar box, smells much more modern, much more ripe – rich, ripe good acid, lacks a bit of a center, slightly muddled fruit. Nicely balanced, easy to drink now, not a huge future. Cherry pit finish with a touch of cedar. Pleasant and quite drinkable but no more. 86pts
2004 Guerrieri Gonzaga San Leonardo
Sweet black currants, cedary oak, roasted green pepper, creamy, spicy oak, red raspberry fruit, very peppery with a nice dose of vanilla. Very smooth, bright acids, soft tannins, a touch of rose petal, lively red fruit, nice cut, big fruit on the back end, then a clipped finish. Lightish-bodied, elegant and refined. This is going to age very well. Can it equal previous greats? 90pts
2005 Guerrieri Gonzaga San Leonardo
Tight, very wood-driven, pretty closed, lots of oak but not overwhelming oak, smooth, soft acids, slightly chalky tannins, closed and clumsy. In a very tough spot right now and not worth rating. Judgment Reserved.