A Guide to Vernaccia di Oristano – Sardinia’s Most Fascinating Wine
I first tasted Vernaccia di Oristano on my 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. Toward the end of the night, my husband took me into the family wine cellar. There, he unveiled two tiny barrels of Vernaccia that he had made over seven years ago. He explained to me the unique winemaking process, allowed me to peak at the flor atop the wine, and extracted some Vernaccia for us to taste. Most importantly, he taught me that time is the secret to all successful Vernaccia di Oristano.
I was peeking in at a rare Italian white wine, that when paired properly, is just as delicious with dinner as it is with dessert. It is also a wine to meditate over when savored on its own. One of Italy’s masterful yet widely unsung wines, Vernaccia di Oristano is reminiscent of sherry. This is a wine steeped in Sardinian history that requires a worthwhile patience in production.
The History of Vernaccia di Oristano
Vernaccia di Oristano is a 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 an indigenous variety and the specific transformative aging process in Sardinia—moreso than the grape itself. From an ampelographic perspective, other “vernaccia” throughout Italy 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
The aromas, flavors, and structure of Vernaccia di Oristano may be reminiscent of Amontillado sherry. 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 DOC permitting winemakers to fortify Sardinian Vernaccia with a distilled spirit, Vernaccia di Oristano is not traditionally made this way.
Similar to sherry, 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.
What is Flor?
The flor yeast strain has both a fermentative and oxidative metabolism. First, the yeast completes its primary alcoholic fermentation. They consume sugars, converting these sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The yeast’s environment (the must), which was once rich in fermentable sugar is now rich in ethyl alcohol. Due to the change in environmental resources, this strain of flor yeast transitions to a different oxidative metabolism. Now, the flor 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. This flor yeast strain has a higher unsaturated fatty acid content that decreases their density. They also obtain carbon dioxide bubbles present from fermentation and this adds additional lift for the flor to reach the top of the wine. Furthermore, the cells do not interact with water, which causes them to cluster together. Then, the flor comes together and forms a film on the wine’s surface.
Over years of aging, the wine undergoes a gradual oxidation under this protective layer, producing wines with positive oxidative characteristics, such as nutty, savory, or umami aromas and flavors. For Vernaccia di Oristano, chestnut or oak barrels are traditionally used during the aging process and are filled to about 90 percent capacity, leaving some headspace for oxygen. This wine also experiences significant evaporation through the aging process. Thus, further concentrating the magnificent aromas and flavors of this wine, while also increasing the alcohol and glycerol levels.
Spiseddadura – Ancient Barrel Tapping
The Sardinians have an ancient, traditional method for tapping barrels called spiseddadura — so as not to disturb the flor atop the wine. 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. This is celebrated with the Spiseddadura festival where locals take turns tapping barrels. The wines are drunk from shot-like glasses traditionally used for drinking Vernaccia di Oristano.
Vernaccia di Oristano DOC
Founded in 1971, Vernaccia di Oristano was the first DOC established in Sardinia. In order for a wine to bear Vernaccia di Oristano DOC on the label, the wine must be produced within the municipalities of the Lower Tirso subregion and made from 100 percent Vernaccia grapes. Maximum vineyard yields are set at 8 tons per hectare and there is a 15 percent minimum alcohol requirement. Wines are produced in both a sweet and dry style and the geographic indication requires a two-year minimum aging period in barrels. The Superiore designation requires a minimum alcohol level of 15.5 percent 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 floodlands of Tirso. Here, there is sandy, gravelly soils amidst the assortment of streams and the larger 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 occurs between the final days of July to the first days of August. The fruit is typically mature and ready for harvest during the last ten days of September or the first week of October.
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. Silvio Carta is the place to begin.
Silvio Carta, Vernaccia di Oristano Riserva 2006
- Aromas and flavors of tasted 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.
Silvio Carta, Vernaccia di Oristano Riserva 1968
- 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.
- I can’t say enough wonderful things about this wine, but in a word…superb and easily the most memorable wine I have ever tasted.
Famiglia Orro is a small winery dedicated to Vernaccia production and other artisanal Sardinian goods. They produce an array of Vernaccia that are worth exploring, ranging from dry and aged, to a younger, sweet passito style.
Contini, Vernaccia di Oristano Riserva 1995
- Contini’s Vernaccia Riserva is aged for 15 to 20 years in a mixture of chestnut and oak barrels.
- Generous bouquet of roasted hazelnut, coffee, caramel, and almond blossom.
- Dry and full-bodied with a complex yet well-integrated structure and a persistent finish with lingering notes of caramel and roasted hazelnuts.
Vernaccia di Oristano is a savory wine, making it a 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, this wine is paired with a local dish of sea bream and wild greens that were cooked with Vernaccia.
Vernaccia di Oristano is bold enough to stand alongside heartier meat dishes like porchetta. Other options include bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with gorgonzola, grilled artichokes with shaved bottarga, chestnut and sage ravioli, or a truffle risotto. 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 complements sweet chocolate desserts or almond or hazelnut pastries.
Akinas, Uve di Sardegna, Poliedro, 2017, Ilissio Edizioni, Nuoro