As the weather starts to warm up, I find myself looking to shed those heavy red wines and foods of winter. In particular, white wines that are both refreshing and interesting are on my mind. Italy has many great white wines, some of which have been discussed here before. Vermentino is made around the Mediterranean from Spain to Italy. It is even made in California. But for me, the top Vermentinos in the world come from Sardinia.
Off the Western coast of Italy, in the Mediterranean, lays the island of Sardegna (what we call Sardinia). The island has an ancient history, being controlled by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Catalans.
The House of Savoy ruled it until the 18th century when it was annexed by Italy. Perhaps more than any of the others, the Spanish culture has left it lasting imprints on the people as it controlled Sardinia from the 14th to the 18th century. Like Sicily, Sardinia’s culture has taken all of these great empires in stride and adapted itself, taking certain bits and pieces from each one to form its own. At the same time, Sardinia is an Italian culture.
The wine industry in Sardinia is well established. Possibly the best of these wines is Vermentino, a dry white wine. Vermentino is apparently of Spanish origin. It traveled East to Corsica before being brought to Sardinia at the later end of the 20th Century. It was originally planted on the slopes of the northern peninsula of Gallura. Today, the best Vermentinos come from there and are labeled as Vermentino di Gallura DOCG Tthe only DOCG in Sardinia, it was created in 1996.
Gallura is a windswept locale with fierce winds coming across the sea from the Mistral winds to the northwest, the Alps, and the Sea. Because of this the vines have to be trained low to the ground. The climate is harsh and the soil is poor and based of granite. While it is a poor soil for most crops, these are the conditions that often grow the most flavorful wines. The vines struggle and must reach deep into the earth for their roots to find water and nutrients. Gallura has hot days and cool nights, especially at the vineyards with higher elevations. The heat of the day raises the sugar levels as the grapes ripen and the cool of the night brings the acidity back into balance.
In fact Gallura Vermentino’s are quite aromatic and rich bodied. Some say they carry what is called the Macchia, which is the stimulating scent of Mediterranean wild herbs. The Vermentino grape is large and can hold quite a bit of liquid diluting the intensity of the wine. In addition, a bloated grape often breaks on the vine and is susceptible to rotting in the vineyard. The dry conditions of Gallura help keep the wine from becoming watered down and the grapes skins from cracking. For a Vermentino to be labeled as being from Gallura, it must be 95% Vermentino with 5% being allowed to be other local white varieties.
Perhaps the best producer in the Gallura DOCG is Capichera. The Ragnedda family had a country home in Sardinia in the 1920’s. They planted vines and like many Italians, made wine for personal consumption. In the 1970’s the family decided to expand and planted 60 hectares and built a cellar. Their wine, knows as Caprichera, built a loyal following. Today, Fabrizio and Mario Ragnedda still run this family estate. Their Vermentino sells for more than $40 a bottle. It really is worth buying a bottle to see what, perhaps, the ultimate expression of this grape can taste like. Other producers who make very nice DOCG Vermentinos that are not quite as pricey include Piero Mancini and Pedra Majore.
There are also co-ops in Gallura that make excellent Vermentino’s. Cantina Gallura makes quality wines; their top bottling may be the single vineyard Canayli wine that can be found for slightly more than $15. Cantina del Vermentino is a 200-member co-op founded in 1956. They make at least five different Vermentinos including a late harvest style. The Funtanaliras is a basic level style that is very good and quite well distributed costing around $15. Finally, Giogantinu is a 300-member co-op making very serviceable Vermentinos.
Vermentino can also be produced anywhere on the island under the Vermentino di Sardinia DOC. The grape has spread across Sardinia but has found a home in the areas of Sassari and Cagliari. The soils there are richer and fertile. The vines produce more prolifically. The resultant wines are less interesting but favored by some for their easy drinking qualities. DOC laws require 85% Vermentino with the other 15% allowed for other local white varieties.
Many very good Vermentinos are produced and labeled under the Vermentino di Sardinia DOC. The two most famous producers to look for are Argiolas and Sella & Mosca. Argiolas, one of the top producers of red and white wines in Sardinia, makes three Vermentinos from Sardinia; Is Argiolas DOC, Cerdeña Isola dei Nuraghi IGT, and the basic Costamolino Vermentino di Sardinia DOC. All of these are well made wines available for reasonable prices. Sella & Mosca makes a nice affordable basic bottling. They even make a lightly sparkling version. The great thing about these Vermentinos is that they won’t cost you a lot of money. Basic bottlings should be available around $10 or less. Another very good Vermentino comes from Cantina Santadi although theirs costs around $20.
Vermentinos should be drunk within a couple of years of the vintage. While some may age for a couple of more years, their best qualities show well in their youth. The wines should be lightly golden in color with some deeper tinges of bronze. The nose is what distinguishes Sardinian wines from other parts of the world. It has a complex edge with melons, peaches and citrus fruits, but also a steely mineral quality. There is a certain spiciness to the best of them. On the palate, they are balanced with just enough acidity to make them great on the table. They are racy with a bit of almonds and limes.
In Sardinia, as almost everywhere Vermentino is grown, the food of choice is fish. Although Sardinia is more known for its game inland, the coastal areas have a rich seafood tradition. Vermentino makes a great combination with fish. In Sardinia it is often paired with a spicy zuppa di pesce (fish soup). It goes well with other fresh seafood preparations. It also works quite well as an aperitif with slightly salty snacks.
As the weather gets warmer and our preferences turn to lighter fare, I hope you consider experimenting with a few of these wines. Try one on its own at the end of the day, before dinner. Or better yet, with a light summer salad or seafood dinner. I would love to hear what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.