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Vermentino, summer in a bottle

Fosdinovo and the Malaspina castle looking down on Portovenere and the Gulf of La Spezia. Photo by Giorgio Freschi.

Part 1: Pascale Francesca, Colli di Luni

It's Sunday lunchtime on one of those summer days in Italy when it's already a little too warm to be comfortable. You're seated under an umbrella at an outdoor table just feet from the tranquil Mediterranean, you're relaxed and cooled by a gentle sea breeze and you've just ordered something simple but classic like linguine alle vongole followed by grilled branzino. The waiter reappears with your chilled bottle of Vermentino, something good from Gallura or Colli di Luni, and it sparkles in the sun as he pours it into your glass.

That exact moment, as you raise the glass to your lips in pleasant anticipation of the wine, the food and the familiar ritual of a two hour lunch, is my idea of summer. I want to freeze that sensation, bottle it and re-open it on every cold rainy day in the winter. Every visitor to Italy should have at least one of these memories that they can summon up to remind themselves why they need to return. Writing this in February I am thinking of the restaurant La Lucciola in the lovely seaside town of Castiglioncello, just south of Livorno, but there are others that come to mind just as easily.

Vermentino is an indispensable part of summer in Italy and not just at lunchtime. Much as I love a Negroni, a chilled glass of Vermentino is also perfect as an aperitivo after a long hot day. Vermentino and summer just seem to fit naturally together. But as with everything else, Vermentino is not universally good and this probably applies even more to the export market because it will always be the big conglomerates who have the necessary clout for the limited shelf space in overseas retailers, and many of their wines lack character.

There are only three areas in Italy where high quality Vermentino is produced. Sardinia, especially the Gallura area in the north-east of the island, is the most notable perhaps. Followed by just about the entire coastline of Liguria and also the Tuscan coastline, both where it meets Liguria in the north west (photos below from Fosdinovo) and further south in the Maremma from Bolgheri all the way down to the southern Tuscany border with Lazio.

The Vermentino grape thrives near the sea. It is unaffected by the salt in the air and the coastal breezes and cooler summer nights help to refresh the vines while the constantly circulating air inhibits fungal diseases.

You will often read broad generalizations about Vermentino in an attempt to explain flavor differences between the main regions, but to take just one small area, the Colli di Luni DOC as an example, whether your vineyard is on the lower land around the sandy alluvial soils of the Magra river (below left) or just a few miles away in the foothills of the Apuan Alps (below right at the Pascale Francesca vineyard), where the sub strata is limestone and shale, is probably the key variable that will determine how the Vermentino tastes, so generalizations about whole regions should be treated as a very rough guide at best.

The other major white wine variables, that are common to most white wines around the world but are more important for a delicate fruity grape like Vermentino, are whether a producer uses wood for aging the wine and whether the wine undergoes malolactic conversion, which simply means a spontaneous or induced bacterial method of converting the harsher malic acids (ie. like a granny smith apple) in a white wine into softer lactic acid (ie. milky). (Note: it's more usually called malolactic fermentation but I prefer the term conversion because this bacterial process normally occurs after the actual fermentation of the wine and can be avoided by simply keeping the temperature low).

If, like us, you want your white wines to stay crisp and refreshing rather than softer and more buttery, these are the questions to ask about a wine, but unfortunately this information is rarely available on the label and often not even disclosed on the producer's web site, so sometimes you just have to taste the wine.

On one of our trips to nearby Carrara and Pietrasanta we paid a visit to a winery called Pascale Francesca, technically in Tuscany but surrounded on three sides by Liguria. It's in the Colli di Luni DOC zone which is centered around the port of La Spezia and is a narrow coastal strip about seven miles wide between the sea and the Apuan Alps encompassing parts of Tuscany as well as Liguria. Colli di Luni is one of the very few DOC zones that straddles regional boundaries.

Pascale Francesca is situated at 850 feet in the foothills, on the road from the town of Sarzana to the small village of Fosdinovo which dead ends into the mountains. It's run by Gerardo Pascale but the winery is named after his daughter Francesca who was the one that pushed him to develop his land into a vineyard 15 years ago. It was a brilliant idea because their acreage is in a perfect spot.

This part of the Colli di Luni is quite close to the marble quarries so below the dark clay and sandstone topsoils, the subsoil geology is ideal for white wines. (I should add here that the winery name probably isn't the best choice because when you search on the internet for his website the first result shown is always that of one of Berlusconi's ex-girlfriends by a similar name, though having said that some of you might find her more interesting than this article).

We immediately liked Gerardo. He is originally from Calabria and a doctor by profession, now a full time winemaker, and he is energetic and enthusiastic. Perhaps because of his medical background he is also very meticulous and right at the start he sought out the best advice, which he found almost next door in fact, because a few hundred yards up the road with the exact same terrain is the winery Terenzuola, one of the most respected Colli di Luni Vermentino producers.

Pascale Francesca Colli di Luni Vermentino and Vermentino Nero wine bottles

Gerardo is not one of those people who has to reinvent the wheel so not only did he plant exactly the same grapes as Terenzuola but he also shares their oenologist Claudio Felisso. He decided to go completely organic at the start and has joined a growing trend among winemakers to use inert concrete tanks for aging his wines. They have one advantage over stainless steel in that the concrete is slightly porous and traps tiny air bubbles allowing the wines to breathe a little. Concrete has the advantage of oak's breathability without the downside of exposure to wood and at the same time it has the advantage of stainless steel's inertness.

All of these things, the vineyard location, the soil and sedimentary stones, the hand harvesting of the grapes, the fermentation and aging vessels, the avoidance of malolactic conversion and the completely organic practices throughout, contribute to the final taste of his wines and all of them play their part.

You will notice from the photograph above that although this article is predominantly about white Vermentino, two of Gerardo's wines are in fact red. One is from the red Vermentino grape that we had barely heard of before and never actually tried, and the second one is an interesting blend of Merlot and Canaiolo. They are both included in the tasting notes below.

Tasting Notes:

I Pilastri 2019 - Vermentino Colli di Luni DOC

(fermented and aged in concrete with 5 months on its lees, 13.5% alcohol)

Very pale straw yellow with bright green reflections in the glass. Fresh flowers and wet stones on the nose. Surprisingly full wine with mouth coating, quite firm flavors balanced by nice acidity and freshness and notes of apple, pear and white flowers. Plenty of mineral characteristics and a lingering finish. This is really very good Vermentino and ticks all the boxes of what we look for in this varietal. Enough flavor here to accompany food. We think that Gerardo is right that this will continue to develop for a couple of years. Good value at 12 euros at the winery and 14 euros buying online (10,000 bottles produced)

I Pilastri 2019 - Vermentino Nero Colli di Luni DOC

(fermented and aged in concrete with only 5 days contact with the skins, 13% alcohol)

This is a rare grape varietal in Italy, indigenous only to this particular area and its full potential is yet to be discovered. Gerardo's goal here in limiting contact with the skins during maceration is to reduce the tannins and make a lighter wine.

We can't survive on just white wines through a long hot Italian summer and there aren't many red wines that are sufficiently light that can be enjoyed at cellar temperature but that have sufficient personality to make them interesting. This wine certainly does. This is immediately appealing with a fruity nose and light color. It has lots of cherry flavors, soft tannins and low acidity and if it's possible to call a red wine refreshing then this wine would merit that description. Much more substantial than a rosato (though this grape has also been used for rosato wines I understand) and fills a gap in our cellar like a Cabernet Franc from the Loire did in years past.

At 15 euros it's fully priced I would say (3,000 bottles produced)

Rosso Rodopilo 2018 - IGT

(fermented and aged in concrete with 20 days contact with the skins, 13% alcohol)

A nice blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Canaiolo. Canaiolo is one of the important but underrated blending grapes in a Chianti Classico and also good by itself but extremely hard to find in purezza. Terenzuola just up the road has had success with this grape and Gerardo has also done a good job here blending it with Merlot. This is a soft fruity wine with lovely jammy flavors and enough acidity to give it structure and balance.

Decent value at 14 euros (1,000 bottles produced)


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