Just a week before the world as we once knew it dramatically changed — before store shelves and online retailers’ supplies of hand sanitizer and toilet paper were completely depleted, and before New York City was deemed the epicenter of the coronavirus — I made a visit to the Jane Hotel’s restaurant Old Rose with a pair of friends. It was a Monday. The weather was ominously warm for the beginning of March, and that was more than a good enough reason to stop for a glass of wine.
I settled for a pour of Nùo, a Vermentino produced by Azienda Vitivinicola Cardedu in Sardinia. The first sip was unforgettable. For starters, the aromas of citrus fruit nearly jumped out the glass. But on the palate, the white wine zinged with salinity, and herbaceous notes of basil and rosemary, with a hint of grapefruit, instantly transporting me to sunny seashores in a peaceful place far away from the noise and madness of Manhattan on the brink of a pandemic.
I ordered another, and made a mental note about Vermentino, a grape that I, at the time, wasn’t aware of until fate brought me to occupy a seat in this buzzy restaurant. It would mark my last restaurant experience before lockdown regulations, overwhelmed hospitals, and skyrocketing cases of Covid-19. Over the course of the quarantine, Vermentino became the wine I turned to for an escape.
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Every sip took me beyond the walls of my shoebox apartment to a place miles and oceans away from the harsh realities surrounding me. But finding bottles of the Italian wine often proved to be a challenge, mostly because shops and retailers aren’t stocking shelves with much of it. Sales of Vermentino are relatively low compared to well-known white wine varieties from Italy. According to a Statista report, the sale value of Vermentino produced in Sardinia, the island with the highest production of the wine, amounted to just $15.5 million in 2018, while Tuscany’s Chianti topped $52 million.
But curiosity among drinkers is rising. “As Italy’s expanding out, certain varieties like Vermentino are taking a bit more space in the conversation about what people know about Italian wine,” says Brian Long, a sommelier who formerly worked at the Michelin-starred Marea restaurant in New York.
With so many styles and varieties, it’s easy to understand how people can be a bit apprehensive about Italian wines, but Long notes that producers like Marchesi Antinori are helping expand Vermentino’s reach. “Part of the reason why people are becoming more familiar with Vermentino is because of the Antinori family and their Guado al Tasso. People who are really into their red wines, they look at them and say, ‘I know them, why don’t I just go ahead and try that?’” says Long.
As one of the first wineries to plant Vermentino grapes in the 1990s in Bolgheri, a coastal village in Tuscany right near the Tyrrhenian Sea, Marchesi Antinori only planted about 14 acres of Vermentino at its Guado al Tasso estate, which covers 2,500 acres. But today, about 170 acres are dedicated solely for growing Vermentino, and Antinori exports 2,800 cases of Guado al Tasso Vermentino, while global production of Vermentino is 39,000 cases annually.
Younger drinkers’ growing thirst for wine knowledge and new experiences are driving interest in Vermentino, says Alessia Antinori, vice president at Marchesi Antinori. “Knowledge is becoming more and more of a thing, especially with the younger generations who are studying wine and maybe go out more often and are more inclined to try new things. Younger generations specifically are really attracted to a good variety that is different that they can discover.”
She adds: “Italy has really interesting varieties. It’s one of the places with more indigenous varieties and Vermentino is one of them. And what we are doing as a family, we are concentrating a lot on indigenous varieties.”
Italy isn’t the only country producing Vermentino. Winemakers in France and Spain and even the U.S. dabble in the grape but Italy’s Mediterranean coastline is where Vermentino shines because the grape grows best when it’s close to the sea.
Vermentino is also versatile in a range of soils, from volcanic to limestone. Where bottlings from Liguria can be bursting with intense and distinctive minerality, says Jennifer Foucher, who was head sommelier at Fiola in Washington D.C., before coronavirus hit, expressions of Vermentino in Tuscany may be more floral, with riper fruit. Meanwhile, in Sardinia, the wine can be more full-bodied with saline and tropical fruit notes. “Sommeliers like it a lot because of its versatility and value. Once you introduce someone to it, they love it,” Foucher says. Although there are some premium examples, much Vermentino comes from cooperatives, making it a wine that’s meant to be young, fresh, and fruity, with an accessible price point.
The grape has loads of character that make it a perfect patio pounder or something to wash down a meal with, according to Pierangelo Tommasi, executive director of Tommasi Family Estate’s Tuscan winery Poggio al Tufo, which also produces Vermentino. “It’s a great solo sipper wine, but of course Vermentino with its creamy character, salinity, and bitterness is a wonderful wine to match with medium-weight dishes that play with rich herbs and spices,” Tommasi says. “You can easily match this wine with richer fish such as halibut or even meats.”
In fact, many foods pair well with Vermentino, from grilled vegetables to pork tacos. And it’s that versatility that makes the wine great on it’s own if you’re sipping a glass sitting out on your fire escape, reminiscing about the pre-Covid past, or just unwinding after work. Whatever the context, it’s bound to deliver a memorable experience.
5 VERMENTINOS TO TRY
Guado al Tasso Vermentino
This bottling from the iconic winemaking family radiates with freshness and balance and intense citrus aromas. “You know those things you will never forget because it was one of your first experiences? I have that memory of those aromas of grapefruit after harvesting Guado al Tasso,” Antinori says. “It was at the beginning of my experience as a winemaker, and the aromas of grapefruit left such an impression.” Average price: $25.
Riviera Ligure di Ponente Vermentino
Liguria-based Azienda Agricola Laura Aschero produces fewer than 6,000 cases of wine annually, including Pigato and Rossese, but Foucher says the winery’s Vermentino is a standout thanks to its vibrant freshness and aromatic herbal quality. “The wines are consistently good, and I use them in my wine pairings,” she says. “I always get requests for an additional pour.” Average price: $30.
La Cala Vermentino
Long noted Sella and Mosca as one Sardinian producer worth remembering. It makes Vermentino in the northeastern area of Gallura, known for its strong, northerly winds that gives the wine its superior quality. Although the aroma rings of citrus fruit and white flower, it is surprisingly soft and balanced. Average price: $12.
Poggio al Tufo Vermentino
The volcanic soils where Tomassi’s family grows its Vermentino is what leads to the wine’s richer and fuller style. “The soils on which the vineyards were planted are of different types,” Tomassi says. “All the vineyards have been designed in full compliance with the morphology of the area, safeguarding the characteristic rolling hills and enhancing them.” All that diversity of the soil results in incredibly lively wines that are characterized by fragrance and freshness. Average price: $13.
The vineyards at Azienda Vitivinicola Cardedu in Sardinia are dry-farmed and this is a full-bodied wine that drips with acidity, juicy stone fruit and a lingering salty finish that begs for another glass. Average price: $18.