On more than one occasion, I’ve waxed verbose about the almost dizzying number of grape varieties that are native to what is arguably Italy’s greatest wine region Piedmont, so here’s one more to add to the list: Grignolino. The Grignolino variety is not the household name that Barbera and Dolcetto and Nebbiolo are, but it’s also not the rarities that other Piedmontese varieties like Avana`, Avarengo and Doux d’Henry are either. And though Grignolino does not grow anywhere outside of Piedmont within Italy, because of the large numbers of Piedmontese immigrants to Northern California, there are a few old-vine patches of the variety to be found in Napa, one of which is cultivated by the great house of Heitz who makes both a dry Grignolino wine as well as a highly unusual sweet “Port” wine from it.
The name “Grignolino” is almost indisputably derived from the Piedmontese dialect word for “pits” (“grignole”) because the vine’s fruit always contains several times more seeds than most other wine grape varieties do. And it is this surplus of seeds that brings a formidable level of tannin to Grignolino wines despite its light colored, thin skins (and consequently, light colored wines), which is the usual source for tannins in a finished wine.
There are two regions in Piedmont where the lion’s share of the Grignolino is grown, one in and around Asti that not surprisingly is called “Grignolino d’Asti” with the other known by the mouthful-of-a-name “Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese”. The former zone is situated south of the town of Asti, while the later is seated to the north of the city. And though no Grignolino would ever be described as rich, deep, and full, the ones that originate in the Monferrato (the source of this evening’s bottling) are even more high-toned, “nervous” and punchy than the examples that come from the heavier soil and warmer temperatures found south of Asti. And though in the glass the often pale red Grignolino doesn’t look like a an ass-kicker of a drink, looks can and do deceive in this case. This is a wine with a great deal of structure, both in terms of its tart acidity as well as its stiff, dry tannic frame, and its saucy, spicy fruit profile which makes Grignolino a great match with rich and/or vegetal and/or strongly flavored dishes.
So, in a strong attempt to play to the strengths of this wolf in sheep’s clothing of a wine, I served it with a first course of pennoni lisce (large, smooth-textured penne) with a pureed walnut, milk, olive oil, and raw garlic sauce thickened with bread, followed by a main course of sausages in a tomato, wild mushroom and herb sauce over a thick carpet of polenta.
Cantine Valpane Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese “Euli” 2012
Transparent, brownish ruby color. Funky but still elegant nose of wild strawberry, raspberry and blueberry fruit with strong supporting aromas of old leather, chalk, cinnamon, cumin, dried pungent herbs, dried roses and lilies. In the mouth the wine shows a light and smooth body with a punchy, tart acidity and firm, peppery and slightly austere tannic frame with strong flavors of sour cherry, pomegranate, blackberry and sun-dried tomatoes. Finishes with a rustic scouring warmth.