Mediterranean coastlines, glamorous lifestyles, booming tourism, medieval hilltop villages – Provence and Tuscany are surprisingly similar. Although dominated by rosés and reds respectively, both regions share a burgeoning interest in their white wines. Although still representing less than 10% of overall volumes, white wine has, for the first time, overtaken red wine production in Provence, and Francesco Mazzei, president of DOC Maremma feels that Maremma Vermentino is the wine to look out for.
Vermentino is a white grape, found along the Mediterranean coastline between the Catalonian border in the west, Tuscany in the east, and Corsica-Sardinia in the south. Its heartland lies in the Tyrrhenian Sea, in the triangle formed between Sardinia (4,500ha), Liguria (500ha) and, in recent years, a rapid growth in plantings of Vermentino in Maremma, coastal Tuscany, to nearly 1,000ha. It has spread rapidly in the last 30 years, taking over much of southern France – although its heartland remains Provence, and it is still somewhat of a novelty in the Languedoc.
When I first started working with the wines of Provence in the 1980s, I noted that Rolle was a variety typical of the tiny Niçois appellation of Bellet. According to the Plantgrape website the amount of Rolle planted in France had gone from 2,000ha in 1958 to a low of 833ha in 1988, soaring to over 6,000ha in 2018, of which around 1,000ha are in Corsica.
The grape has many names, some of them only used very locally. Vermentino in Tuscany and Liguria where it is also called Pigato (potentially a clonal variation). Vermentino becomes Vermentinu in Corsica and Rolle in the south of France – but its name is contentious. A 2008 EU rule, fully implemented in 2018, does not allow for part of an appellation’s name to be used on packaging for a wine that is not from that appellation. Since there exist two Italian denominazione containing the name (Vermentino di Gallura DOCG and Vermentino di Sardegna), no other wine outside of Italy is allowed the word Vermentino on its packaging or any associated paperwork, for fear the consumer would be confused and assume it to be from one of these two denominazione. Unenforced until 2022, the inability to call a Vermentino a Vermentino has naturally proven extremely unpopular in France – especially as few French varieties or AOPs with similarly linked names make use of this restriction.
With different styles apparent between Vermentino, Pigato and Rolle, questions were raised as to whether these three were the same variety or just relatives and it was not until the early 2000s that it was determined that they were indeed the same variety. Clonal differences, terroir (especially whether schist or limestone), altitude and orientation and winemaking make significant differences. The CRVI (Centre de Recherche Viticole de Corse) has carried out extensive studies on the variety noting that proximity to the sea is a major factor. Original clonal selection was based on varieties grown on either granitic/schistous soils or limestone soils. In Italy, local (Ligurian and Maremma) and Sardinian clones are used, with only a few producers using Corsican clones. The clones used in France are, largely, Corsican clones, with both aromatic and non aromatic versions being sold.
While Vermentino is used for many styles including sparkling, passito, late harvest and dry wines in Italy, it is largely reserved for dry wines in France. Of these dry wines, two clear styles are present in both France and Italy: a rich, full-bodied wine and a light fresh style.
With Rolle by far the most commonly planted white variety in Provence, it is appreciated as one winemaker commented, for being “productive while maintaining its quality.” The prevailing style being one of often neutral, crisp, elegant freshness that is rather more reminiscent of Ugni Blanc’s neutrality – comparable in style to some Pinot Grigio – and indeed it is often used to contribute freshness to blends. This is primarily the result of early harvesting (possibly due to climate change), assisted by high yields and overly technical winemaking inherited from the area’s rosés. One winemaker – one of the very first to have planted Rolle east of the Var River, speaking anonymously – attributed the decline in quality – “a perversion” – to excessively reductive winemaking and overly zealous acidification. Winemakers who resist the urge to harvest in August stand out. One winemaker did tell me that he felt Rolle’s descent into less-than-stellar wines was due to all the good grapes going into the rosés to help keep them pale. Representing under 5% of plantings, but allowed up to 50% in Côtes de Provence rosés, this is a credible possibility. A similar pattern of increasingly fresh easy drinking Vermentino can be seen in Italy.
I must admit, however, that I am rather partial to the old school style of concentrated, honeyed and waxy Rolles that I recall of the 1990s and early 2000s and have been recently delighted to see a new wave of winemaking springing up, embracing riper fruit, indigenous yeast, longer lees ageing and skin contact, amphora, eggs and sometimes oak, the latter seeming to be more common in Provence. Coming in at 13.5% abv, often harvested with greater ripeness, these wines are more age-worthy, more food-friendly, and dispel the myth that Vermentino can only be a fresh-and-fruity summer wine. There is also a strong argument for allowing the more complex Vermentino/Rolle time to age when beeswax and then kerosene aromas start to emerge, especially in those from hotter sites. Many of the wines, especially more premium wines in Provence contain a percentage of Sémillon, Ugni Blanc, or Clairette while in both Provence and Tuscany a few have an added touch of Viognier.
From being an unknown local variety 40 years ago, to proving it can be a major player on the international stage, we need to recognize that this variety is more than just a fresh white alternative to local summer rosés and some surprising stars are ready to emerge from areas better known for their pinks and reds.
Domaine Nais Symphonie de Nais 2021, Coteaux d’Aix
Old vine fruit fermented and aged in barrique for one year.Candied lemon, hints of spice, ginger, melon, subtly creamy and vanilla oak aromas. On the palate wild fennel, honey, white blossom, bruised orchard fruits, creamy ripeness developing roasted nuts and a hint of peppery phenolics on the finish. Balanced, restrained and elegant with vibrant acidity and a long mineral salinity. Still very youthful and waiting to reveal mature flavours.
Chateau la Mascaronne 2021, Côtes de Provence
Green apples and almonds on the nose. On the palate weight and complexity creating a serious wine. Rich, ripe intense fruit with creamy ripe melon, pineapple, sweet ripe sherbet lemons, juicy dessert oranges, juicy nashi pears, lacy white floral notes, honey and beeswax and bruised apples. The acidity is crisp and vibrant with crunchy green apples, long salty lime edginess, flinty minerality, leading to a phenolic finish with wild fennel, garrigue and a hint of salty sweet liquorice.
Château de Berne Grande Cuvée 2021, Côtes de Provence
Ten months in oak. Aromas of fresh green fennel fronds continues on the palate with notes of fennel and garrigue counter-balancing the concentrated creamy, almost waxy, ripe peach and bruised pears fruit. Mouthwatering freshness of green apples and scented nashi pears with salted lemon acidity. Phenolic almonds and walnuts and a gritty textural finish from extended lees ageing in oak. Ripe concentration balancing mouthwatering freshness.
Château Montaud Unexpected 2021, Côtes de Provence (Pierrefeu)
Floral leafy, grassy, garrigue aromas which continue on to the palate with a vibrant acidity, lots of fresh zesty gooseberries and white flowers. Classic Rolle combinations of creamy lemon, white pepper, beeswax, honeysuckle and salted lemons are complimented by perfumed peche de vigne with almost Viogner-like aromatics.
Domaine Angueiroun 2021, Cotes de Provence (La Londe)
Fermented in barrel. The intensely ripe white peaches, tangerines, nectarines, pears, spice and bruised white fruit has a weighty ripeness. Rich spicy notes and sweet creaminess comes from hot coastal vineyards. The fruit is balanced by a crunchy acidity and saline finish. The schistous soils seem to contribute to some restraint.
Domaine de Saint Ser Cuvée Prestige 2020, Côtes de Provence (Ste Victoire)
High altitude (over 300m) on limestone and aged in stoneware jars. Almonds, blossom and lemon confit aromas. On the palate aromatic and perfumed lemons, sweet peaches and blossom with a hint of creamy beeswax coming through on the finish and fresh, citrus acidity. The fruit is sweet and almost overripe leading to a phenolic finish.
Domaine Grand Boise 1610 2019, Côtes de Provence (Ste Victoire)
Fermented and aged in amphoras, egg and demi-muids. Single parcel north facing clay site at 500m. Fresh herbal aromas with lovely elderflower and leafy notes. On the palate the pear and melon fruit is round, with honeyed richness, and sweet, gentle oak. Cool, mineral notes with hints of pomelo, grapefruit pith and tropical fruit zestiness. Pretty elegance and deceptively gentle up front with long vibrant white lemon acidity. Finishing with a creamy nuttiness.
Domaine Yssole Signore 2021, IGP Var
Rolle with 5% Ugni Blanc. Fermentation finished in oak. Fresh, slightly herbal aromas. On the palate, clean, fresh, herbal and pretty floral notes with zippy green leafy and vibrant bitter-lemon acidity. The fruit is very ripe leading to an impression almost of residual sugar with plenty of ripe charm and perfumed Sorrento lemons and Seville oranges with the mineral freshness and sharp, pithy austerity of modern Rolle.
Tenuta Belguardo (Mazzei) Codice V 2020, DOC Maremma Toscana
From hillside vineyards with a view of the sea, these very ripe grapes are pushed to their limits with 20% staying 9 months on the skins in amphora, 30% on skins in tank for 9 months and 50% undergoing classic fermentation. The result is stunning. A dark lemon gold with restrained aromas of honey, nuts and white florals. On the palate and almost Chardonnay-like richness with almond creaminess, nuttiness and subtle beeswax, the lees weight balancing the lime and salt freshness leading to a long precise length. As the wine opens up, pretty jasmine florals and soft ripe elegance emerge. Combines elegance with confidence – loving the power, the energy and vibrancy are really quite scrumptious. What more can Rolle do to inspire people?
Fattoria il Casalone Leopoldino 2021, DOC Maremma Toscana
Extended lees ageing contributes concentration and depth to this wine. Starting with almost imperceptible notes of herbs and fresh pepper on the nose, this wine opens up to waxy white blossom, creamy ripe white fruit, fragrant pears, herbal notes with powerful intensity veiled by delicate but mouthwatering acidity. Ripe concentration and long linear elegance.
La Biagiola Coccio Pesto 2019, DOC Maremma Toscana
Fermented in amphora. Fresh almonds and star anise aromas. On the palate concentrated, intensely ripe, soft and silky white peach, apple and pears cut through with precision by powerful acidity, chalky minerality and a long saline finish. The amphora is clearly playing a major part structurally, keeping the wine closed, firm, textural – and not quite letting it breathe enough. It feels very closed, tight, youthful.
Poggio Al Tesoro Pagus Camilla 2018, DOC Bolgheri
Corsican clones. Fermentation starts on the skins. Saline, waxy, kerosene, and beautiful white lime (tilleul) blossom aromas. The fruit is vibrantly youthful, despite age, with stunning acidity. The fruit is soft and rich with floral opulence and ripe white fruit. Silky, grippy chalkiness and saline finish, the aged notes disappearing behind the fruit as the wine opens up.
Cupirosso Audace 2021, DOC Maremma Toscana
Waxy, perfumed lemons on the nose with hints of yeasty lees ageing. Soft floral Sorrento lemon fruit, fresh oranges, pretty cherry blossom (and a touch of rosewater) with the extra complexity of almonds, marzipan, apple and pear compote, possibly from the slightly extended skin contact. Long fresh white lemon acidity, delicate and beautifully balanced by the ripeness, intensity and concentration on the palate.
Vignaioli del Morellino di Scansano Vigna Fiorina 2021, DOC Maremma Toscana
Ripe honeyed apple aromas with hints of beeswax and fennel and beginning to take on whispers of kerosene. On the palate, an explosion of ripe apples, jasmine and summer flowers and while the alcohol is certainly present, providing richness and generosity, it is carried by the perfumed lemon acidity. Soft and honeyed, charming, floral, and powered up by long mouthwatering Sorrento lemon acidity. Pretty salinity on the finish with perfumed acidity. Has a joie-de-vivre and earnestness to it.
Podere San Cristoforo Luminose 2022, DOC Maremma Toscana
Biodynamic, old vine fruit with 7 months on the lees. Sweet almond, beeswax, red-skinned apples and white lemon aromas. On the palate, full-bodied creamy richness with concentrated, weighty ripe fruit, white apples, peaches, scented Nashi pears, hints of greengages. Pithy apple textural acidity, and a twist of salted lemons on the finish. This wine has an intensity that goes beyond aromatic fruitiness. Still very youthful.
Terenzi Balbino 2022, DOC Maremma Toscana
Muted white waxy flowers, bruised apples, pears and sweet almonds. Fresh and more floral than many of the others with round ripe fruit and chalky acidity. Slightly restrained on the nose, with only moderate orchard fruit character. Despite this restraint, the palate is absolutely bursting with ripeness – the acidity is crunchy, fruity, balanced, the alcohol is ripe, round, well-integrated. Plenty of green apples, gooseberries, combining freshness with ripeness. Intense and concentrated.
Elizabeth Gabay MW grew up a Londoner but always travelled around Europe with her family. After back-packing around the world, Elizabeth returned to London where, by accident she fell into the wine trade when her parents bought a holiday cottage in Provence. Elizabeth passed the Master of Wine exam in 1998, and, in 2002, moved to a village an hour north of Nice. Her thirty years of working in Provence led in 2018 to her first book Rosé, Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution. With her son Ben Bernheim, they have put together an on-line Buyers Guide to the Rosés of Southern France, published in 2021. A new guide on the Rosés of Southern France, focusing on regional differences and old vintages was published in 2022. Elizabeth recently released a natural rosé called Sen (Dream) made with Slovakian producer Vladimir Magula.
Feature Photo Credit: Cantine Lunae