Italian Wine Podcast favorite (and Vinitaly International Academy Chief Scientist) Attilio Scienza returns to go another round with Monty Waldin. This time the two discuss Vermentino—its origins, etymology, preferred climate, soil, and importance in Italian viticulture and oenology. Monty grills Professor Scienza in near perfect Italian with an ever-so-slight Tuscan lilt. The professor is up for the challenge and offers insight into this grape variety that will surely interest wine scholars such as VIA candidates. As in previous iterations we offer both the original, Italian version as well as the English language recording, read by future voice of the BBC and WSET Programme Provider, Rebecca Lawrence. Though we’ll dig deep and may mention terms such as “flysch,” attentive listeners will also catch food pairing suggestions.
MONTY WALDIN: Hello, my name is Monty Waldin, welcome to another special episode of the Italian Wine Podcast with Professor Attilio Scienza. Today we will be talking about Vermentino. Attilio is a famous vine genetics scholar and serves as the Chief Scientist of the Vinitaly International Academy. Like we did for the other episodes with Attilio, we will speak in Italian and we will then record an English-language translation of this episode. By the way: you can find all the Scienza’s podcast in our series “Italian Wine Essentials.” You can access it on both SoundCloud and our official website. On our website, you can also find a useful transcript in both languages of all the episodes with Attilio Scienza. Good morning Professor and welcome! Today’s episode is entirely dedicated to Vermentino.
ATTILIO SCIENZA: Good morning to Monty, and good morning to all the listeners who listen to me, I hope I can give them some good information about the grape varieties we are describing …
M.W.: Can you talk about the origin of the name ‘Vermentino’ and its meaning?
A.S.: Vermentino is a vine, perhaps one of the few vines in the world whose pedigree we have not yet been able to uncover, we have no hard facts as to its parent vines nor descendants. If anything… we will talk about hypotheses a little later.
We know it probably arrived in Piedmont because the first historical mention of Vermentino was in 1658, in the province of Alessandria, where it was used to create a wine together with Cortese and Nebbiolo. It arrived in Piedmont from Liguria, along the Via del Sale, while later on, in Sardinia and in Corsica, it arrived via Pisa and Spain.
The journey of Vermentino in Italy, was very different. Let’s say, in the north-west, and the central part and Sardinia, the characteristics of the bunch and the berry indicate it as a belonging to the Eastern proles, to the proles pontica, that is to say, not with the same characteristics of the Western varietal origins.
There is evidence from other European countries as well. For instance in Corsica, it is called Vermentinu, as well as being called the Malvasia della Corsica. In Portugal, it is called Malvasia del Douro, in Spain Malvasia Precoz, and is known above all in the eastern Pirenei because it is used to make over-ripe grape wines. There are some kinship hypotheses, as I was saying before but they are quite labyrinthine. One of these is about a possible kinship with Sauvignon and with Piccabon. Piccabon is an old Ligurian grape variety, which is in fact Vernaccia di San Gimigniano, so, there is a genectic connection with Vernaccia di San Gimigniano.
Vermentino is a very widespread grape variety in Italy, in north-western Italy, and in central Italy. It is produced with a DOCG, that of Gallura, the only DOCG, but there are 16 DOC in different regions, produced with this vine: Alghero, Bolgheri, Cagliari, Candia, Capalbio. Thus, many denominations of central Italy, of the tyrrhenian coast are interested in the use of this variety. In addition, it participates in the making of 56 wines of Italy’s IGT – Indicazione geografica tipica.
As I mentioned before, Vermentino is a rare grape variety of which we do not know the origin. Just think that of the more than 1000 varieties analyzed in the European research center, Vermentino belongs to the 276 varieties (12% of all known vines in the world) of which we have not been able to build the pedigree. There are some genetic relations, one with Rossola Bianca, present in Corsica. The genetic kinship with the Furmint of Hungarian origin is curious. Furmint sounds similar to the name Formentino.
It is a synonym to that of the Vermentino in some valleys of Piedmont, and gives us a direct genetic relationship with the Petit Manseng of the Eastern Pirenees. These are not, however, such precise relations, but more of a genetic belonging. It is a vine that is synonymous with vines such as Pigato in Liguria, Favorita in Piedmont, Rollo in the Nice area of France, Varlantin, (also from a small region in eastern France) Bucalò, a synonym of Vermentino, which is present as a minor vine in a valley of Piacenza, in a valley that connected, and still connects, the Po Valley with the Ligurian Sea, then along the salt road. Thus, Bucalo is a vine that came from the sea and stopped in the valley of Piacenza… and then, this Furmentin vine…this is a synonym in some valleys of Piedmont.
M.W.: How did Vermentino become such a prominent grape in Italy?
A.S.: The origin of this vine from a genetic perspective, but I would say also from the cultural point of view and production-wise, is linked to the Vernaccia wines of the Republic of Genoa. Vernaccia were the wines that contrasted the Malvasia from the Republic of Venice: therefore, the Republic of Genoa produced the Vernacce, and the Republic of Venice produced Malvasie. And this is important because the spread of Vermentino happened because of the interest Genoa had in producing these oxidative wines, which were a bit different, compared to the wines that were made instead in the Eastern Mediterranean and under the Republic of Venice.
M.W.: What does the plan require in terms of climate?
A.S.: It is a vine that, in the popular conception, is said to love the sea, it is a vine that loves the sea because it is a vine that is always very close to the coast. This is because it withstands drought well, tolerates salty winds, so it does not suffer the damage of these Libeccio winds, which bring saline with them. Therefore, this is something very interesting in these coastal areas. It also withstands over ripening well. It can handle this because it tolerates rot well, and, therefore, it can stay on the plant for a long time.
M.W.: What are some areas where Vermentino is grown and what is it about these areas that makes them good for production?
A.S.: Of the Vermentino grown in Italy 85% is grown in Sardinia; Sardinia is the place where this vine is most widespread, particularly in Gallura, in north-eastern Sardinia. This part of Sardinia is very interesting from the geological stand point because it is one of the oldest areas of origin in Europe – there are rocks that formed there about 300 million years ago, in the primary era, and is the result of very intense volcanic effusive activity that has given rise to soils of granitic origin that, in fact, are the basis of viticulture in this part of Sardinia. Gallura is very rich in sands, or even coarse materials of origin from the decomposition of granites, and this decomposition brings with it a great wealth of minerals that is not without in finesse, and influences the quality of Vermentino di Gallura.
In another important area, Vermentino is not called Vermentino, but Pigato… Pigato is a name that indicates that this grape variety has spots on the berries in fact, pigao in Liguria means “speckled” and therefore this image describes a bit of the morphological characteristics of the berry and is grown in three provinces, Liguria, the part of Genoa of Savona and Imperia, which is the westernmost part of Liguria. It has also been cultivated in the eastern part, that of the Cinque Terre, but to a lesser degree. These lands are of sedimentary origin; they are not of volcanic origin, but they contain very ancient sediments of the tertiary era, soils that originated from the decomposition of conglomerates from particular flysch. They have a good content of sand that comes from the decomposition of these sandstones, the result of sea deposits, but, of terrigenous origin, and are characterized by the presence of marl and limestone. Thus, we have sub-acidic soils in the eastern part and more neutral soils in the western part, but all soils are of sedimentary origin, ancient soils containing components of clay and sand. The third pole of Vermentino is the Tuscan coast, a territory represented by a border line, along the hills, along the sea, with altitudes ranging from 250 up to 400 meters from sea level. And this area at the sea edge is fortunately conditioned by the climatic characteristics of the sea. Thus, under a fairly mild but also very windy climate, very often this wind brings some salt with it and this particular characteristic is of great significance. The specific light and air in this area is the basis of the quality of these wines.
There are many terrigenous soils, the length of the coast is important because it starts practically from the hills of Luni and goes up to Grosseto, the latter with a very different geological origin; Luni area soils are very ancient compared to those of the southern part; there is schist and mica-schists in a part of Luni. Then, for the parts closer to Groseto, one gets to soils of the Pliocene, of the Pleistocene, therefore, the last era. In Livorno and Pisa there are soils which at times become marly, or of alberese clay-limestone, very similar in certain aspects to those of Chianti, at least in the more hilly parts more inland. Therefore, here also the disintegration of Flysch are instead more clayey and marly, more recent in parts closer to the sea.
M.W: Could you please talk a bit about Vermentino’s sensory profile and its vinification?
A.S.: They are usually very perfumed wines, let’s also say… aromatic, because Vermentino is considered the most aromatic of southern white wines, even though it is not an aromatic variety in itself, but it has a good content of terpene compounds. Also, it contains a substance called alpha terpineol, which is not present in grapes, but is formed in the wine during its evolution in the bottle. Therefore, it is an indicator, sensorial and chemical of the age of this wine. Usually Vermentino is vinified reductively because this concentrates it to develop that aromatic thread very similar to Sauvignon, because of its citrus notes, grapefruit, or fruity white peach or melon—these are its characteristics, especially of Vermentino near the sea.
In the past, it had almost never been vinified alone, but together with other varieties that could very often bring some acidity because it is a grape variety that does not have great natural acidity. Thus, you have to be very careful since the PH can be very high, and this then presents problems for the aromatic profile during fermentation. Whilst there are few aromas, but those present are very strong, they are also elegant, balanced. I was saying that white fruit is certainly the most perceived aroma, apple and peach, whereas, the most citrus notes, and exotic fruits such as pineapple, mango also come through in the background. There is good minerality that develops over time in the bottle, mostly from Vermentino produced in Sardinia. The proximity to the sea, as I said before, is not to be forgotten, these flavours come through: salty notes, which are present in wine when it is a few years old. It is a wine to be drunk naturally fresh but that has in some cases the possibility to be preserved, and develop some very interesting tertiary aromas, sometimes similar also to kerosene notes, oily notes, which make it very interesting for a highly refined market such as with high quality restaurants.
M.W.: Of course we can’t wrap up without asking for some suggestions on food pairings!
A.S.: Well, of course, it is a wine for the sea, it is a wine for fish in all ways, found in Sardinia and the Ligurian coast, or the Tyrrhenian coast. It is of course a summer wine; it can be consumed with not only simple fish, but fried fish or baked fish. It is importance not to neglect the fact that it can pair with vegetables or grilled vegetables dishes, whichever way, vegetables cooked in a Mediterranean way, with Mediterranean aromas, such as eggplant or peppers. So it is certainly a wine to be used in the true Mediterranean cuisine.
M.W.: Perfect, thank you to Prof. Attilio Scienza for another interesting lesson on Vermentino, one of the most important and widespread white grapes in Italy. I also wanted to remind our listeners about a new book that you wrote together with Serena Imazio (we also had her on the show recently). The book is the official language English translation of an Italian bestseller of yours and is entitled Sangiovese, Lambrusco, and Other Vine Stories . It’s a book about the history of the main Italian and European vines and is available to purchase in on Amazon in Europe and worldwide on Kindle. I highly recommend it to our listeners who are studying wine. Thank you again Attilio and speak very soon for another exciting episode about Italian wine!
A.S.: I thank the listeners for following what I said and of course I look forward to our next podcast session, good morning.