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06.2005

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Bill Nesto, MW

Vermentino is Italy's best shot for an indigenous variety that could go international. Years ago, some journalists wagged their fingers at producers warning them that the name "Vermentino" could be confused for a diminutive term for "vermin". But the trade and the public has, either mercifully or by chance, chosen not to go down this road. To my ear and sensibilities, the word has a pleasantly melodic cadence and is easy for Americans to pronounce and hence to remember. Moreover, the variety has many other, intrinsically more important, positive characteristics. It is easy to grow, gives generous yields, and makes a fresh-tasting, semi-aromatic white wine.

Today, the variety appears in many regions of Italy: Piedmont, Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria, Marches, Abruzzi, Apulia, Sardinia, and Sicily. Outside of Italy, in France's Provence region, one finds it playing a minor role under the name Rolle. Since much of Provence was once part of the Turin-based Savoy Kingdom, Vermentino's appearance there makes sense. Vermentino is closely related, if not identical, to the varieties Favorita in Piedmont and Pigato in Liguria. More important than its political or appellation affiliation is the vine's predilection to grow near the Mediterranean Sea.

Whether a vine variety is indigenous or not to a certain country is really a superficial issue. Varieties evolve and travel just like we do. Take me for instance. Am I an American or Italo-American? And before that where did my ancestors come from? Returning to our vinous protagonist, Vermentino, most experts believe that it originally came to Italy first via Spain and then Corsica. Sometime between the 14th and 18th centuries, Spaniards in Corsica likely introduced it into Liguria. From there it spread south into Tuscany. Its omission in ampelographical documents published in Sardinia in the late 19th century, suggests that its arrival on that island is quite recent.

Today, in terms of volume of production, Sardinia is its most important home. The only DOCG for the variety, Vermentino di Gallura, is produced in northeast Sardinia. There, higher elevations and a slightly wetter climate seem to bring out more fruit and character in the wine. Sardinia also has an island-wide DOC for Vermentino - Vermentino di Sardegna. Some of these wines can match those of Gallura in quality.

Colli di Luni sounds like it could be the name of a hit Broadway tune. This Vermentino-dominated DOC zone straddles both Liguria and Tuscany, with by far the bigger footprint in Liguria. Colli di Luni is fun-to-say. I had fantasized that the name meant, "hills of the moon". My first disappointment was to admit to myself that, no, grapes were not grown on hills of the moon. My second disappointment, really the clincher, was my discovery that 2OOO years ago, a Roman port, Luni, existed nearby. During the 196Os, Ottaviano Lambruschi first regularly vinified Vermentino using cold-fermentation technology. His Vermentinos were the first to display the vivid and refreshing fruit that is now that variety's calling card.

Just over the border in the Tuscan province of Massa Carrara, Vermentino makes up from 7O% to 8O% of the Candia dei Colli Apuani DOC wine blend. Further to the south along the Tuscan coastline, Vermentino has thankfully eclipsed the dull, central Tuscan Trebbiano-Malvasia blend. Vermentino is a varietal DOC wine in the appellations of Colline Lucchesi, Montescudaio, Bolgheri, Val di Cornia, and Capalbio. The recent arrival of many well-financed wine estates with international distribution portends that Tuscan Vermentino may have the best shot of all of going international.

Vermentino is ideal for coastline areas because its foliage resists damage from salt-loaded winds. It can also withstand the high temperatures and drought conditions which characterize those areas during July and August. The Mediterranean coast provides vines with an extended growing season. This is a good fit for Vermentino's tendency to mature late, in September and October. The "international" white varieties, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, mature in August, at a time when high heat compromises their grape acidity and the start up of controlled cool fermentations. In this climate, these varieties show rapid increases in berry sugar content without a corresponding evolution of compounds in seeds and skins. Their must weight goes high while the skins remain thin and the seeds green. The skin contains aroma precursors which, unlocked by yeast, become the wine's bouquet. Hot climate Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings are rarely high quality wines. The heat of August denies growers the opportunity to harvest these varieties late. Provided that they are in good condition, grapes left on the vine benefit from additional skin contact. Growers can leave Vermentino on the vine longer and they can take their time harvesting. They need less refrigeration to get the Vermentino fermentation off coolly.

Vermentino offers growers few problems. It offers an abundant harvest. Frost that could compromise the germination does not occur in coastal Mediterranean climates. Its vigor is moderate. As a result, farmers need to spend less time shoot thinning during May and June. Though vulnerable to peronospera, the sunny, windy and rainless climates of the Italian Mediterranean coast rarely exposes this vulnerability. On the other hand, it has good resistance to oidium, the fungus most common in dry climates.

Despite the abundant heat and light in their environment, Vermentino varietal wines tend to have average alcohol levels, about 12%. Though total acidities can be low, but pH remains low, about 3.3. The low pH gives the wine a refreshing texture. The wine can be barrel fermented, but care must be taken when using lees contact. When the lees get reduced, the abundance of thiols, a class of sulfur-containing compounds, can render the wine stinky.

Vermentino wine appearance is a pleasant yellow-green of medium intensity. In the nose, the wine expresses lime and green hay smells. The presence of Sauvignon Blanc grassiness and grapefruitiness in some wines indicates that Vermentino must may have many of the same precursor aromatic compounds as Sauvignon Blanc. Yeast selection can preferentially release these aromas, steering the nose more towards a Sauvignon profile. On the other hand, the smell of Sauvignon could be an indicator of Sauvignon Blanc in the wine. In the mouth, the wines are substantial and rarely light. They are always refreshingly tart, and are rarely bitter in taste. Sometimes Vermentino wines are slightly salty. This could be the result of the proximity to the sea. Vermentino is less able to support new oak extraction than Chardonnay. I prefer unoaked versions.

In early April of 2OO5, I tasted a sampling of recently released Tuscan Vermentinos. These wines are listed and described below. Some of the producers represented do not currently export their wines to the United States. Prices listed are approximate ex-cellar prices. My point scores are based on a perfect score of 2O points out of 2O possible points. A score of 1O points indicates a correct but characterless wine. I usually score 95% of the wines between 1O and 15 points.

Guado al Tasso, 2OO4 Vermentino, Bolgheri Vermentino DOC
Moderate yellow-green appearance; bubblegum, banana and Sauvignon Blanc-like green grass nose; soft and acidic with some bitterness in the finish; 18O,OOO bottles produced; 1O euro; Nesto point score 13.5

Casa di Terra, 2OO4 Vermentino, Bolgheri Vermentino DOC
Moderate yellow-green; strong bubblegum fermentation smell; salty and tart on the palate; acid-dominated finish; 5.3 euro; 65OO bottles produced; Nesto point score13

Campo al Mare, 2OO4 Vermentino, Toscana IGT (Bolgheri)
Moderate yellow-green; lanolin and delicate oak accents; starts fruity and soft on the palate and ends astringent and tart; 15,OOO bottles produced; 5.4 euro; Nesto point score 13

Collemassari, 2OO3 Grattamacco Bianco, Bolgheri Vermentino DOC
Moderate to deep yellow-green with touches of gold; straw, evolved fruit character (no fermentation smells); round, flavorful and slightly bitter; nice finish; 55OO bottles produced; 12 euro; Nesto point score 13

Valdamone, 2OO4 Val di Cornia Suvereto Vermentino DOC
Moderate yellow-green; mousy, old grapeskin smell; salty and sour on the palate with a salty finish; 35OO bottles produced; price not available; Nesto point score 11

Incontri, Ildobrandin, 2OO4 Val di Cornia Suvereto Vermentino DOC
Light yellow-green; mousy, old grapeskin smell with some barrel fermented character; alcoholic sour-sting: bitter finish; 6OOO bottles produced; price not available; Nesto point score 11

S.Giusto Bonti , Sangiusto, 2OO4 Val di Cornia Piombino Bianco DOC
Moderate-light yellow-green; vanilla barrel-fermented nose; rich, full and tactile palate; sour-bitter finish; 4OOO bottles produced; 5.5 euro; Nesto point score 12.5

S. Agnese F.LLI Gigli , Kalendamaia, 2OO4 Val di Cornia Piombino Vermentino DOC
Moderate-deep yellow-green with copper tints; crab apple nose; bitter and sour palate; sour finish; 21OO bottles produced; price not available; Nesto point score 11

Russo, Pietrasca, 2OO4 Toscana IGT (Suvereto) (85% Vermentino, 15% Clairette Chardonnay)
Moderate-light yellow-straw; green grass, seashells; bitter-dominated palate and finish; 12,OOO bottles produced; 6 euro; Nesto point score 12.5

Acquabona, 2OO4 Vermentino, Toscana IGT (Elba)
Light to moderate green-yellow; strong green grass, Sauvignon Blanc-like smell, banana; alcoholic and spicy in the mouth; tart finish; 45OO bottles produced; 7.6 euro; Nesto point score 12

NOTE euro averaging $1.30US

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