Italy’s Three Vs

Italy's Three Vs

Verdicchio from Le Marche, Vermentino from the Maremma and Sardegna, and Vernaccia from Tuscany may be unheralded compared to Italy’s world-class reds, but they’re worth a second look.

Call white wines from Italy what you will. They can be crisp and refreshing at best, or insipid at worst. At least that’s what most folks will tell you. But in Central Italy, there’s a trio of white varieties that, when made well, have the potential to turn heads and attract consumers.

Verdicchio from near the Adriatic Sea, Vermentino influenced by the breezes of the Mediterranean, and Vernaccia from vineyards surrounding the Tuscan tourist mecca of San Gimignano each possesses a long history in Italian winemaking. Centuries ago they were the favored bianchi of Roman emperors, Ligurian nobles and popes, respectively. Today there are literally dozens of wines across the three categories that are flavorful and complex enough to warrant more than a passing look.

Among the three varieties, Verdicchio is typically most complex; when good, it offers nuttiness, depth of flavor and fine balance. Vermentino, meanwhile, offers the most size and body among the three. It frequently delivers a combination of floral and spice aromas, and can range from lean and clean to full bodied. Vernaccia, on the other hand, is defined largely by citrus aromas and flavors, and bracing acidity. As for pricing, the best wines in each class range from about $15 up to around $20, maybe slightly higher.

About 20 miles inland from the Adriatic port city of Ancona lies the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Denominazione di Origine Controllata, where, arguably, Central Italy’s best white wines are made. This DOC, centered around the hilltop town of Jesi, is the pride of the Marche region, and for good reason. Labeled as either “Classico” or “Classico Superiore,” Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is defined by its maritime aromas, crisp fruit and a can’t-miss, almond-flavored finish.

Further inland, at the eastern base of the Apennine mountain range, is the Verdicchio de Metalica DOC, which yields fatter, warmer wines than its more coastal-influenced cousin, Jesi. In the United States, one is much more likely to encounter wines from Jesi than Metalica.

As for the winemaking methodology being employed in Le Marche, most Verdicchio, a late ripener among white grape varieties, is fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel, and bottled having never seen the inside of an oak barrel. However, a number of wineries specializing in Verdicchio do incorporate some barrel-fermented wine in an effort to give their final product more heft and character.

Our top-scoring Verdicchio, the newly released 2003 Cuprese from Colonnara (91 points; $15), is a splendid example of crystal-clear Verdicchio. The grapes for this wine were harvested in mid-October, which is surprisingly late, given the heat wave that pounded Europe last summer. Ripeness is apparent in the wine’s full bouquet and fruit-packed palate. Nonetheless it’s impeccably fresh and will handsomely accompany raw shellfish, grilled fish and chicken dishes.

Another fine Verdicchio, and one that proves that the variety can be aged better than many other Italian whites, is Fattoria Coronicino’s 2001 Il Coroncino (89 points; $17). This wine is one of the best examples of a Verdicchio containing a small portion of barrel-fermented juice in the final blend. Despite that, it’s got all the requisite characteristics of fine Verdicchio: fresh aromas, fruit in the middle and nuttiness on the back end. Another winner in the class is Fattoria San Lorenzo’s 2001 Vigna delle Oche (89 points; $15). Not coincidentally, all three of the top-scoring Verdicchio carry the Classico Superiore qualifier, something to keep in mind when shopping for the variety.

“Sweet without being fat, the Mediterranean/Tuscan Viognier,” is how Antinori’s affable chief winemaker Renzo Cottarella describes Vermentino from the Maremma, the coastal region of Tuscany.

He could be talking specifically about the wine he helps make at Piero Antinori’s Guado al Tasso estate near Bolgheri (90 points; $18 for the 2002), or he could be talking about any number of excellent Vermentinos that come from the Maremma, Liguria and the island of Sardegna. “Vermentino should be a fresh, fruity summer wine,” says Cottarella. “It should have lots of personality, it should be approachable, and it should have some acids and minerals. It should not be big and fat.”

Originally of Spanish origin but now grown almost exclusively along Italy’s Mediterranean coastline, on Sardegna, and also on the French island of Corsica, Vermentino thrives in warm weather—in fertile soils, and also in rugged granitic ones, like the vineyards of Gallura at the northern tip of Sardegna. It is a grape that grows big and juicy. When it begins to turn brown in late September, harvest time has arrived.

Along with the Antinori Vermentino (a wine that exudes potent aromas and lively fruit flavors), Santadi’s 2002 Cala Silente (91 points; $16) is a stunning example of palate-pleasing Vermentino. This wine is the prized white from Santadi, a 45-year-old Sardinian estate, and it will do wonders for fish and poultry, or by itself.

“Vermentino di Sardegna is a potentially delicious wine,” notes Chuck Simeone, beverage director for Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s growing empire of restaurants. And with wines like Cala Silente, Guado al Tasso, Argiolas’ 2003 Costamolino (87 points; $14) and Cecchi’s 2003 Litorale (88 points; $17) all on the market, it would be hard to argue with him.  With respect to Litorale and other ’03s, Andrea Cecchi notes that the growing season, while warm and dry, wasn’t as brutally hot near the coastline as it was inland. “Working with white varieties in Italy is never easy,” he admits. “But when you don’t expose the wine to wood or oxidation [Vermentino is almost never barrel-fermented or oak-aged], you can control things better.”

The lion’s share of Italian Vernaccia hails from the Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOC. It was Italy’s first DOC, established in 1966 and later elevated to DOCG status in 1993. Recent wine-related regulations aside, Vernaccia has been around for centuries and was the favored wine of Pope Martin IV, who presided over the church in the late 13th century, and Pope Paul III, who was pontiff in the 1500s.

I’m not sure what Vernaccia these two popes were drinking, but it’s highly unlikely that their wines were as fresh and sprightly as today’s versions, many of which contain a small percentage of Chardonnay for bulk and go through some oak aging (which helps to explain the burnt-match and resin aromas common to many Vernaccia di San Gimignano).
The least naturally aromatic and complex of the 3 Vs, and the variety most prone to odd flavors and subpar quality, Vernaccia can be very good, as exemplified by the lovely 2002 from Giannina di Puthod (89 points; $11). This wine is made on the private Sienese estate of Enrico Terruzi (of Terruzi & Puthod) and is named after his wife. The key to this wine’s quality seems to be vine density (about 1,400 plants per acre) and short-term aging in quality French oak.

Cecchi, whose family also produces Castello Montaúto Vernaccia di San Gimignano (87 points; $13 for the 2003), agrees that vineyard management is of paramount importance when it comes to Vernaccia. “Four thousand plants per hectare [about 1,600 per acre] is the maximum,” he says. “The only way for Vernaccia to be of high quality is low yields. Large crops were the way of the past, which was what led to unbalanced wines.”
While “unbalanced” may not be the right word to describe today’s Vernaccia, blandness can still be a problem, or at least an issue. That said, antiseptic blandness in the form of light citrus aromas and simple flavors of green apple and lemon beats a wine that was either baked by the hot Tuscan sun or was aged in oak for too long.
Sometimes simplicity is a virtue not to be overlooked.

Published on August 1, 2004