More than 1000 years ago, it was a monastery, but for over 3 centuries now San Leonardo has served as the residence of the Marquis Guerrieri Gonzaga family, its proud custodians. Today, the San Leonardo estate is a garden of vineyards and roses, protected by the massive barrier of the Alps, which blunt the force of the cold northern winds, while the valley floor benefits from, and in turn releases, warmth from nearby Lake Garda. The Tenuta remains an ancient world, in which winemaking practices, still uncompromisingly artisanal, yield wines that are true gems of Italy’s wine tradition, marked by freshness, harmony, and an innate elegance.
Tenuta San Leonardo saw that moment at the end of the 1960s, when Marquis Anselmo Guerrieri Gonzaga (1895-1974), agriculturalist and passionate vigneron, passed on to his son Carlo the responsibility of giving a new face to the family farming estate. Quite a few changes then ensued in the Trento-based winery’s vineyards: the traditional pergola system was joined by the Guyot method and by spurred cordon, and Carmenère and Merlot, varieties that had flourished here for decades if not centuries, gained new neighbours, above all cabernet sauvignon.
1982 was “harvest zero”, when San Leonardo, the wine that we know today, first emerged from the vineyard. The first oak barrels made their entry into the wine cellar, and winemaking focused no longer on vineyard-grown field blends but on assemblages following tastings in the cellar of the barrel-aged wine lots. That year too marked the entry of San Leonardo onto the stage of Italy’s select wine producers.
All of this flowed naturally from the conviction of Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga that his land displayed the required qualities to make it a growing area of renown.
The change that Tenuta San Leonardo underwent was in fact a radical renewal. At first glance, however, nothing seems to have changed from the past, and the estate still looks today like a hortus conclusus relying on the same traditional values as ever. But behind the gate that protects the property there are no longer just fields of grain or corn, no more mulberries for the silkworms. Today, there are grapevines, laid out in accord with the most up-to-date viticultural canons, and the vine-rows speak eloquently of the culture of wine.
From warriors to vignerons
The family motto is “Belli ac Pacis Amator” (lover of war and peace) and it may be difficult to imagine it today, but once upon a time, the Terzi – the family’s original surname – men were warriors. Niccolò, son of Ottobono, was even called “The Warrior” for the valour shown in many battles. In 1506 the surname was extended to include that of Gonzaga, to show the gratitude of Marchese Francesco, Lord of Mantua.
Only in 1894, however, did the Guerrieri Gonzaga family take up regular residence in Trento, when Marchese Tullo, grandfather of Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga, married Gemma de Gresti, whose family had owned the Tenuta San Leonardo for almost two centuries. It was their son Anselmo who cast a more business-like eye on the property and who introduced significant changes, the fruit of his passion for winemaking.
The family’s first real winemaker, however, was Carlo Guerrieri Gonzaga, his training directed not only by what was required to personally manage the family agricultural concern, but above all by a lively curiosity for the world’s great wines, with Bordeaux in first place. This interest led to his decision to study oenology in Lausanne, and to deepen his knowledge with research trips to France and Tuscany. It was precisely here, on the San Guido property, that he began the long, profitable partnership with Marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, who revealed all the secrets of the Bordeaux blend to Carlo and became his “oenological godfather” to all intents and purposes.
Today, Marquis Carlo has spent nearly fifty years dedicating almost all of his time, energy, and attention to the Tenuta San Leonardo. For some years his son Anselmo has been fully involved as well with the winery, like his father passionately committed to the Trentino area, to its cultural and physical landscapes, to its distinctive fragrances, even though he often has to separate himself from it to introduce the family’s wines to far-off lands.
Tenuta San Leonardo, Gateway to Trentino
It is not difficult to fall in love with this corner of earth. The winery lies in the southern portion of the Trentino region, just a few steps from the border with the Veneto, in what was once a fief of the Church, but today is a small hamlet synonymous with one of treasures that contributed to the creation of Italy’s wine culture.
Here we are in the Vallagarina: along the Adige river, a modest church seems to nod to a place out of the ordinary. Next to it a gate and a low circuit wall of medieval origin introduce the world of San Leonardo. This small village of times past is a place of traditional Trentino-style houses containing offices, the cellar, the ancient granary renovated into a museum, and various barns housing agricultural equipment.
Looking a bit farther, the tree-lined boulevard comes into view, as well as the lake, park, the vineyards, the garden filled with rosebushes, and the Villa de Gresti – it is a magic-filled mosaic that is the fruit of incessant but discreet dedication, never interrupted over so many years, a complex of elegance and fine balance, everything the concrete expression of a world intensely loved and experienced personally.
Higher up, finally, emerge the imposing masses of the Monti Lessini, whose denizens – deer, stag, and chamois – descend not at all infrequently in search of tasty leaves to satisfy their hunger. These are the mountains that protect the estate from the cold north winds, 300 hectares that every day enjoy the beneficent effects of the Ora breezes blowing up from Lake Garda and bringing with them tempering influences.
Tenuta San Leonardo, then, is a northerly spot, where winter’s snow often blankets that small earthly paradise, vineyards and all. But when the growing season of the vines begins afresh, it provides a blessed climate, one that encourages development of the clusters and the ripening of their berries. And the substantial temperature differentials between day and night, which even in summer are notable, not only give depth to the grapes’ aromatics, but slow the ripening process, so that the harvest begins only in mid-September, to last through most of October.
Then there are the vineyards, 25 hectares in all. Sited at a relatively low elevation of 150 metres, Merlot is planted in gravel-rich soils that were once the bed of a branch of the Adige. Sandier, pH-neutral soils, at elevations of 150-200 metres, host cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and the venerable Carmenère vineyards. All of the vineyards are in well-drained, nutrient-poor soils that yield grapes whose wines boast levels of anthocyanins that are unusually high, and not just for the Trentino. So distinctive is this feature that this area, once called Campi Sarni, is a truly unique enclave.
Today San Leonardo’s viticultural philosophy dictates vine-rows that follow the contours of the slopes, in order to capture as much sunlight as possible. Vine densities vary according to the period in which the vineyards were planted and to the training system. Vineyards trained to Guyot and to spurred cordon have 6,600 vines per hectare, and yield a maximum for 60 quintals per hectare, while those trained to the Trentino double pergola are at 1,750 per hectare, which includes the Carmenère. To yield really top-quality fruit, this variety needs severe pruning, which limits the crop to no more than 90 quintals per hectare.
The Tenuta’s Wines and Spirits
Only red-wine grapes are cultivated in the vineyards behind Tenuta San Leonardo’s ancient stone walls; they produce four wines, San Leonardo, Villa Gresti, Terre di San Leonardo, and Carmenère. Ten hectares are dedicated to growing white-wine grapes, planted in the Val Cembra, whose soils and climate ensure grapes with distinctive crispness and minerality.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, and Merlot. The harvest for these grapes usually begins in mid-September with Merlot, and continues into October, even quite late in the month for the Cabernet and the Carmenère.
What sets San Leonardo apart from other wines and gives it an inimitable uniqueness is its terroir, that “warm northern character” of its growing area, which allows no over-opulence or excessive alcohol, but rather infuses the wine with a judicious natural balance. A clean-edged crispness and elegance, heightened by a few years in the bottle, are its characteristic qualities, obvious right from its bouquet, fragrances that, far from being explosive, build gradually in an intriguing crescendo.
Following lengthy fermentations which allow the extraction of the noble tannins, the wine is matured according to practices honed over many years: 10 months in cement vats, 18-24 months in new, once- and -twice-used French barriques, followed by the assemblage of the final wine, and finally a minimum of 20 months of bottle-ageing.
Villa Gresti, largely Merlot, with some Carmenère.
It is a finely-balanced, immediately appealing wine, with a velvety, supple mouthfeel and an emphatic, compelling finish. The harvest for Villa Gresti usually begins in mid-September. After the fermentations, the wine matures in barriques for 12 to 14 months, depending on the characteristics of the growing season, then spends a minimum of 12 months in the bottle before release from the cellars.
Terre di San Leonardo Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot e Carmenère
The grapes are sourced from the youngest estate vineyards. The wine displays then a more modest concentration and lively drinkability, plus a refined pleasurableness that gives it a definite elegance. Terre di San Leonardo’s roundedness and harmony are finally crowned by a six-month bottle-ageing before release.
The grapes ferment in 50- 80-hl concrete vats, in which it spends its initial months of maturation as well before passing into new, once- and twice-used French oak barriques. A further three years in the bottle are necessary to ensure that Carmenère exhibits its full character and intriguing complexity.
Vette di San Leonardo, Monovarietal Sauvignon Blanc
A wine with a distinctive freshness tinged with floral notes, with a stylishly woven structure and complex minerality. Its name is a tribute to its truly Trentino identity, while the Marchesi Guerrieri Gonzaga guarantee quality by selecting grapes personally from the Val di Cembra growers.
And finally, Riesling, the latest-born, but from a variety that boasts a lengthy history indeed, inasmuch as this grape was grown here almost two centuries ago and its bottles graced the tables of the Austrian noble families. The vineyards are located in the Valle di Cembra at some 700 metres elevation, in porphyritic sandy-loam soils that yield grapes with classic characteristics of elegance and firm structure.
There are grappas as well, in both standard and aged (stravecchia) versions. They are made from the pomace of the estate-grown grapes, obtained when the new wine is lightly pressed off after fermentation, thus engendering the San Leonardo magic in yet another product. Time-honoured traditional steam distillation in single-batch pot-stills is preferred as the only method which guarantees grappas that are smooth, clean-contoured, and elegant. At the end of the distillation cycle, standard Grappa Bianca is bottled immediately to preserve its freshness and simplicity; the Stravecchia is left for five years in barrels previously used for maturation of San Leonardo, and thus acquires an amber hue, with a textured, velvety flavour.
The Counsellors of the Tenuta
The evolution of Tenuta San Leonardo wines over these last thirty years of history owes much to two outstanding figures, true stars of Italy’s wine world; both have made significant contributions to the success of a uniquely Trentino style that has gained the attention of the world.
From 1984–99, the Marquis Guerrieri Gonzaga sought the advice of Giacomo Tachis, whom he had met during his time with Marquis Incisa della Rocchetta.
Since 2000, Carlo Ferrini, one of the most brilliant of the “new generation”, has been overseeing Tenuta San Leonardo projects.
The vineyards are also entrusted to the supervision of consultants Marco Simonit and Pierpaolo Sirch, the renowned “pruning guys”.
But every day, since far-off 1970, has witnessed the presence in the winery of Luigino Tinelli, manager of the Tenuta and right hand to Marchese Carlo. He is the one who puts into actual practice the professional advice advanced by the winery’s consultants. Not only is his technical expertise crucial to success, but he also represents the priceless “memory” of the production history of each of the wines that the Tenuta has made over the last 40 years.