Posted by: tomciocco | November 21, 2012

IN PRAISE OF PIEDMONT’S “BACK LIST” – VESPOLINA

It seems almost banal at this point to list Piedmont’s principal red grape varieties considering how relatively pervasive they have become, but just for argument’s sake, there’s the “major three”: Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, all of which can be found for sale in one form or another on six continents. Then there are the “minor three”: Freisa, Grignolino, and Ruche`, none of which is anything close to a household name, but like the stars of the first group, all are typically found bottled solo (as is the tradition in much of Piedmont, with most grape varieties) so these “lesser” varieties at least have a bit of name recognition from either the shop’s shelf or the restaurant’s list.

And whether you know it or not, Piedmont is a bona fide nursery for even more peculiar, hyper-local varieties like Bonarda Novarese, Croatina, Uva Rara, and this post’s featured variety, Vespolina. All of these vines are found nearly exclusively in the very small and very obscure D.O.C.s in northern Piedmont. According to local tradition, these, and indeed most varieties, are blended together in varying percentages with the local strain of Nebbiolo called Spanna.  As a rule, blending allows the winemaker to play to each variety’s strengths, as well as allowing for the coverage of vintage vagaries in these cooler, less predictable zones, and it’s no different in this part of Piedmont.

With Vespolina in particular, it is the case that it is not only very fussy in the vineyard, it also as a rule produces particularly acidic musts, so planted in lesser sites and/or in chillier, cloudier vintages, the notion of bottling Vespolina unalloyed is not a winning proposition. But there are always those growers who recognize that their particular plots of Vespolina (or some other usually ancillary grape variety) produce especially ripe, high quality fruit, and also have the courage to devote the extra time and effort to produce and market it under its own name, or under a very obscure appellation (both are true here), and my hat’s off to them too; growers like Monsecco serve to not only help to preserve minor grape varieties like Vespolina, but also to push the boundaries of what varieties like this (and others) are capable of.

Dinner to accompany this sub-alpine rarity consisted of farfalle pasta dressed with a creamy, garlicky walnut sauce from Piedmont called L’aja, and then a sort of Italian-style chicken-fried steak (with rosemary and garlic) with fennel baked with butter on the side.

Monsecco Colline Novaresi Vespolina “Barbatasso” 2010

Quite blackish garnet color. Complex and bold nose of black raspberry, strawberry, old leather, mushrooms, savory spices, burning underbrush, and dried herbs. The wine is medium weight, with a broad, tart acidity and a dry, wiry tannic structure, with a character that is a perfect balance of rustic austerity and pretty elegance demonstrated via lively flavors of cranberry sauce, raspberry preserves, tomato paste, damp black soil, and fresh blood. Long and bittersweet cherry finish. Will improve with a another 12-18 months in bottle.

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