Vermentino, the Maritime Grape


“Vermentino is a grape that needs to see the sea,” a winemaker recently told me.  But let’s be specific. Vermentino craves the Ligurian Sea.

I get that. Liguria is my favorite place, too. I never tire of hiking its ancient paths that follow the contours of the rocky cliffs. I love the smells that my feet kick up and the sea breeze carries in: salt air, hot stones baking under the sun, wild fennel and mint, yellow broom and aromatic herbs, pine resin and macchia scrub. Every time I drink Vermentino, these aromas come wafting out of the glass: herbs, minerality, floral notes, even a salty finish (which Italians call sapido). The wine immediately whisks me back to Liguria.

During our PIEDMONT & CINQUE TERRE TRAILS hiking tour, I can demonstrate in situ how the wine mirrors the place: We trek on the Riviera cliffs in the morning and taste Vermentino in the evening, our short-term memories lighting up with aroma matches. But Stateside, it isn’t so easy. You simply can’t find the stuff—at least from Liguria There’s too little grown on those steep terraced slopes.

So when I wanted to present a Vermentino tasting to my wine club this month, I stuffed a few bottles into my check-in luggage and schlepped them to New York.

Next, I went shopping. My idea was to compare Vermentino from the whole Ligurian basin. This plump, thin-skinned, late-ripening grape craves hot, dry maritime climates, so it also flourishes on the coasts flanking Liguria as well—Provence to the west (where the grape is called Rolle) and Tuscany to the east. And it blankets Sardinia, its probable entry point to Italy centuries ago.

The prevailing theory is that Vermentino was an Iberian grape (perhaps an offshoot of Malvasia) transported to Sardinia by the ruling Spaniards sometime between 1400 and 1700. Since the Aragon dynasty also brought Garnacha (renamed Cannanou) and Carignan, that’s a logical supposition. But recent DNA analysis has thrown a monkey wrench into this idea, pointing instead to a possible kinship with Furmint in Hungary.

One thing the DNA does confirm is that Vermentino is genetically identical to Pigato, a freckled white grape found only in western Liguria. (Another bottle for the suitcase.)

So, here’s my line-up for “Wines from the Riviera”—and the wine club’s response:

Flight #1 – Italian Riviera: Vermentino vs Pigato
Vermentino 2010, Maria Donata BianchiRiviera Ligure di Ponente DOC
Pigato 2010, Maria Donata Bianchi, Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC

Same producer, same vinification, same DNA, but different results. The Vermentino was leaner and more chiseled, with tangy herbal notes and a wonderful lingering minerality—a benchmark Vermentino, in my book. The Pigato was rounder, fruitier, fuller bodied. Long lees contact on both (5-6 months) brought ultra dimension to the flavors—the ‘wow’ effect. The club’s vote: This Ligurian Vermentino tied for 2nd place

Flight #2 – French Riviera: Rolle, pure vs blended
Terre Blanche, 2009, Chateau MiravalCotes de Provence Blanc AOC (100% Rolle)
Clara Lua 2009, Chateau Miraval, Coteaux Varois en Provence BlancAOC (Rolle/Grenache Blanc 75/25)

At a recent tasting of Provence wine, I found Chateau Miraval to have the best whites. The winery’s rep said it’s because they’re higher elevation than most, so those late-ripening Rolle grapes could mature at their leisure, building character and flavor well into October. Being Provence, blends are the norm. But I managed to rustle up a rare 100% Rolle as well. Neither was as herbaceous or lean as the Ligurian Vermentino and both had higher alcohol (14-15% versus 13.5%), but the pure Rolle prevailed for this group. The club’s vote: Terre Blance (100% Rolle) was 1st place for favorite wine

Flight #3 – South of the Liguria Sea: Tuscany vs Sardinia
Costamolino 2010, ArgiolasVermentino di Sardegna DOC
Solosole Vermentino 2010, Poggio al Tesoro (Allegrini), Toscana IGT

The only Vermentino that’s a DOCG comes from Sardinia—the Gallura area on the island’s northern, granite shores. Unfortunately, there was none to be found in New York City. So instead, I brought one of the most readily available—and bargain priced—Vermentinos, Argiolas’s $12 Costamolino. Unlike the more ethereal bouquet of the first two flights, “this wine screams at you,” said one taster. It had an aggressive nose, and its fruit-forward flavors were more tropical than herbal, suggesting pineapple, lemon, and banana. The Tuscan Vermentino was more nuanced, but it paled in comparison with everything before it.

Flight #4 – Provence Rosé
Pink Floyd 2010, Chateau Miraval, Cotes de Provence Rosé AOC (Cinsault (80% old vine) / Grenache / Syrah 60/30/10)
Mas de Gourgonnier 2010Baux de Provence AOC (Grenache/Cinsault/Cabernet Sauvignon/Carignan/Mourvedre 50/20/10/10/10)

Not to be a Johnny One Note, I included some rosés and a red at this Riviera tasting. Provence’s calling card is pale, dry rosé—the more aromatic the better. We tried two styles: First was Miraval’s pale pink rosé made from Cinsault and Grenache. Despite the delicate color, its herbal, savory character packed a powerful punch and won over the entire room. The darker, rose-hued Mas de Gourvonnier was a disappointment, however; I’d liked it before, but today it seemed lacking in flavor and focus.

Flight #5 – Liguria’s savory red: Rossese di Dolceacqua
Rossese di Dolceacqua 2010, Ka Manciné, Rossese di Dolceacque DOC

Another suitcase wine. Admittedly, you either love it or hate it. (Napoleon loved it.) And most of the group was captivated by the savory, earthy, fruit-of-the-woods character of Rossese, a twin to Provence’s Tibouren grape. The skeptics were at least intrigued. (No one hated it.) Frankly, I’d happily bring home a case of this Ligurian red every trip. And you need to, since it’s impossible to find in the U.S.

Want to taste in situ? Check out our Piedmont & Cinque Terre Trails wine + hiking tour.