“It’s impossible not to fall in love with the 2004 San Leonardo. This may well be the greatest wine made by the estate (equal to the delightful 1990) thanks to the infinite, ever-shifting complexity on display. It’s hard to know where to start: Bright fruit aromas segue to spice and leather and then segue to cola and balsam herb. Blue flower and button mushroom also make brief, but meaningful appearances. This iconic vintage started with a wet spring and moved forward to a dry, warm harvest period. Give the wine another ten years to find its footing. If you serve it in the near term, allow three hours for decanting.
When I first started learning about Italian wine and its legendary icons, there was another wine that loomed as large as Sassicaia in my imagination. That wine was San Leonardo from Tenuta San Leonardo in Trentino. As my education continued, however, I found that my initial impression of its perceived notoriety had been somewhat inflated. While Sassicaia enjoys worldwide name recognition, San Leonardo’s status is limited to a knowing group of wine connoisseurs few of whom live outside Italy. This is where my fascination with the Bordeaux blend made among the jagged peaks of the Dolomites began. Sassicaia and San Leonardo seem like brothers separated in childhood. Both are Italian incarnations of a French wine philosophy practiced expertly by consulting enologist Giacomo Tachis. Both are born to great families of Italian nobility (two families that are related by blood). Sassicaia saw its first commercial release in 1968 and San Leonardo in 1982 and both wielded everlasting influence on what was, at the time, a nascent wine culture. Both are bigger than their territorial roots: Sassicaia brought fame and fortune to Bolgheri in coastal Tuscany (not the other way around). San Leonardo put the mountainous Trentino region on Italy’s enological map. Despite their shared genealogy, these brothers would develop distinctly diverging personalities. One is from the beach and the other from the mountains. One basks in the spotlight and the other shies away. My curiosity lay with the quiet one. Marchese Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga and his son Anselmo generously organized a complete vertical tasting of the 22 vintages of San Leonardo created since 1982. A tasting of this magnitude had never been prepared for an American audience and I tasted from the third to last bottle of 1985 housed in the historic cellars today. The samples were transported one week in advance so they could settle and tasted at the family residence in Rome, just off Piazza Navona. From a broad perspective, what struck me most was the steady stylistic consistency of the wines over the course of three decades. The wines never veer far from a central set of core values that included elegance, finesse and freshness. The blend has consisted of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and a grape later identified as Carménère, all vinified and aged separately. Of the estate’s 300 hectares, 25 are vineyards located 150 meters above sea level. Some vines are planted with the traditional Pergola Trentino overhead trellis, but the largest plot sees Guyot and spurred cordon-trained, high-density rows. Sandy and gravel-based soils characterize this location on the left bank of the Adige River about 45 kilometers north of Verona. For those who have traveled this route, Tenuta San Leonardo is located in that dreamlike sliver of geography where the flat plains of the Veneto rise to the dramatic Dolomites at the southern perimeter of Trentino. It is a stunning site because your entire perception of a horizontal landscape is suddenly flipped over into a vertical one within just a few kilometers. That impressive stylistic consistency endures despite winemaker changes. Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga studied winemaking in Bordeaux and Switzerland and relied on his close friends Piero Antinori, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta and Giacomo Tachis (a bit later in 1985) for advice when he first endeavored to make wine in the early 1980s. The blueprint for San Leonardo remains the same, boasting many of the ideals shared by this visionary group of Italian vintners. Starting with the 1999 vintage, another Tuscan protagonist was introduced. Consulting enologist Carlo Ferrini remains to this day. It is my strong impression that the continued presence of another man named Luigi Tinelli also explains San Leonardo’s stylistic coherency. The estate director, “Luigini” (as he is affectionately called by father and son Guerrieri Gonzaga) has been with the wine since the beginning. He was a mere 20-years-old when the 1982 vintage was produced. A quiet, intense, detail-oriented and proud man (with a personality that very much reflects the wine itself), Luigini was present during my tasting. His laser-like memory was jogged with each successive vintage and he was able to offer anecdotes and vintage details as I tasted through the flight. San Leonardo is one of the great wines of Italy. Its production numbers have grown from 9,700 bottles in 1982 to 34,000 in 1991 and up to 95,000 bottles today. The entire production reaches 220,000 bottles, of which 10% are exported to the United States market. 2015-2035″ – 97 points, Wine Advocate, Monica Larner (December 2014)