Discovering unknown wines is a random business — it can often be through word of mouth, curiosity sparked by a review or even an odd label. I still don’t know why I purchased a case of Guigal’s Côte-Rôtie La Mouline 81, but it has opened up a passion for this relatively obscure northern Rhone. In another moment of happenstance, I bought a case of 1997 Tenuta San Leonardo, believing it to be from Tuscany as someone told me it was an interesting Super Tuscan, the name for a high-end Italian wine made with a Bordeaux blend of grapes. It was only 20 years later, at a vertical tasting of San Leonardo wines in London, that I discovered it actually comes from Trentino on the edge of the Dolomites.
It seems that the creation of new wines can be as fortuitous as their discovery. It turns out that San Leonardo only came into existence in 1982 after Marchese Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga worked as cellar master for a relative, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, the creator of Sassicaia (the most renowned Super Tuscan of them all). Until then, Trentino had no reputation for quality wines, churning out co-op products made from Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. With the encouragement of his Tuscan cousins, Carlo replanted 25 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon to supplement the existing Merlot and Carménère, a local grape variety. What emerged, with the initial help of Sassicaia’s wine maker, is the finest Super Tuscan not actually from Tuscany itself.
The styles of wines worldwide have changed considerably in the past 40 years, partially because of climate change but, more importantly, because many makers of Cabernet-based wines wanted to appeal to the taste (and high scores) given by wine guru Robert Parker. By coincidence, 1982 was also the year that Parker emerged as the most influential critic on the planet as he correctly identified the exceptional 1982 Bordeaux vintage with its bold flavours and crowd appeal.
It is wrong to blame Parker for the subsequent rush by most Bordeaux producers to make wines to his personal taste, but it did result in a heavier fruit-driven style of wines reminiscent of high-alcohol Napa Valley Cabernets. This tendency peaked with the 15 per cent alcohol Bordeaux behemoths of 2009 and 2010, though a more balanced style is returning, while Mr Parker has sold his wine newsletter and retired.
Meanwhile, San Leonardo has continued to make a highly consistent style of wine with alcoholic levels around 13 per cent. Critic Jancis Robinson can’t think of any other wine anywhere that has changed so little since its inception. To discover more about it, I had lunch at the River Cafe with Anselmo, Carlo’s charming 40-year-old son, who has run the estate for the past decade.
As one might expect from an Italian aristocrat, he had been going there for decades and was on first-name terms with the chefs. It turned out he had also worked for a year with a London wine merchant, as well as living in Rome and New York, before returning to the family estate. His first move on starting work there was to get a loan to buy back all unsold vintages of their wines from old distributors and appoint ones that cared as much as he did for the product. The price has doubled over this period but is still an affordable £50 a bottle, while Sassicaia is often three or four times more. Anselmo wants San Leonardo to reflect its terroir rather than being an imitation Bordeaux. ‘It is an old-school type of wine that not everyone will appreciate, as we are more interested in making a consistent wine with identity than something flashy. Many people think it is the most Bordeaux-type wine of Italy, but I am more proud of it being Italian — that is what puts a smile on my face.’
San Leonardo’s appeal to me is its warmth of character. It definitely couldn’t be mistaken for Bordeaux yet its gentleness and exquisite balance make it highly satisfying. There is vintage variation, but the underlying style prevails. From the wines we had over lunch, the 2011 was more attractive than the 2010, reputed to be a better vintage. It would however be infanticide to open any of them before they are teenagers. San Leonardo is not as four-square as its Tuscan relatives but this is why I like it — a remarkable wine produced hundreds of miles from its peers with its very own special character.