San Leonardo 2017 – Trentino’s Flagship Bordeaux Blend
Here is San Leonardo 2017. Gambero Rosso once described this red wine, made by Tenuta San Leonardo, as “one of the fifty wines that changed Italy”. They have awarded their Tre Biccheri to it consistently, and it has become something of a legend in Italy. It’s from Trentino, a less well-known Italian wine region. Hence San Leonardo is a secret too well kept beyond those shores.
Trentino, in Northern Italy, is better known for its breathtaking alpine scenery than its wines; more’s the pity. The snow-capped jagged Dolomites form a vertical backdrop to the San Leonardo estate. Trentino is also a region of considerable strategic importance because it is the route north from Italy through the Alps to Austria and Germany.
Rosso is the flagship.
Tenuta San Leonardo is in the southernmost part of Trentino, a few miles north of the border with Veneto. So, despite an impression of remoteness, it’s less than an hour to Verona and even less to the beaches of Lake Garda. However, the wine made here is entirely different. San Leonardo Rosso is a Bordeaux-blend, but one unlike any other.
This Rosso is not just the estate’s flagship wine; it’s arguably Trentino’s. San Leonardo is a straightforward name in these days of fantasy monikers. So, if you pardon the pun, it hides under a bushel. The name San Leonardo only resonates with those in the know. It’s a magnet for lovers of Italian wines.
Because it employs the Bordeaux grape varieties, it was initially labelled a humble Vino di Tavola and then called an IGT Vallagarina. These days, it is an IGP Vigneti Delle Dolomiti. None of these classifications is likely to attract your attention or give clues to the excellence of the wine either.
Steeped in History
This beautiful estate of 300 hectares at Campi Santi has ancient roots. Here we are in Val Lagarina, where a rural road flanks the left bank of the River Adige. This road is the Via Claudia Augusta, built by the Romans to link with Austria and Germany in 15 BC. Indeed, San Leonardo has always been a strategic location with quite a story.
The King of the Lombards married here, at the Campi Santi, in 589 AD. In 972, the Bishop of Verona granted vineyards, shown in a rediscovered fresco in the ancient local Church.
By 1215, a monastery was ministering to returning Crusaders, and several Popes subsequently made visits. In 1656, the Pope suppressed the religious order (The Order of the Crutched Friars) for supposed heresy. Hence the aristocratic de Gresti family gained farming rights. Subsequently, they bought the estate, making wine and growing other agricultural produce.
In 1894, The Marchesa, Gemma de Gresti married into the Gonzago family. It is her descendants that own the estate today. She was remarkable for repatriating 11,000 prisoners kept in Russian concentration camps. In 1918, San Leonardo was the venue for the Armistice negotiations between Italy and the defeated Austria-Hungary, afterwards signed at Villa Giusti. Later it was taken over as a Wehrmacht HQ during World War II.
While winegrowing here has gone on for centuries, everything changed radically in 1978.
Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga inherited the estate in 1974 and, with it, the title of Marchese. He is a trained oenologist that had spent eight years working with his relative Mario Incisa della Rocchetta at San Guido in Tuscany. It’s where Sassicaia was born, midwived by the oenologist Giacomo Tachis. Sassicaia soon became the iconic Italian Bordeaux blend and started the entire vinous revolution on the Tuscan coast. It also significantly influenced the direction Gonzaga took in creating San Leonardo.
When Carlo returned to San Leonardo in 1978, he planted French Cabernet Sauvignon alongside the existing Merlot and Cabernet Franc. As it then turned out, Cabernet Franc proved to be Carménère, a grape now rare in Bordeaux that thrives in Chile! That was a discovery that became commonplace in northern Italy.
After the first vintage of the Rosso in 1982, Giacomo Tachis joined as an adviser. When he retired in 2000, Carlo Ferrini, another leading consultant, took over. He’s still there, alongside Carlo and his son Anselmo.
There are only 30 hectares of vineyards, organic since 2015. The rest of the estate remains a mix of forest and fields. You’ll find Merlot planted on the flat gravels made by an old Adige riverbed. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carménère and Petit Verdot are on the steeper slopes with sandy soils.
There’s traditional pergola training here for Carménère, a decidedly un-French system. But, as seen in other parts of northern Italy, this system is coming back. Not only does it enable the Carménère to ripen fully, but it also offers the grapes more protection in these days of Climate Emergency.
San Leonardo 2017 – a unique microclimate
San Leonardo has an ideal microclimate for Bordeaux red varieties. There is a long hot summer, a moderating influence from Lake Garda (thanks to the Ora wind), and the mountains protect from northern chills. The wide temperature variation between night and day retains fresh acidity in the grapes and is a hallmark of the wine, which is never more than 13.5% alcohol. Only in good vintages is Rosso made. Moreover, 2017 only produced 38,000 bottles. This lower-yielding vintage was a capricious one, mainly because of two violent hailstorms in August.
It’s 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, then with a blend of 30% Carménère and 10% Merlot making up the balance. Proportions may vary slightly depending on yearly conditions, but the style has never changed and is also remarkably consistent. Why change when you hit the bullseye the first time?
The winemaking follows a simple artisanal regime in the labyrinthine cellars. The grapes are handpicked, and fermentation is spontaneous, lasting around 15 days. It takes place in small cement tanks with wild yeasts and low sulphur, manually breaking up and pumping the wine over the cap of skins while racking off tannic seeds and pips. Temperature is controlled by natural ventilation. There is none of those modernist techniques like stainless steel, high extraction, micro-oxygenation or filtration here.
Maturation is in French oak barriques (mixing new vessels with those of second and third use) for 24 months. Afterwards, there is further maturation in the bottle for another 24 months. This maturation is more extended for San Leonardo in 2017 than some years, reflecting the fickle vintage characteristics.
This wine is long-lived, improves with age and could last more than 30 years. It is not designed to be drunk young. But of necessity, young is how I drank it.
Consequently, evaluating such wine on release is always provisional. This 2017 is barely adolescent, with its best drinking window another five or even ten years away.
Hence it was decanted for four hours before serving. Austerity and leanness are hallmarks at this stage. There are freshness and minerality rather than big fruit or power. Something dark and savoury lurks at its heart, bound with lead pencils and cassis. Fine-grained tannins still need to give way, and more weight and complexity will come with time. It opens up in the glass to provide tobacco scents with a long spicy finish with hints of cocoa and smoke. What’s striking now is the balance, subtlety and persistence.
This wine makes you think less about flavours and more about texture. It’s one of those wines where you cast about blindly for suitable descriptors, at the point where everyday language fails. So instead, a description in physical terms; delicate, athletic, weightless, poised, and focused.
And pairing with food is essential. The power of Beef Wellington with roasted vegetables was a superb experience.
There’s good UK availability, though this wine is often offered “In Bond” (add Duty and VAT) and with a minimum case of 6. However, single bottles are £87.95 at Lea and Sandeman.
Given a love of autochthonous grape varieties in Italy, it always takes something special to enthuse me about the so-called international grapes. However, there is no doubt that San Leonardo Rosso is a fingerprint of this land, just as Sassicaia is in Bolgheri.
San Leonardo 2017 is unlike those lusher, more powerful Bordeaux blends from the warmer climes of the New World. This wine is for you if you prefer the sophisticated subtlety of the grandest Claret. One of the world’s most exceptional red wines for special occasions. And please, don’t open yours too early!
Tenuta San Leonardo
Località San Leonardo 1