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 underripe.
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 which 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!