Grignolino, Piedmont’s Pale One

I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I ended up walking out of a Bologna wine shop with a bottle of grignolino in my hand. I hadn’t a clue what it was. Looking back, it’s pretty astonishing that this rare Piedmont varietal found its way into that wine shop in the first place, 200 miles from home.

But that was the beginning of a long friendship with this peculiar, love-it-or-hate-it wine.

That evening, I took the bottle to a friend’s apartment. She’d made homemade pizza—a virgin crust sprinkled with rosemary, sea salt, and gobs of fruity olive oil. I uncorked the wine and poured a glass. We all stared. It looked like a rosé: transparent as glass, with a pretty salmon color and orange reflections. Her Italian roommate frowned and suspiciously grabbed the bottle to examine the label. But this was no rosé. I took a sip. It was super dry and tasted of red raspberries and white pepper. And surprisingly, this pale waif had bones: astringent tannins filled the mouth in a pleasing way, giving the wine structure and saying “Come on in!” to that glistening rosemary pizza.

If you’ve never heard of Grignolino (green-yo-LEE-no), it’s no surprise. This is one of Piedmont’s hidden treasures. In wine encyclopedias, it gets lumped together with freisa, ruché, and pelaverga under Piedmont’s “farmhouse reds.” All are rarely found outside their native turf, which for grignolino means Monferrato and Asti. During hot summer days, it’s these wines that the piemontese localsdrink in place of whites, which are as rare as hens’ teeth.

If you happened to be in Monferrato on May 13, you’d have gotten a crash course at the annual “Di Grignolino…in Grignolino” sagra, where 19 producers poured samples ranging in color from onion skin to cherry red. Mind you, none are vinified like a rosé. The grape just happens to have very little pigment in its skin. What it does have is seeds—three times the average. That’s where it gets both its name (grignòle means “many pips” in dialect) and its ample tannins.

Champagne and grignolino
Back when Piedmont was still a kingdom, grignolino had its moment of glory. “Grignolino, like nebbiolo, was the grape of nobility,” says Raffaella Bologna, proprietor at the Braida di Giacomo Bologna winery. “Here, the King of Savoia used to drink champagne…and grignolino.”

Where kings lead, aristocrats follow. Some of those same noble families still grow grignolino today. Italians would certainly recognize the Alfieri name, whose lords were famous in politics and poetry. In addition to their flagship barbera, the Marchesi Alfieri winery makes an excellent grignolino dubbed Sansoero.

Another noble name, recognizable the world over, is Marchesi Incisa della Rochetta. One son, Mario, moved to Bolgheri and founded Tenuta San Guido in 1942, where he created Sassicaia, launching the Super Tuscan juggernaut. The rest stayed in their ancestral home on the banks of the Tanaro river. (The fact that the town is called Rochetta Tanaro speaks to their history here.) The current generation is the area’s largest grignolino producer.

Oh so seedy
But overall, acreage is on the decline. Grignolino is bothersome to grow. The yield is low and it’s sensitive to disease, requiring meticulous vineyard management. That makes it expensive to grow relative to what producers can charge for this style of wine.

Pale and seedy, it’s also hard to vinify. “It can be too light in color, too bitter, or too acidic,” says Bologna. “I confess, grignolino is the only wine I cried over. When I started as a winemaker, I didn’t understand it. You can easily mistake the balance.” The first time she had to decide when to separate the must from the skins and seeds, she despaired: “I kept tasting and retasting, not understanding. In one of my phone calls to my father, I said, ‘Papa, I don’t know what to do!’ ” She laughs at the thought. “Even though I’d studied winemaking and was at his side in past vintages, when I had to make the final decision, I was very embarrassed to say, ‘I’m not able.’ But from that moment on, I learned.”

So why has Braida carried on with this fussy, obscure grape for more than 50 years when other wineries have dropped it? “First, because we love it. In the summertime, it’s the wine we most drink,” she says. “E’ un vino della nostra pancia—it’s a wine of our gut. We’re born with it, so when you open the fridge and say, ‘What will I drink?’ it’s our immediate choice.” (Like most natives, Bologna prefers it slightly chilled.) Then there’s the local history—Braida is neighbors with Marchesi Incisa—plus the changing eating patterns of Italians, who are switching to lighter dishes, which call for lighter wines.

Braida makes 30,000 bottles of grignolino annually. “The market is very loyal and always the same,” says Bologna. It’s also very local. Most of the 2 million bottles of Grignolino d’Asti and Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese—its two DOCs (demoninazione di origine)—are consumed in Italy.

Before Martha's Vineyard, there was Heitz grignolino

If you can’t find a Piedmont grignolino at your neighborhood shop, look in the Napa section, where you just might spot one from Heitz. It’s odd to think of this cabernet king as making grignolino, but it was actually their first wine. “My parents bought eight acres on Highway 29 from Leon Brendel, who’d brought cuttings when he came over from northern Italy,” says Katherine Heitz. She keeps some of Brendel’s old labels—one dating to 1947—in her desk drawer. “He sold his grignolino in gallon jugs out back door. My parents were starting from scratch, and Mr. Brendel already had a client base for the grignolino, so they kept some of those vines to keep that customer base.” Heitz produces about 16,000 bottles in red and rosé styles, and doesn’t plan to stop. “That was our foot in the door, our first vineyard,” she says. Like her Piedmont peers, Heitz likes keeping a lighter option in their portfolio, which is otherwise dominated by heavy hitters.

Heitz recommends having grignolino with spicy Asian food, barbecue, or a simple plate of spaghetti. Bologna says it’s perfect with salumi and antipasti; most recently she served it with tuna paté and crudité. For my part, I’ll take it any day with a rosemary pizza.

4 to try

Castello di Neive, Piemonte Grignolino ($13) 13%
A classic style from 25-year-old vines, this is clear brick-red in color, with red raspberry and white pepper notes, and lean tannins on a long finish.

La Casaccia, “Poggeto” Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese ($12) 12.5%
Characteristic pale salmon color with orange reflections, a delicate bouquet of red berries and spice, fine tannins, and a tart, bright finish.

Cascina Tavijn, Grignolino d’Asti ($22) 13%
An organic wine from 50-year-old vines, this is pale orange-red with a distinctive earthy character, revealing strawberry and black pepper, an almond finish, and loads of mouth-filling tannins.

Heitz Cellar, Napa Valley Grignolino ($19) 13.8%
More ruby colored and fruit-forward than its piemontese counterparts and with less pronounced tannins, this offers juicy strawberry-candy flavors, bright acidity, and a long finish.

This article first appeared in UNCORKED (May 29, 2012).