spotlight on vermentino
The great Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa wrote under many pseudonyms, which he termed heteronyms. The names he used were all different expressions of his personality, his writing, and his artistic ambition. To write under one name would limit him; to write under several expanded his potential greatly.
Likewise, many historic, important grape varieties don’t just have one name: each name helps us understand the identity and history of the variety and the culture in which it has developed.
In Spain, the most planted black variety is Tempranillo. Its importance is underscored by its many different names in the country: Ull de Llebre, Tinta del País, Tinto Fino, Tinta de Toro, Tinto de Madrid, Cencibel (among many others). Across the border in Portugal, it's called Tinta Roriz and Aragones. And, following on from the Fernando Pessoa example, there is a widely-planted white grape in Portugal which has both a male and a female name: Maria Gomes and Fernão Pires. Similar pan-Mediterranean examples also exist: Garnacha is Grenache, which in Sardinia is Cannonau; Monastrell is Mourvèdre and sometimes also Mataró, the list goes on ....
Italy is another country famous for countless names for the same grape. Vermentino is a less well-known but still popular example with many heteronyms which take us straight into Mediterranean history and culture.
Vermentino is the name the variety is most commonly called, but the most plantings are in southern France where it’s called Rolle. It’s often used in white blends to bring aromatics and acidity, and is sometimes found in rosés for the same reason. In the warm climate of Provence especially, it provides backbone and structure to refreshing white and pink wines.
Travel across the Alps, and in Piemonte it’s called Favorita. It’s not too common to find it outside the region, but, trust me, a glass of Favorita drunk in a Torino arcade is not to be passed up. Drinking Favorita emphasizes how important the influence of the sea is to Piemonte, bringing a saline quality to Vermentino/Favorita in particular.
Slightly further south, the region of Liguria calls it Vermentino. Except when they don’t. It’s also called Pigato, which locals insist is a different variety even though it’s genetically the same. The wines are slightly richer and rounder, which may come from the local climate or the way the variety has mutated over time. There are a couple of appellations based around Vermentino/Pigato: Rivere Ligure di Ponente and the beautiful Cinque Terre (a blend of Vermentino, Bosco, and Albaroa). Again, the sea is an important influence.
And then there’s Corsica, a wild, dramatic island that’s French but not French, Italian but not Italian. Corsica is where Napoléon came from, changing his name from di Buonaparte to Bonaparte. Here, Vermentino is called Vermentino except when it’s Vermentinu or, very confusingly, Malvoisie. Corsica is one of the wildest places I've visited, like a warmer version of Atlantic Ireland. The white wines, particularly from varieties like Vermentino, are wonderfully fresh but can have a serious richness to them too.
A short ferry ride takes us south to Sardinia, another rocky, rugged, large, and disparate island. This is the one Mediterranean region where the variety is emphatically called Vermentino, which leads some Sardinians to conclude it comes from the island although Corsica is still a more likely origin. It's grown all over the island, with a couple of appellations dedicated to the variety. Vermentino di Sardegna can come from anywhere on the island, while Vermentino di Gallura is from a smaller zone on the north-east coast—once again, emphasizing the important influence of the sea on Vermentino growing regions.
By the time you’re done reading this, you’re probably near the end of a bottle of your Vermentino. But there’s more. There’s also California.
Tablas Creek of Paso Robles brought Vermentino into the state in the 1990s, and as far as I know any Vermentino produced here originates from Tablas Creek cuttings. Tablas Creek is co-owned by Château Beaucastel of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and they have established their well-earned reputation by planting varieties associated with the southern Rhône. Although Vermentino is not one of the permitted Châteauneuf varieties, they still made the decision in the 1990s to import cuttings, believing the variety to be well suited to the warm Mediterranean climate of Paso Robles—and they were right.
Vermentino allows us to draw a circle around inter-connected Mediterranean regions which have shared and disputed histories: Provence, Piemonte, Liguria, Corsica, and Sardinia. These are regions historically and in some cases still detached from the countries they’re now part of, and Vermentino shows how integrated their histories are. It also gives an insight into the future of California—which I firmly believe is Mediterranean.
blackpoolmatt's wines to try
Vigna Rada “Stria” Vermentino di Sardegna 2019 ($24)
This winery is located near the coastal town of Alghero. I remember visiting the nearby town of Sassari, arriving in the middle of the afternoon. The streets were empty, and we wandered around admiring the Mediterranean architecture but quickly becoming bored. And then all of a sudden the streets were packed as everyone poured out for their promenade, shopping, and aperitivo. North-west Sardinia has a distinctive Catalan influence—another example of how these regions and Vermentino are expressive of an overall Mediterranean culture.
Gros Ventre Vermentino El Dorado 2019 ($28)
I've made the argument above that Vermentino is best suited to a Mediterranean climate, but here's an example of how it works in a warm continental climate—perhaps for similar reasons. It comes from El Dorado in the Sierra Foothills, the county's name due to the fact it was the center of the Gold Rush in 1849. There's still a rustic, pioneer feel to the region. Grapes have been planted since the Gold Rush fizzled out, but it's in recent years that quality has risen. Mediterranean varieties such as Vermentino are well-suited to high-altitude plantings, and this is a region that's definitely one to look out for.