Unearthing grape varieties in the far-flung corners of Italy
This is a tale of two treasures. The hunting ground is Italy and her rich alphabet of indigenous varieties. Among Italy’s hundreds of grapes, many varieties are confined to remote corners where they make wines unlike any other. So unearthing them means exploring far-flung places. The letter V takes us from the sun-soaked, windswept island of Sardegna all the way to the misty forested foothills of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
Sardegna is the birthplace of the truly singular yet tragically obscure Vernaccia di Oristano. Both the name of the grape and the denomination, it was Sardegna’s first DOC, established in 1971. However, the grape has no relationship to Vernaccia di San Gimignano of Tuscany or any of Italy’s other Vernaccia-named varieties. Instead, Vernaccia likely comes from the Latin vernaculus — meaning “home-bred” — which is perhaps why it was bestowed on several disparate grapes strewn across the country. Indeed, Vernaccia di Oristano is a very local and limited specialty.
The small city of Oristano sits on the west coast of the island. To its north, jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea, is the Sinis peninsula and the lower reaches of the Tirso river valley. This is Vernaccia di Oristano’s stomping grounds. An unspoiled pocket of peaceful lagoons and sandy beaches, it is a resting spot for flamingos. I’ve also spotted peacocks casually roaming the streets in the area’s charming fishing village of Cabras and spied cacti growing in the vineyards.
Vineyards were first planted here by the Phoenicians who conquered Sardegna in the 8th Century BC. Legend has it that Vernaccia di Oristano was born from the tears of Santa Giusta, patron saint of Oristano, who made the wine to cure the Sards of malaria, which was rife in this once-swampy area. Certainly, it is potent and pungent enough to suggest healing powers.
Crafting this wine is an exercise in patience. Grapes are harvested late, when they are extremely ripe and often dehydrated, boasting a minimum alcohol potential of 14 percent. After being fermented to dryness, the wine is aged for many years in barrels that aren’t completely topped up. Leaving a headspace of 20- to 25 percent allows in enough oxygen to encourage the development of flor. This film-forming yeast eventually covers the wine’s surface. The quicker it forms and the thicker it is, the better able it is to protect the wine from oxidation.
Piero Cella is the oenologist at the historic Contini estate, one of the oldest producers of Vernaccia di Oristano. “I believe it is a true miracle of nature,” he says, referring to the development of flor. “Few understand it. But the producers – partially naïve and partially creative – are great actors in a film that is still very unknown.” Pun intended, I think.
Vernaccia di Oristano is often compared to Fino Sherry, a better-known flor-aged wine from Spain. Examples that have been aged longer typically sport an amber rather than a golden hue and demonstrate slightly nuttier notes making them more analogous to Fino’s sibling, Amontillado. However, while Fino and Amontillado are fortified, Vernaccia di Oristano isn’t necessarily – and, in fact, the best aren’t. Instead, they achieve their lofty alcohol levels due to gradual evaporation through the porous wood staves of the barrel. This process concentrates the wine and increases the alcohol level by approximately 0.5 percent each year, according to Cella. As such, it is not unheard of to find bottles touting 18% ABV.
The long aging in the presence of flor is also responsible for Vernaccia di Oristano’s weird and wonderful aromas and flavours. “It takes two to three years in the barrel to develop the desired characteristics: that particularly intense, complex and unique bouquet along with a bitter almond finish,” explains Alberto Masson, Export Manager at Silvio Carta. “In the best years, it acquires a Murruai character.” This expression, exclusive to the Tirso Valley, is said to be linked to the ancient practice of perfuming barrels and cellars with myrrh resin. With scents evocative of a sea breeze, flavours of peach blossom and dried fruit, as well as a salty tang, it is an exotic elixir.
Yet what makes this wine so fascinating also renders it anything but mainstream. “Despite numerous national and international awards, it is a product that is difficult to position,” admits Alessandro Contini, who oversees sales at his family’s property. Nevertheless, the Contini family continues to buy parcels of Vernaccia di Oristano vines in order to protect them from being ripped up. “Saving it from extinction, we are preserving the history and tradition that was left to us by our ancestors.”
There are approximately 50,000 bottles of Vernaccia di Oristano produced each year by fewer than 10 estates. Precious few make it off the island of Sardegna. If you do happen to get your hands on a bottle, don’t hesitate to open it. It’s not necessary to age Vernaccia di Oristano further. Well chilled, it serves as a stimulating aperitivo with nuts, olives and Sardegna’s tangy pecorino. Its classic partner is the equally peculiar bottarga. This salted, dried and pressed mullet roe is grated on anything from pasta, salad and fish for an incredible punch of flavour. Served slightly warmer (16˚C), Vernaccia di Oristano also shows up at the end of the meal alongside dark chocolate or almond biscuits.
In the far north east of Italy, abutting Austria and Slovenia, the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia has little in common with Sardegna. Though warm breezes from the Adriatic Sea can give a slightly Mediterranean feel to some areas, the hilly DOC zone of Friuli Colli Orientali is far more influenced by the nearby, cool Alps. Deer, lynx and black bears prowl the forests and the local yota soup made with beans, pork and sauerkraut is appropriately warming fare.
The long list of grapes, both international and native, growing in Colli Orientali is mind boggling, so it is understandable that lesser-known Verduzzo Friulano might get a bit lost in the shuffle. It also seems to suffer from an identity crisis, which doesn’t help its cause. This oddball grape is one of the few whites that is tannic. It’s essentially a white that acts like a red.
To make matters even more confusing, there are two sub-varieties of Verduzzo Friulano: Verduzzo Giallo and Verduzzo Verde. Pierpaolo Rapuzzi of the Ronchi di Cialla estate helps untangle the web. He explains that Verduzzo Friulano is a very old grape. The first historical mention was in June of 1409 when it was served to Pope Gregory XII on his visit to the picturesque medieval town of Cividale. “In Friuli, the Verduzzo Friulano Giallo was always cultivated exclusively on the hills for a sweet wine,” says Rapuzzi. Verduzzo Verde grows on the flatlands and is used to make a dry wine, a tradition that comes from the neighbouring region of the Veneto.
Rapuzzi’s father, Paolo, bought the Ronchi di Cialla property in the 1960s. The area had largely been abandoned after the Second World War so he started reading old books describing the wine-growing culture of the past. He also listened to the old-timers. “They could still recall that back in the 1800s, when our house was an osteria, patrons drank a sweet, late-harvest Verduzzo, which was famous throughout the area,” recounts Rapuzzi.
This is how Ronchi di Cialla crafts their Verduzzo today. They wait until at least the end of October when the grapes are brown before they pick. Verduzzo’s thick skin is fairly resistant to botrytis but there is usually a small amount, with the percentage varying according to the vintage. The Rapuzzis treated me to a vertical of their Verduzzo going back to 1983. The wines are only moderately sweet but express intriguing and penetrating notes like tea, orange, apricot and marzipan. They have a through line of sweet almond and all are delicious with blue cheese.
North of Cialla, the Ramandolo zone is particularly renowned for its sweet Verduzzo. For a long time, it was recognized as a subzone of Colli Orientali but was granted its own DOCG in 2001. The steep, south-facing slopes create a suntrap in an otherwise cool area. Here, the Verduzzo grapes are often air-dried in addition to being harvested late. This process concentrates the sugars even further, making for the most luscious expression of dried tropical fruit, intense caramel and honeyed nuances.
The art of making a sweet wine is finding a balance for all that sugar. Vibrant, racy acidity is typically its counterpart. But Verduzzo is a low-acid grape. So, instead, it is the variety’s intrinsic tannin that gives a slight bitterness or astringency to offset the sweetness. I consider it a dessert wine that will appeal to ardent tea drinkers.
Needless to say, this tannic sweet white is somewhat unusual. Like the high-alcohol, flor-aged Vernaccia di Oristano, it does not cater to the conventional wine palate. However, both Verduzzo and Vernaccia di Oristano will appeal to enthusiasts who delight in venturing off the beaten track. It is difficult to find either of these gems outside of their immediate production areas. They are worth trekking to Italy and make unique souvenirs. Above all, it is a privilege to meet the tenacious producers who act as guardians of tradition and custodians of the past.
Contini 1970, Vernaccia di Oristano DOC
The Continis scrambled to find a bottle from my notoriously abysmal birth year. In lieu, they found one that was even older (and probably much better). At well over 4 decades, it has mellowed but is still going strong. Savoury with dried peach blossom, almond skin, delicate soy notes and an endless finish.
Silvio Carta 2003, Vernaccia di Oristano DOC Riserva
Aged for 13 years in small chestnut barrels, this dry Vernaccia sits at 18% even though it has not been fortified. Salted toffee, roasted almonds, hints of nectarine but ultimately tangy and briny. The pleasantly austere finish begs for food. An explosive match with bottarga.
Contini Antico Gregori NV, Vernaccia di Oristano DOC
A blend of Contini’s Vernaccia Flor coming from the best vintages of the last 40 years. Incredibly complex, deep and dry with toasted hazelnut, dried orange peel, ground almonds and fragrant, sun-baked Mediterranean herbs.
Borgo del Tiglio 1995, Verduzzo, Venezia Giulia IGT
A rare treat from one of Friuli’s most highly regarded producers enjoyed at the region’s must-visit La Subida restaurant. Notes of orange crème brûlée married with scented herb flower. Medium weight and moderately sweet, it was light on its feet and seamless with ricotta in phyllo pastry and tarragon sorbet.
Ronchi di Cialla 1994, Verduzzo di Cialla, Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC
Wow! Gorgeous aromas of orange pekoe tea, apricot, vanilla and Christmas cake lead to flavours of marzipan and tangerine on the palate. Slightly tannic edge adds appeal with just the right amount of residual sugar to keep everything in balance. Finishes long and concentrated.