Grignolino has been called scandalous, wild, anarchistic, individual, odd, difficult, wild, free, unruly, and even unprofitable.
Grignolino: “The Wine of All the Good People”
Italy has, by many accounts, over five hundred native wine grape varieties. That statistic pretty much puts Italy at the top of the list worldwide, in terms of the number of fine wine grapes that can claim to have been “born” in a single country.
Given that, it will probably come as no surprise to you whatsoever that Monferrato has yet another unsung red wine grape variety that we wanted to highlight for you. Unlike the always-popular Barbera, or the on-the-rise Ruchè, the next variety on our list – the textural, food-friendly Grignolino – has been on the fringes of the fine wine market radar.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In the 1800s, Count Gallesio (a noted pomologist at the time) described Grignolino (then known as Berbesina, and as Barbesina, and now has roughly twenty-five synonyms) as “the table wine of all the good people.” As it turns out, the “good people” of the 1800s were onto something, it’s just taken the rest of us another 200 years or so to catch on to it.
Set the Wayback Machine for 740 AD…
To tell the story of Grignolino/Barbesina/Berbesina/etc., we need to take a trip back in time; waaaaay back, almost 1300 years, in fact. It was in 740 AD that Longobard Liutprando, then king of Monferrato, entrusted the church of Sant’Evasio di Casale Monferrato to a group of Augustinian canons from the Abbey of Vezzolano. Those folks first cleared and cultivated the forested hillsides of the area, and winegrowing was high on their priority list. They kept fastidious records, and guess which grape variety is mentioned in their detailed documents? Yep, it’s Berbesina; in fact, Berbesina is the only wine grape variety that their documents recommended to cultivate.
Fast forward to the mid 1200s, when the canons were renting land for their work, planting even more Berbesina. They granted that land, but specified that it was to be planted with “de bonis vitibus berberxinis.” So even six hundred years before our friend Count Gallesio arrived on the scene, Grignolino was the good grape (presumably drunk by all the good people).
Things probably stayed that way for Grignolino for at least another 350 years. In 1614, Alessandro Gatto, the new Lord of Monferrato, compiled a detailed list of everything that was in the cellars of the famous fortress of Casale. Interestingly, only two types of wines were treated with special attention and re-labeled during that census: Cortese and (you guessed it) Grignolino.
In 1891, King Umberto I (whose nickname, incidentally, was “The Good”) singled out Grignolino wine for particular praise, and in the early 1900s saw wines made from the grape increase in sales prices, and was even made into sparkling versions. That pretty much ends our history lesson, apart from telling you that Grignolino achieved DOC status in the 1970s, and then saw its wines take a back seat to the soft, fruity, and silky red wine style that became the darling of major wine critics in the ensuing decades.
Wild and scandalous…
When researching Grignolino, one finds some very colorful descriptors, and they don’t necessarily invoke the image of a wine for all of the good people. They do, however, invoke the image of a character that you definitely want to get to know (or see as the main protagonist in a new Netflix or HBO original series); Grignolino has been called scandalous, wild, anarchistic, individual, odd, difficult, wild, free, unruly, and even unprofitable. This has as much to do with how the wine is made as how the finished product present itself in the glass.
Like Pinot Noir, Grignolino is beguiling, but also like Pinot Noir, it’s quite picky about the soils in which it is planted, the rootstocks onto which it is grafted, and the amount of sun exposure it needs to properly ripen. The name Grignolino itself hints at a somewhat difficult nature; it probably derives from grignole, which means “many pips” in the local regional dialect. It’s the predominance of seeds that in part give Grignolino its distinctively pleasant tannic bite (or results in an overly bitter wine when not carefully and properly tended).
So… how did this troublesome individualist become the wine of the “good people?”
When done right (and in Monferrato, it’s done right), Grignolino is not just wildly individual, it’s also downright delicious. Its wines have an inviting, gorgeous light red color with hints of orange hues. The aromas are full of flowers, red fruits, pepper, spice, and even green herbs and plants.
But the delicate appearance and lifted, perfumed aromatics of Grignolino belie a serious, hearty wine underneath. Once you get Grignolino in your mouth, you are taken on a complex, textural ride. There are red fruit flavors, spices and savory notes, and a pleasantly astringent tannin backbone, all atop bedrock of lip-smacking acidity.
There are two main Grignolino regions, each with slightly different “versions” of the wine based on their soils. The first, around Asti, has partly sandy soils, and generally produces wines that are floral, aromatic and approachable in their youth. The second, around Casale Monferrato, comes from calcareous soil that is rich in silt, giving rise to wines that are spicier, more structured, and often have longer aging potential.
Its flavor combinations are pretty unique, even in Italian wine, but it’s the perky acidity and freshness that are pushing Grignolino back into the Italian red wine spotlight (sorry, Grignolino, we’re only about one hundred years late!). This might be one of Italy’s most versatile reds when it comes to matching with food; among the pairings that work well are cold cuts, white meats, anchovies, mild cheeses, risotto, seasoned vegetables, egg pasta, and even pizza. And that’s something that probably most of the good people can get behind…