The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
Those white grapes near the end of the alphabet – verdejo, verdicchio, vernaccia, viognier – they'll never win the popularity game against chardonnay. But "v" seems to be having a voguish run thanks to silky, exotically perfumed viognier and refreshing verdejo. Here's another to put on your radar if it's not already there: vermentino. It's not easy to remember, I admit, but tweak the first few letters and you've got "Valentino," as in the 1920s silent-film star. That's how I think of the grape: a quietly sexy Italian.
Usually vinified in steel tanks rather than oak barrels, vermentino is fresh and crisp rather than buttery or vanilla-sweet like so many chardonnays. It's also not as loud or as punchy as grassy sauvignon blanc or obvious and identifiable as sweet-tart riesling. To me, the flavours summon images of fresh citrus fruits, aromatic flowers and, best of all, crushed stones (or that tense, flinty quality frequently described as minerally). Depending on vineyard site and production techniques, it can span the spectrum from lean to sensually oily.
It's a seafood-lover's delight, which is particularly fitting given vermentino's classic stomping ground. Indigenous to Italy, the centuries-old variety might more accurately be described as Tyrrhenian, as in the sea. It thrives especially well under the Mediterranean's breezy ocean influence on the left side of Italy's boot. That's where you'll find Bolgheri, the trophy
Despite its nationality, vermentino now occupies more vineyard area in southern France than in its motherland, often going by the French name rolle. It plays into multigrape white blends in Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon on the mainland and is the undisputed white star of Corsica, the French island just north of Sardinia. Confusingly, it goes by many other names in Europe, including garbesso, malvoisie de corse, pigato, var and verlantin.
I think its most colourful synonym is favorita, Italian for "favourite," the moniker bestowed upon it in Piedmont, the inland region north of Liguria. Inspiration for that name? Vermentino, unlike most other wine grapes, is prized not only for its juice but for its munchable flavour, becoming a "favourite" on Piedmontese tables.
Selections of vermentino wines are still sadly slim in even the largest stores, popping up here and there as supplies trickle in. Among names worth seeking: Argiolas (which makes an excellent Sardinian vermentino called Costamolino, recently listed at $17.99 in British Columbia) and Lunae in Liguria, which makes a premium black label, or "etichetta nera" that sells for $23.49 in B.C. The famous Antinori family of Tuscany now produces a high-profile vermentino as part of its Guado al Tasso brand on the Bolgheri coast ($21.40 in Quebec).
And the variety has spread in a small way to the New World, including most notably Australia and the United States. Tablas Creek has championed the grape in Paso Robles, Calif., for example, as has Barboursville Vineyards in, of all places, Virginia, an estate founded in the 1970s by Gianni Zonin, heir to a long-established wine company in northern Italy. Zonin's American winemaker, Luca Paschina, grew up in Piedmont, Italy, and is now tasting the sweet fruits of his labours in a Virginia region called, yes, Piedmont.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.