San Felice Vigorello and the Rise of the (Super) {Super} Super Tuscan

San Felice, the distinguished maker of wines from the Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and Bolgheri, is celebrating the release of the 50th vintage of Vigorello, their iconic super-Tuscan wine. Vigorello was the first super-Tuscan from the Chianti Classico region when the 1968 vintage appeared and it remains a signature wine today.

No Badges Needed

Super-Tuscan wines were radical departures from the norm when they first appeared. They were “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!” kind of wines. The orthodox approach was to follow the rules of the Chianti or Chianti Classico appellations and formulate a traditional blend of wine grape varieties. Break the rules and your wine couldn’t wear the famous appellation designation, a significant disadvantage in the market of the day.

Breaking the rules meant giving up a valuable trademark, in effect. Relegated to a lower market division, your wine would have to stand on its own and not rely on the regional reputation for support. It took a bold (and confident) winery to take the risk.

But it paid off, at least for the best wines, and helped create a whole new market for IGT wines in Italy, where winemakers have more freedom to make wine and more ability to create and promote their own brands. Italian wine has improved enormously in the last fifty years and the super-Tuscan-driven creation of the IGT wines (and the constructive competition they have provided to the DOC and DOCG wines) is an important part of the story.

So what radical step did the San Felice winemakers take back in 1968. Well, you won’t believe it. They released Vigorello as a 100% Sangiovese wine. A mono-varietal Sangiovese. I am not sure that there is anything that would seem less radical today, when wines defined by grape variety are commonplace. But it was a big deal back then.

Revolution and Evolution

Free of DOC shackles, Vigorello evolved over the years much as its fellow super-Tuscans did. Cabernet Sauvignon was added to the blend in 1979, for example, and Merlot came on board, too, in 2001. Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot — that’s pretty much what you think of when someone says super-Tuscan today.

But that’s not San Felice Vigorello today. We opened a bottle of the 2018 vintage to have with Sue’s classic Tagliatelle al Ragu (we lived in Bologna when I taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies center there and developed a taste for the region’s rich cuisine). Sue took a sniff and sip and her eyes opened wide. Wow, she said, this isn’t what I expected.  Lighter and brighter and more interesting that the usual super-Tuscan wine. The finish went on and on and on.

The reason for the striking difference was not hard to track down. Sangiovese, the defining grape of Tuscany, was completely missing from the blend (it was actually removed back in 2011), replaced by a rare grape variety closely associated with the San Felice winery: Pugnitello.

Small Fist, Big Impact

Pugnitello? Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of it. According to Wine Grapes, the standard reference for such things, Pugnitello is “a rare variety of unknown origin rescued in 1981 by researchers at the University of Firenze …”. The name means “small fist” the scribes the compact grape clusters. Some believed it was Montepulciano, but DNA analysis ruled otherwise.

The potential for Pugnitello was obvious from the beginning and San Felice quickly planted it in their experimental vineyard, where rare and endangered varieties are cultivated, and then into larger vineyard spaces. Thirty years after its discovery, Pugnitello was introduced as the backbone of  Vigorello. Quite a story!

Super Duper

So Vigorello is unique — kind of a super-super-Tuscan if you know what I mean. But is Pugnitello the key? There are lots of factors that go into the making of an iconic wine. How much is San Felice’s Pugnitello responsible for the wine’s success?

Fortunately, there was a way for us to find out. Since 2006 San Felice has made a necessarily small amount of 100% Pugnitello wine (the beautiful label is shown here) and we were fortunately to receive a bottle. We opened, sniffed, and sipped and it was “wow” all over again. Complex, delicious, a wine that really tells a story. One of the most enjoyable wines we’ve tasted this year. And the perfect foundation for Vigorello. We aren’t the only Pugnitello fans. It is easy to sense Ian D’Agata’s enthusiasm in the Pugnitello entry in his Native Wine Grapes of Italy.

So there are several reasons to join San Felice in their celebrations this year. Fifty years of Vigorello, the first super-Tuscan from Chianti Classico and the innovative Pugnitello are both worth an enthusiastic cheer.

This rule breaking thing has really paid off for San Felice. Badges? You can leave them at the door.

One response

  1. Thanks Mike! A great winery in a beautiful town making consistently beautiful Chianti’s. Will look for these two gems.
    Trader Bill

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