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Magic Mediterranean - Vermentino

The Italian varietal Vermentino is winning fans for its wonderfully refreshing characters and textural mouthfeel making it the drink for this summer.

You heard it here first – Vermentino is the new white! There are fewer wines around that are as sexy to say, taste as good, and are perfect paired with a spread of fresh seafood on a summer’s afternoon. In fact, drinking a glass of Vermentino is like going on a Mediterranean holiday.

Indeed, Vermentino hails from the type of places where warm sun and cool sea breezes, cellar doors and summer afternoons are in abundance. Just off the coasts of Italy and France are the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, which lie (almost) in the middle of the Mediterranean, split between the Balearic and Tyrrhenian Seas. Here you’ll find a melting pot of different soils (limestone, granite, sandstone and clay) and climates (maritime and continental) mixed together to provide the perfect growing conditions for this unique grape variety.

Aussie Vermentino

Just like its home in the Med, here in Australia, Vermentino seems especially at home near the coast, in regions like McLaren Vale, Margaret River, even the Hunter Valley. Yet, this grape variety is also finding favour, and flavour, in other places a little further from the shore, such as King Valley, the Barossa, and the Riverland wine region around Mildura.

Inland wine growers, Chalmers, have been pioneering alternative varietals for over 15 years. The family first planted Vermentino back in 2000, and were one of the first wineries in Australia to make wine from the variety. 

“Vermentino was one of our first flagship wines,” says Kim Chalmers. “It’s a variety that loves warm summers and sunshine, which is perfect for our Australian conditions. Its big bunches and juicy berries make it quite resistant to long heat waves. We’ve had a lot of success growing Vermentino at our vineyards in both Heathcote and Mildura.”

- Kim Chalmers, Chalmers Wines, Riverland

That is the great thing we’ve discovered about this (and other) Italian varietals recently trialled across the many wine regions of Australia - their adaptability. If you speak to a European producer of Vermentino, they’ll probably tell you that the grapes must be grown in close proximity to the sea, so that they can possess and express their inherently unique and refreshing sea-spray aroma and flavour.

“Our experience growing Vermentino would suggest otherwise,” counters Kim. “We’ve only ever grown the variety very inland, and yet we still get that delicious sea-salt, briny character in all of our wines made from the variety. I think the closeness to the ocean rumour might be an old wives tale.”

Key characters

The unique textural and sensual characteristics of Vermentino are what make this variety such a delicious alternative to your typical tipple of, say, Sauvignon Blanc, or Pinot Gris.

The dominant aromas and flavours expressed by the grape include juicy lemons and limes, fleshy grapefruit, crunchy green apples and crushed almonds. Sometimes, you may notice the briny scent of ocean-spray drifting over fresh jasmine. At other times, you might smell a hint of beeswax and musk, or taste fresh tropical fruits, crispy pear, with a touch of salt.

This all depends, of course, on where the grapes are grown, when they’re picked, and what the winemaker’s intent is when making Vermentino into wine. If the grapes are picked early you will, typically, note freshness and citrus, with bright, crunchy acids. If the grapes are allowed to ripen and are picked a bit later, you get a fleshier, juicier, more tropical style of wine.

“The thing about Vermentino is it’s a very late picked varietal, for example, in the Hunter they pick it after Shiraz,” says winemaker David Hook, who has been specialising in Italian varietals for 30 years. “Some go for that lighter, crunchier style, which is picked earlier and is great for everyday drinking. But in Orange, where I source my Vermentino, I like to wait as long as I can to pick it as it gives a bigger, richer style that really highlights the varietal characters and the texture is ramped up.”

Phil Ryan, co-Chairman of the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel, echoes David’s preference for the fuller, riper style of Vermentino, saying that it offers so much more for the drinker.

“The riper style of Vermentino offers far more complexity and intrigue to the wine,” says Phil. “It also allows those delicious stonefruit characteristics to come to the fore and plays to one of its major appeals, which is its texture.”

Vermentino’s textual qualities (the way the wine feels in the mouth when you drink it) also boosts its food matching ability and is one of the reasons why this varietal stands out from the rest of the wine crowd.

Vermentino always goes down well by the glass, here. We’ll often get people sitting at the bar snacking on a bowl of salty, crispy white bait. Personally, I love it matched to a plate of grilled blue mackerel with fresh tomato, olives and chilli.

- Stuart Knox, , Owner and sommelier of Fix St James, in Sydney.

For renowned Vermentino producer Joe Grilli from Primo Estate in McLaren Vale, the big attraction of Vermentino is the combination of freshness and texture.

“Our Vermentino has aromas of fresh melon fruits, then some intriguing almond notes, followed by the slightest touch of citrus to finish,” says Joe. “What makes Vermentino so delicious is when all these facets are wrapped up in a lighter bodied wine with still enough texture to really satisfy the tastebuds.”

In fashion

There is no doubt Vermentino is one of the hottest whites around. Its increasing popularity in wines bars and restaurants around the country is reflected in its growing success at wine shows, particularly the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show, held each year in Mildura. Organiser, Kim Chalmers says that Vermentino is one of the most popular wines of the show.

“It’s massive,” says Kim. “We’ve had a Vermentino class since 2008 and for a number of years only a handful of wineries entered wines into that class. Within five years, the numbers have boomed. Last year there were 93 entries, and now the class has split into two separate classes: one for the lighter and fresher styles, and one for the more fuller bodied, richer styles.”

There’s even a third style to be found in Australia, these days. It’s said that the name Vermentino derives from the Italian word, ‘fermento’, which relates to the fizzy characters of the young wine and this might have inspired Fowles Wine, from the Strathbogie Ranges, to make a fun, sparkling style of Vermentino.

“I’m a huge fan of the tangy lemon and light florals of Vermentino and thought it might be fun to see those characters sparkle,” says Matt Fowles. “We make our sparkling Vermentino in a Prosecco style, and, I must say, I’ve been surprised just how well it’s been received!”

The tasting

For this tasting, over 50 Vermentinos were submitted to the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel. For a wine considered to still be an ‘emerging’ varietal, the pass rate was impressively high with around 75% scoring a medal. The top 20 wines were hotly contested and, as expected, the spread of regions was vast with multiple entries from the Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale and Barossa, as well as Riverland, which doesn’t often get much kudos in wine shows, but is proving to be a real contender with Italian varietals.

The styles were varied, which is to be expected, given all the variables, but the underlying characters remained true – delicious stonefruit flavours balanced with freshness and texture with subtle sea salt notes and energetic acidity. You just have to find the particular nuances that appeal to you.

Yep, Vermentino is here. Whether enjoying a warm afternoon with a sumptuous spread of seafood or sitting in a cosy bar planning a potential Mediterranean sojourn, pairing your activity with a glass of your favourite Vermentino seems like the perfect thing to do.

The Standout Vermentino from the Tasting

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