At the Vinitaly 2017 Gala Dinner, Tenuta San Leonardo in Borghetto all’Adige-Avio (Trento) received the Vinitaly International Award 2017 for Italy. In announcing the prize, Veronafiere said that San Leonardo “has helped write the history of Italian wine and bring Trentino to everyone’s attention as a land producing great red wines,”
Its award-winning flagship wine is, the statement said, “a skilful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère and Merlot”. In other words, at a time when Italian regions are racing to re-discover their autochthonous varieties, this particular estate has gained recognition for making a classic Bordeaux blend.
But, it turns out, the grapes it uses are autochthonous - to them.
Winemaking has been going on at the property for a very long time, as San Leonardo was founded as a monastery around the year 1000 AD.
“Slowly a community formed around this church, which was situated on the only Roman road from the river Po to Austria, so everyone had to pass,” says Marchese Anselmo Guerrieri Gonzaga, whose family owns the property, which sits under the towering heights of Monti Lessini, part of the Dolomite mountain chain. “The mission of these monks was hospitality.”
The Marchese says his family began to work for the estate in 1646, “probably as managers for the church” and fell in love with the property, renting it in 1724. After a financial crisis hit the Church, the family – the de Grestis – bought the property outright in 1770. “We’ve always produced wine.”
A new era
The modern turning point came when the Marchese’s grandfather – also called Anselmo – gave his son Carlo the responsibility for the estate. “My father started off as a not-very-brilliant student at school, and my grandfather was very angry and sent him to boarding school in Switzerland,” explains Marchese Alselmo. There, Carlo studied winemaking before returning to Italy, where he got married the week before he went home. Anselmo senior then kicked him out. “The difficulties are what make you someone in life,” says the current Anselmo philosophically.
Carlo went to work as a consultant at many other wineries, including San Guido in Tuscany, which gave him wide experience. When he returned to San Leonardo in the 1970s, he transformed the estate including converting nearly all of the vineyards from ancient pergola trellising to guyot. “The estate began blooming,” says Marchese Anselmo. “We are still what is called a boutique winery – we do about 300,000 bottles. The main production is still red wines, made in concrete vats. We don’t use stainless steel, we don’t use commercial yeasts. We don’t even have a cooling system, so we are close to the natural world of wine, but we definitely use sulphites. We like very clean wines.”
San Leonardo has also been organic for the past three years. “We are finally gaining certification this year. It’s a beautiful adventure. As land owners, it is a duty to protect our soils and the micro-life of the vineyards.”
While the family is similarly interested in preserving the traditions and history of their region, they admit that this is not as easy as some people might suppose. Marchese Carlo has been busy looking through the estate’s enormous archives, searching for evidence of what grapes were grown historically. “Nobody knows,” says Marchese Anselmo. “Probably Marzemino. Now we are putting together the documents of the Church, to see what was cultivated exactly.” A book on the subject will be published next year. In the meantime, Marchese Carlo has created a vegetable garden, based on historical records.
One variety that definitely does have deep roots in the estate is Carmenère. The Marchese says that grapes like Carménère represent the tradition of San Leonardo, as they have been on the property for at least 120 years. “Carménère is a very difficult grape to grow and we have developed a lot of training systems,” he said. It is also a difficult grape to vinify into great wine by itself, which explains why it is is combined with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot here, as it once would have been in Bordeaux.
Marchese Anselmo pours a fresh and lively glass of the delicious San Leonardo 2011. Critic Jancis Robinson MW has described San Leonardo wines as sharing "the most admirable blend of subtlety, balance, finesse and (positive) restraint. These are wines with the most complex bouquets, showing just the sort of harmony you wish all classed-growth Bordeaux had.”
So many other people have recognized the quality of these wines, that Marchese Anselmo says they are now underpriced. “We are raising the price every year in a democratic and decent way,” he says. Like the monks a thousand years ago, he does not want to produce wine for people to lock away in their cellars. The San Leonardo wines, he says, “have to remain for wine lovers.” It is this attitude and the family’s love for Trentino that has resulted in the award they were given at Vinitaly.