By Frank Cipparone
Mid-August in Italy is the time for ferragosto, a national holiday and Catholic observance of the Assumption of Mary into heaven that correlates to the ancient Roman Festival of Augustus. For Italians it’s a chance to load up the Fiat, escape sweltering temperatures, and head for la dolce vita at the beach or in the mountains.
So, what will every Tommaso, Ricardo and Enrico and their ladies be drinking in summertime when the living is easy? Beer, for sure, from the new wave of breweries that have elevated the country’s reputation for well crafted malt beverages. Negronis and Aperol spritzes after hours in the sun. And even though consumption is down in general, wine at beachfront cantinas and seafood joints, most of which will be white, their lower alcohol content better suited to warm weather sipping.
Though there are any number of regionally specific choices, three that are widely available stand out. They are Italy’s “Killer V’s” — the trio grand of , names well known to most American consumers. People of a certain age will remember amphora and fi sh-shaped bottles of Verdicchio that contained less-than-thrilling watery, tartly acidic juice. That’s no longer the case. Controlled-temperature stainless steel fermenters have changed it from coarse and mildly oxidative into a wine recognized by producers and experts as among the top four native white varieties. A well-made Verdicchio has distinctive tastes of pine, sour green apples, pears and lime. What sets it apart is the trademark almond skin bitterness that comes at the finish. Even its winemakers don’t know where that comes from, but you can’t drink Verdicchio without noticing it.
Two zones in Marche bear that fingerprint of almonds and showcase the effects of natural conditions on style. Those from Jesi, close to the Adriatic, are medium- bodied and have a sharper feel, with clearly defined flavors. At cooler, higher altitudes in the foothills of the Apennines, the vines of Matelica mature more slowly. There, a later harvest yields Verdicchio that has more acidity, firmness, and a compact core of fruit flavors. Either one is made for fish crudo dabbed with olive oil, crisply fried calamari… or sitting and watching the waves go by.
Vernaccia has been planted for over 700 years around the Tuscan town of San Gimignano. Like many Italian grapes, it was overproduced, leading to an unfortunate abundance of low-quality wine. It has improved greatly over the last decade. In the wine shops of the medieval town center, and here in the states, you can find dozens of zesty examples that belie the grape’s so-so reputation.
Vernaccia makes no attempt to overwhelm, to have you fumbling for descriptive words. Everything about it is a whisper of pleasantly neutral aromas and flavors. Riservas that have been aged in oak tend to be fuller, but still subdued. Winemakers who give it too much time in the barrel do Vernaccia no favors. Examples of those overdone versions are, thankfully, the exception.
Vermentino is grown in eight regions, but shows its best in warm, dry coastal areas cooled by salty ocean winds. For that reason, the perfect spot for cultivation is the northern coast of Sardinia, where air off the sea isn’t as humid as the southern part of the island. Inland from the Costa Smeralda, Vermentino picks up scents of wild Mediterranean macchia, especially sage, fennel, rosemary and thyme. Combine them with flavors of tropical melons and citrus that lead to a finish of lemon and sea salt and you have a wine made for grilled fi sh, frutti di mare, grilled veggies, pasta dishes that call for pesto, or seafood baked in aromatic herbs.
All Vermentinos have similar primary characteristics. Those from Liguria are lighter and more floral, but have a strong, almost briny saltiness. In the Colli di Luna that spans the border of Liguria and Tuscany they have a fuller, grainy texture of peaches and green melons.