If you are a wine lover in search of one of the most memorable wine experiences of your life, then look no further than Vernaccia di Oristano. One of Italy’s masterful yet widely unsung wines, Vernaccia di Oristano is reminiscent of sherry yet offers so much more. This is a wine steeped in Sardinian history that requires a worthwhile patience in production. Vernaccia di Oristano is delicious anytime, anywhere. When paired properly, this wine can shine alongside dinner as well as dessert. Foregoing the pairings all together, this is undoubtedly a wine to meditate over when savored on its own.
The History of Vernaccia di Oristano
Vernaccia di Oristano is a magnificent variety likely brought to Sardinia by the Phoenicians in ancient times. The name is derived from the Latin words vernum, meaning “spring” or “rebirth,”and vernacula, meaning “indigenous” or “of the place.” As such, this name refers to the presence of indigenous Vernaccias throughout Italy and the specific transformative aging process of this grape in Sardinia. However, from an ampelographic perspective, these other “Vernaccias” have little in common with our Sardinian example in Oristano. Vernaccia di Oristano is especially not to be confused with Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a Tuscan white wine with a fresher flavor profile.
Similarities & Differences with Sherry
If you have been lucky enough to taste Vernaccia di Oristano, the aromas, flavors, and structure may have reminded you of Amontillado sherry. Though in my humble opinion Vernaccia di Oristano is more complex than any sherry I have ever tasted.
Both Vernaccia di Oristano and most sherries, except for Oloroso, are aged under a protective layer of flor yeast. While there are some similarities between the two, there are some important differences. Besides the fact that they are produced from different varieties, the major difference between sherry and Sardinian Vernaccia is that unlike sherry, Vernaccia di Oristano is not usually fortified. While a liquoroso designation exists under the D.O.C. permitting winemakers to fortify the wine with a distilled spirit, Vernaccia di Oristano is not traditionally made this way.
What Makes Vernaccia di Oristano So Extraordinary?
Similar to sherry and another must-try Sardinian nectar called Malvasia di Bosa, Vernaccia di Oristano is produced in an oxidative aging process. This unique process would not be possible without the help of the flor yeast strain of saccharomyces cerevisiae, the common yeast that makes alcoholic fermentation possible. So, what’s up with flor?
Flor has both a fermentative and oxidative metabolism. First, the yeast complete alcoholic fermentation. They consume sugars, converting these sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide while releasing heat. The yeast’s environment (the must), which was once rich in fermentable carbon resources (i.e. sugar) is now rich in ethanol. Due to a modified gene expression signaled by the change in environmental resources, the flor yeast transition to oxidative metabolism in a process called the diauxic shift. Now, they can use oxygen and non-fermentable resources (i.e. ethanol or organic acids) to convert energy.
In need of oxygen for survival, the flor must move to the surface of the wine. Flor yeast strains have a higher unsaturated fatty acid content that increases their buoyancy to make this journey. Furthermore, the expression of the flor’s FLO11 gene has been proven to increase the hydrophobicity of the surface of the yeast cells. This essentially means the cells do not interact with water, which causes them to cluster together. The aggregated cells trap carbon dioxide bubbles present from fermentation and this carbon dioxide provides additional buoyancy for the flor to reach the top of the wine.
Then, the flor colonizes and forms a biofilm on the wine’s surface. Over years of aging, the wine undergoes a gradual oxidation under this protective layer, producing wines with oxidative characteristics, such as nutty, savory, or umami aromas and flavors. Chestnut or oak barrels are traditionally used during the aging process and are filled to about 90 percent capacity, leaving some headspace for oxygen. Vernaccia di Oristano also experiences significant evaporation through the aging process, further concentrating the magnificent aromas and flavors of this wine, while also increasing the alcohol and glycerol levels.
Spiseddadura – Ancient Vernaccia Barrel Tapping in Sardinia
The Sardinians have an ancient, traditional method for tapping Vernaccia barrels so as not to disturb the flor atop the wine called spiseddadura. A small hole is made on the face of the barrel below the top level of wine in which a piece of cane, called su piseddu, is inserted to extract the Vernaccia. Once the piece of cane is removed, a piece of hemp, called sa stupa, is used to plug the hole.
I was lucky enough to visit Famiglia Orro for their 2019 Spiseddadura festival. We were able to tap the barrels in the traditional way and taste a 2007, 2010, and 2019 Vernaccia directly from barrel.
Vernaccia di Oristano D.O.C.
Founded in 1971, Vernaccia di Oristano was the first D.O.C. established in Sardinia. In order for a wine to bear this D.O.C. on the label, the wine must be made from 100% Vernaccia di Oristano grapes and produced within the municipalities of the lower Tirso subregion. Maximum vineyard yields are set at 80 quintals per hectare and there is a 15% minimum alcohol requirement under this D.O.C. Wines are produced in both a sweet and dry style, though I definitely recommend the dry style. The geographic indication requires a two-year minimum aging period in barrels. The Superiore designation requires a minimum alcohol level of 15.5% and a minimum of three years barrel aging, while the Riserva designation goes a step further with a four-year minimum barrel aging requirement.
Vernaccia di Oristano in the Vineyard
In Sardinia, Vernaccia is mainly grown in the province of Oristano along the low flood-lands of Tirso. Here you’ll find sandy, gravelly soils amidst the assortment of streams and the Tirso river near Oristano. Vernaccia is a late-ripening variety loaded with acidity whose vines are traditionally trained in the albarello sardo method (bush-trained). The Vernaccia growing season typically kicks off in the final ten days of March followed by flowering in the middle ten days of May. Veraison arrives in the vineyard sometime during the final days of July to the first days of August. The fruit is typically ready for harvest during the last ten days of September or the first week of October.
Vernaccia di Oristano in the Glass
I first tasted Vernaccia di Oristano on my very first visit to meet my husband’s parents in Sardinia. Though I spoke no Italian at the time and his parents do not speak English, we had no problem bonding over our shared love of food and wine. Towards the end of the night, my husband took me into the family wine cellar. There, he unveiled two tiny barrels of Vernaccia that he made over seven years ago. He explained the unique winemaking process, which you are now familiar with, allowed me to peak at the layer of flor atop the wine, and extracted some Vernaccia for us to taste. Upon that first exquisitely complex sip, I knew this was one of the most fascinating wines I had ever tasted.
A good rule of thumb to remember when seeking out this wine is the older the better. I have tasted Vernaccia di Oristano from the 1968 vintage and I have tasted the most recent 2019 vintage. The rich complexities and depth in aromas and flavors develop over time. A younger version will be a pale yellow color with gold reflections and grow more amber in color with age. Expect a dry wine with medium to high acidity, exceptional structure, and long persistence.
Vernaccia is typically full-bodied due to the high alcohol and glycerol content and ranges from 15 – 19% ABV, with the higher end of the alcohol range coming from especially matured examples. Young Vernaccia will be fresher on the palate with herbaceous and floral notes. Aged examples will exude aromas and flavors of toasted almonds and hazelnuts, truffles, umami, balsamic, and various warm spices.
Vernaccia di Oristano is best enjoyed at cellar temperature or slightly chilled at 50°F/10°C. In Sardinia, Vernaccia is traditionally sipped from a small shot-like glass because of its relatively higher alcohol content. However, enjoying Vernaccia from a wine glass allows you to fully grasp the multifaceted aromas of this stimulating wine.
Silvio Carta is a name synonymous with Vernaccia di Oristano. A legendary Sardinian producer, Silvio began devoting himself to the traditional production of Vernaccia in the 1950s and his family carries on the tradition today. If you are interested in exploring this wine, Silvio Carta is the place to begin.
Silvio Carta, Vernaccia di Oristano D.O.C. Riserva 2006
- Aromas and flavors of toasted chestnuts, honey, amaretto, butter, coffee, dried orange peel, and quince
- Exceptional structure, mouthwatering acidity, and a persistent, delicately sweet finish with a hint of bitter almond
- At 12€ per bottle, this wine is a steal
- Incredible depth, structure, and complexities that persist on the palate long after the wine is tasted
- Aromas and flavors of caramel, figs, dates, toasted hazelnuts, coffee, balsamic, truffle, and that elusive umami flavor often found in mushrooms
- A wine with impressive character and savory in every sense of the word
- I can’t say enough wonderful things about this wine, but in a word…superb
- Easily the most memorable wine I have ever tasted
Famiglia Orro is a small winery mainly dedicated to Vernaccia production and other artisanal Sardinian goods. Their portfolio is worth exploring, ranging from dry and aged, to a relatively younger, sweet passito style.
- Contini’s Riserva is aged for 15 – 20 years in a mixture of chestnut and oak barrels
- Generous bouquet of roasted hazelnuts, coffee, caramel, and almond blossoms
- Dry and full-bodied with a complex yet well-integrated structure and a persistent finish with lingering flavors of caramel and roasted hazelnuts
Vernaccia di Oristano is a savory wine, making it the perfect companion for a variety of savory dishes as well as desserts. The wine is full-bodied yet buoyant with a distinctive dry finish, making Vernaccia a great wine for seafood pairings. While in Sardinia, I paired this wine with a local dish of sea bream and wild greens that were cooked with Vernaccia. The dish and pairing were divine and something I plan on repeating.
This wine is bold enough to stand alongside heartier meat dishes like porchetta. Bacon wrapped dates stuffed with gorgonzola would also make a wonderful pairing. As would grilled artichokes with shaved bottarga, chestnut and sage ravioli, or a truffle risotto. Or perhaps a pork filet with Vernaccia and artichoke purée. This wine is also delicious with salty, cured black olives and strong, dry cheeses.
If going the dessert route, the dryness of Vernaccia di Oristano would be a lovely complement to sweet chocolate desserts. Almond or hazelnut pastries would make an ideal pairing as well.
Akinas, Uve di Sardegna, Poliedro, 2017, Ilissio Edizioni, Nuoro