The region of Monferrato, Italy is a spectacular expanse of rolling hills and vast vineyards. This is the fabled area of Piedmont. A wine region that has been extensively celebrated in the arts and literature.
On hot days in Monferrato, what white wines do the locals drink? The answer is quite simple, they seldom, if ever, drink white wine. Piedmontese prefer red wines such as Grignolino, Ruche, Verduno Pelaverga, and Freisa. Drinking a white wine is just unseemly.
Today, my friend and fellow sommelier, Serena Dutto and I will be exploring the wonderful, but little known wines of this region. Rest assured that these wines can be found in the States, however, it may take some searching. Rather than dwell on particular wineries or vintages, we have decided to cover the general characteristics of these wines and make some recommendations. We welcome you to share your insights as you discover the hidden treasures of Piedmont.
Grignolino (green-yo-lino) in the local dialect means “many pips.” The grape varietal is popular when making light colored wines and roses. The alcohol content is typically low at 11-12%. Rest assured that these wines have strong acidity and tannins.
“I also like the floral notes, fruity aromas of citrus, and just a hint of spice.” Serena was quick to add. “The wine is very dry and tastes of red raspberries.”
“It is also interesting that for a such a light wine, Grignolino has plenty of structure and a long finish,“ I added with a nod of approval.
In the days when Piedmont was still a kingdom, Grignolino was a favorite of royalty. The King of Savoia was quite fond of drinking Grignolino and preferred it to all other wines served at his table. By the end of the 19th century this wine was considered one of Piedmont’s best. Today Grignolino has improved in quality and is steadily gaining in popularity. It is often considered Piedmont’s most delicate wine.
Both Serena and I recommend a 2009 Castillo di Nelve. Priced at $15, it is classic in style and from 25 year old vines. This wine pairs quite nicely with pasta and all basic Italian dishes.
Our next wine is Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato and it is grown exclusively in the hills of Monferrato. In order to be labeled Ruche, the wine must be comprised of 90% Ruche grapes. The other 10% is open to any combination of Barbera or Brachetto. This produces a fragrant and slightly floral wine. Ruche is pale-red in color with a tannic profile and depth of flavor. It has medium body with a delicate, velvety taste.
“I would also add that there are notes of tart berries, black plums, and sweet spices that distinguish Ruche,” Serena gave a nod of approval.
The Ruche grape is something of an enigma even in Piedmont. There are conflicting tales of this grape varietal. One such story is that Ruche is originally from France and was brought to Piedmont several hundred of years ago. Serena, like all good Piedmontese, is insistent that Ruche is an indigenous vine. Whatever the truth, Ruche has begun making its way out of Monferrato. Over the past decade Ruche has been well received by all who have enjoyed this limited production wine.
Ruche compliments salami, roasted veal, and aged cheeses. Serena also recommends serving Ruche with the classic Piedmont dish, tagliolni with white truffles.
Priced at about $25, both Serena and I recommend a 2006 La Mondianese Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato.
Verduno Pelaverga or simply Verduno is a red wine native to Piedmont. Pelaverga is a rare, dark-skinned grape varietal that produces pale strawberry-scented wines. So why haven’t you heard of this obscure grape? Verduno is in the Barolo region and just a few hills over from the famed Barolo site of La Morra.
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Unfortunately this splendid grape gets over-shadowed by Piedmont’s renown Barolo, the “King of wine and wine of kings.”
Pelaverga has a long history in Piedmont. The grapes date back to the 15th century. However, in those days Pelaverga was used primarily as a blending grape. The name also brings up some interesting questions. Literally translated, it means “branch peeler.” Serena presumes the name has something to do with a viticultural practice of how to train the vine.
Here’s an interesting thought. “Verga” is the Spanish word for the male genitalia. Considering that the local people of Verduno claim that the grape is an aphrodisiac, I postulate …”
“Oh Gregorio,” Serena broke in with a more than amused laughter. “More like wishful thinking.”
“Unfortunately, you are probably correct. Two glasses later, and nothing.”
“Cin cin,” Serena heartily toasted me.
Overall, Verduno Pelaverga’s profile is a savory floral wine. It is lithe in acidity and weight, yet poignant in depth. There is just enough tannin to pair perfectly with smoked meats and slightly aged cheeses.
“Or a truffle risotto,” Serena added. “I would also serve Verduno with just the slightest chill.”
Both Serena and prefer the 2006 Pelaverga Basadone. This is a most enjoyable wine at about $20. Incidentally, “Baciadonne” in Italian translates as “the lady killer.”
Our final selection is Freisa (Fray-zah). It is a blue-black grape indigenous to Piedmont. These vigorous grapes are harvested in early October and the red wines produced are somewhat sweet and lightly sparkling.
Dating back to the 18th century, most Piedmontese agree that the varietal originated in the hills between Asti and Turin. By the 1880’s, Freisa had become one of the major grapes of the region. Today, Freisa is grown widely around the Monferrato area.
Freisa is an interesting variety which typically shows a wild-raspberry scent, some ripe strawberries with distinct earthy notes which add interest. There is a slight astringent, tart flavor to the wine’s profile that is slightly reminiscent of Dolcetto. Wines made for export tend to be on the lighter side, softly sweet, and slightly fizzy. Freisa is a very refreshing wine that is popular for sipping on those long summer days.
Serena and I recommend a 2004 Casaccia Vigna Monfiorenza. It can be served slightly chilled and pairs nicely with a variety of cheeses.
The wines we shared today are some of gems Piedmont. Rest assured that there are many more hidden treasures to be discovered. This is an ancient land with a colorful history that dates back before the Romans. A land that will never cease to amaze even the most discerning palates.
“Serena, earlier you mentioned Piedmont’s renown dish, tagliolni with white truffles.”
“If you are hungry,” she flashed me a beaming smile. “I know just the place.”
But that my friends is another story …