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An Exploration into Vermentino @ Le Rocche del Gatto

“Wine isn’t a beverage, it’s an emotion,” explains Fausto De Andreis of Le Rocche del Gatto. “I don’t need to tell you about the wines,” he pauses and smiles, “Let them speak.”

With that, the man of few words and long drawn out pauses leads us into the winery, a winery unlike any other within the city of wine, known as Albenga. Nestled between the Ligurian coast and boastful mountains, endless rows of vineyards, flowering fruit trees and specks of red pomodori litter the landscape.

Recognized also for its agriculture, the Slow Food Presidia protects i 4 d’Albenga: asparago violetto, zucchina trombetta, carciofo violetto e spinoso, pomodoro cuore di bue. Rare elsewhere in Italy, these goods honour the tradition of terroir, a concept very much echoed by Fausto and his wines.

Known mainly for his vermentino and pigato, along with some reds, Le Rocche del Gatto is rooted in the artistry of winemaking rather than in trends. In fact, Fausto believes that due to the commercialization of winemaking, all conventional wines tend to taste the same regardless of grape variety. In a single sip, not much is detected about the region, grape or production; it’s simply a drink, interchangeable like soda.

In sixty vintages, rather than appealing to the masses, Fausto continues to make an effort to keep Ligurian wine pure, doing little to alter the grapes from their terroir. This is precisely why his natural wines rely on spontaneous fermentation and are only aged in steel vats.

When I asked him why he doesn’t age in oak casks, he explained that weak wines hide behind the aromas of oak. Though I tend to appreciate an oaky chard, I can understand his philosophy. Why take a characteristically Ligurian grape and age it inside a French barrel? It’s a confusion of terroir. That said, the case for fusion can also be an exciting and palatable prospect...but, that’s something that will have to be explored at another winery.

We follow as Fausto leads us into his wine workshop to grab four calici (wine glasses) before leading us back outside to the rows of gleaming stainless steel vats.

Using music as a metaphor to describe taste, Fausto explains that vermentino is a stellar soloist, but pigato is an orchestra, with increased grandeur as it ages.

Though the vermentino grape is grown in several regions around Italy and the Mediterranean, it’s one of Liguria’s key white whites with notes of herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme along with a certain minerality. High in acidity, it pairs well with simple white fish and pansotti with salsa di noci.

The so-called freckled fraternal twin of vermentino (and adopted sibling of the Piemontese favorita), pigato is really the star of Ligurian wine. Grown only along the Ligurian Riviera, its name derives from “pigau,” meaning spotted in dialect. An important white wine of Albenga specifically, pigato’s minerality is balanced by its freshness and delicate fragrance of almond and apricots. It pairs well with robiola cheese on oily focaccia or trenette with pesto.

Pouring directly from the stainless steel tanks, Fausto let us understand that the wines are quite literally alive. A first time experience for me, drinking directly from the vat felt like I was part of something like a secret that others had yet to know. Before bottling, before uncorking. Drinking the wine in its most pure and natural form was incredible.

After trying a 2019 pigato, 2018 vermentino and a 2014 vermentino, we headed inside and sampled some bottled wine. In haphazard groups, vermentino, pigato, and granaccia fill an entire table.

We’re not going to try all those, are we?

Two hours and twenty glasses later, it’s apparent that Fausto does want us to sample every wine he’s ever made, or at least close to it.

Mainly vermentino, some pigato, but no reds, we sampled roughly twenty years worth of aged vermentino and pigato. Incredibly, though the same grape varieties and techniques are used each year, the outcome varied vastly.

Vermentino became bolder and more orange in colour, but also flavour changed in unique and interesting ways. One year could be fruity, with the following year reminiscent of freshly sliced mortadella, only to be followed by another aged vermentino from the year prior with the scent of apricots. Truly a bizarre phenomenon! But, I attribute that to the earth, spontaneous fermentation and the nature of natural wine.

On the other hand, pigato also varied vastly from year to year. Some aged to be quite buttery, resulting in one wine even being deemed as drinking a glass of truffle butter. Others were richer in colour, like a sort of amber with a distinct nutty fragrance. We even tried a pigato from 2004 that Fausto described as smelling like the inside of your nonna’s house. Cheap Ninna Ricci perfume and Nivea face cream for me, but I’ll let your mind wander on that one.

Unfortunately, we only made it through a fraction of what Fausto hoped for us to experience. When I ask if we could taste a red before leaving, he turns to me and explains, “In time.” He pauses and then with a mischievous grin says, “This means you will have to come visit again.”

As we pile back into the car with a bottle of 2014 vermentino that smells like pistacchio laced mortadella, the ride back to our seaside apartment is filled with laughter, carpool karaoke and the faint aroma of prosciutto cotto and apricots.

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