Pugnitello – Saved From Extinction

I was recently hit with the wanderlust bug and convinced 37 of my family members to travel to one of the most beautiful places in the world: Tuscany, Italy. In early October 2022, after meticulously planning our trip, we made our way to the old country. One of my motivations was to introduce my family’s next generation to our roots in Italy, which originated in Tuscany in the early 16th century. Additionally, I was eager to discover and learn more about Tuscany’s wine culture. My trip allowed me to explore Tuscany’s rich history, culture, landscapes, medieval castles, and one of its most treasured gifts, Tuscan wine! My thirst for knowledge, experiences, and all things wine brought me to a very special place in the sun-drenched, rolling hills of Tuscany, just outside of Florence: San Felice Winery. With half of our group being “20-somethings” and driving in a caravan of cars, getting there was quite an experience! You wouldn’t want to drive a Ferrari on those roads! We arrived at the winery after navigating twisting roads and steep inclines, with many of our younger group members regretting their overindulgence the night before. This stunning winery with panoramic views of the Tuscan countryside had a bit of history to tell. While doing my research for our trip, I was pleasantly surprised to learn San Felice was one of the pioneers of Super Tuscan wine in the Chianti Classico region. I had no idea what else was waiting for me to discover!

Italy currently has around 375 grape varieties authorized for cultivation across 20 wine regions. Most wine professionals would agree that Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are the most famous, ancient, and noble varietals in Italy. The past 40 years have seen the preservation of many obscure Vitis vinifera grape varieties that also deserve our attention. There are many lesser-known grape varieties that are producing some delicious and fascinating wines, thanks to some diligent winemakers! Among the grapes saved from nearly certain extinction is Pugnitello, made possible in part by research being conducted by the University of Florence and San Felice Estate Winery. The fact that this program takes Italy back to its roots – Vitis vinifera roots – cannot be overstated!

Pugnitello derives its name from the shape of the grape cluster, which is a small, compact bunch that resembles a closed fist (pugno means fist in Italian, while the suffix “tello” means small fist). The grape berries are medium-sized, thick-skinned with an intense blue-black color. Due to its late ripening season, which typically extends into mid-October, the grape is extremely susceptible to diseases and bad weather. Low yields are fairly typical. It is believed that Pugnitello has ancient roots, having been cultivated and vinified long before the Romans, by the Etruscans. With a pigmentation of deep red and violet highlights, Pugnitello wines tend to be fruity, rich, and smooth on the palate. Pugnitello vines are native to the Tuscany region. The grape varietal was discovered in 1981 in the Poggio di Sassi hills, near Cinigiano, which lies along the Tuscan coast between Sienna and Grosetto. Up until that point in time, virtually no one had even heard of the grape. Even the vineyard owner who discovered the grapes did not know anything about the origins or history of Pugnitello. There are no written historical references to Pugnitello. Some years later, in 1987, San Felice Winery planted the first vines in an experimental vineyard on its property called Vitiarium, or “Conservation Field”. During our visit, it was impossible not to feel as if we were walking through centuries of history as we strolled along the trellised vine-strewn tunnel of the Vitiarium. Oh, the stories these vines could tell if only they had a voice! In 1987, 18 vines of Pugnitello along with 13 other varieties were vinified to produce approximately 280 bottles. Pugnitello stood out above all the other varietals as the most intriguing of them all. Fast forward to today, and Pugnitello is San Felice’s second most-planted variety (6 percent of the total vineyard space), used in at least one of their blends as well as a 100% varietal bottling.

In 1992, the first 1,000 cuttings of Pugnitello were grafted in an area of 0.3 hectares near the San Felice Poggio Rosso Vineyard. Then, in 1995, the first 600 bottles of Pugnitello were produced, but it wasn’t until the 2006 vintage that a 100% Pugnitello wine was released to the public. For a time, many believed Pugnitello to be identical to Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. However, after extensive DNA testing conducted by the University of Florence, it was proven that it was a unique grape varietal and subsequently placed in the “National Registry of Vine Varieties” by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture in 2002. The following year, the Tuscan Regional Commission placed Pugnitello in the official Record Book of Varieties approved for wine production throughout the region.

After years of research and observation, the characteristics of Pugnitello have been clearly understood concerning ampelography, how it is cultivated, genetics (shown to be unrelated to any other grape varietal), and vinification potential. There are ample polyphenol and anthocyanin components present, which creates high acidity and smooth tannin structure. Sufficient sugar production provides for high alcohol content and the wine possesses high aging potential. Many winemakers like to use the grape because it has many similarities with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, including a rich color and fleshy fruit complexion, but it is not as reductive, which equates to less work in the winery. While Pugnitello provides for good color and fruit character, it is not a very aggressive grape. Therefore, it has become a good blending partner for Sangiovese. Conversely, mono-varietal bottlings will highlight some of Pugnitello’s best characteristics, including red-cherry aromas and flavors, plum jam, burnt almonds, a hint of marzipan, leather, and earthy notes.

I had no idea, at the time, that I would be tasting a wine made from a grape that nearly disappeared! Nor did I have the slightest inkling that I would be writing about this grape 6 months later. I was fortunate to try the 2018 San Felice Pugnitello bottling during our visit. It was a good vintage, with early bud break due to warmer springtime temperatures, and large diurnal temperatures throughout the summer. Consequently, the grapes achieved their full phenolic ripeness and aromatic maturity. The soil in which the grapes were grown is mostly calcareous marl with an abundant mixture of gravel and pebbles for good drainage. Guyot training is used on the vines and harvest occurred in the first week of October. Over the course of 20 to 25 days, the grapes were vinified at 86 degrees with skin contact. Twenty months of aging in 225-liter French oak barriques were followed by eight months in the bottle. What an amazing wine! It’s big and powerful, full of dark fruit like black cherry and plum, as well as leather and tobacco notes that hit you in waves. There is also just a hint of garigue underlying the dark fruits. The tannins are well integrated and in beautiful balance with the wine’s acidity, providing appealing structure and grip.

This was a sommelier’s dream, discovering a grape and wine that I had never heard of before my fateful journey to Tuscany in 2022. It was hard for me to comprehend how something so delicious, complex, and beautifully balanced was not very well known! When I left San Felice and this incredible wine, I found myself smitten and yearning for a return visit. For, not only did my family reconnect with our Tuscan roots, but I was witness to the Tuscan roots of this wonderful Italian grape called Pugnitello. Arrivederci!