Stunning Monferrato, whose rolling vineyards are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, lies within the provinces of Asti and Alessandria in Piedmont. Famous the world over for its Barbera production, and perhaps for Moscato as well, Monferrato is also home to another lesser-known noteworthy red wine. An ancient autochthonous variety once adored by nobility, Grignolino is once again garnering a reputation for standout high quality wines.
History of Grignolino
The first written mention of Grignolino dates to 1249. Enza Cavallero uncovered a deed of rent from this time mentioning the variety while conducting studies into Grignolino’s history. Monks from the Chapter of Sant’Evasio in Casale Monferrato executed the deed. Later in 1337, an inventory list from the Abbey of San Giusto in Susa mentioned wines under the name “Grignolerii.” According to the Accornero family, grape growers in the region since the 1800s, the first mention of Grignolino can be traced back to 740 AD when Liutprand was King of the Lombards. Hence, it’s safe to say Grignolino has ancient origins in Monferrato.
Moreover, this rare variety was once adored by the Piedmontese bourgeoise. Noble Grignolino was drunk by kings in the courts of the dukes of Monferrato and the royal House of Savoy, who eventually ruled the Kingdom of Italy until 1946. In the early 1900s, Grignolino was valued as much as Barolo and Barbaresco for its quality, finesse, and unique characteristics.
About the Variety
The variety’s name is derived from grignole, which refers to grape seeds in a local dialect from Asti. Notably, Grignolino has a higher number of grape seeds than the average variety, which contributes to its high tannins. Somewhat rebellious and a misunderstood grape, Grignolino is notoriously difficult to grow. It’s prone to irregular ripening and millenderage. Plus, it’s sensitive to fungal disease. Additionally, Grignolino is challenging to vinify due to its extra seeds. It’s a variety prone to oxidation whose anthocyanins are difficult to extract well. For these reasons, plantings decreased by 18% from 918 hectares in 2008 to 751 hectares in 2018. Thankfully, there are passionate producers who continue to embrace this indigenous variety.
Grignolino is a late-ripening grape, though it still ripens earlier than Nebbiolo. It requires a similar exposure to Nebbiolo (south/southeast/southwest) and is site specific, expressing the soils where it’s planted particularly well. Sandstone and limestone marl, rich in sedimentary rock and sea fossils, are the most suitable soil types for this variety. Plus, Grignolino thrives on sites with good exposure, usually at the peaks of hills, and sunny, windy conditions. Consequently, the Bricchi (hilltops) of Monferrato are prime real estate for Grignolino.
Monferrato: The Territory of Grignolino
The predominantly hilly Monferrato landscape extends in the northeastern zone of Piedmont with rolling hills sloping all the way down to the Po River. Soils in the area date back to the Tertiary period when they emerged from the ancient sea that once accupied the Pianura Padana, or Po River Valley. These sandstone and limestone marl soils are from the Miocene era. They contain white soils, or terre bianche, in which fossilized seashells are frequently found. The typical calcareous-marly soils are light in color, rich in calcium carbonate, and poor in organic and mineral compounds. They’re dry in summer and rich in silt, clay, and limestone at shallow depths. Monferrato soils are ideal for yielding full-bodied, deeply colored wines with outstanding aging potential.
Additionally, the area’s ancient hand-dug cave cellars historically built for wine storage are also now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Monferace is an association of local Monferrato producers working to recover the historical, autochthonous Grignolino variety. Their philosophy of winemaking is inspired by the past with a reverence for patience. They believe time spent in oak is necessary for the Grignolino variety to best express its noble and elegant characteristics.
The association has its own procedural guidelines for producers interested in making a Monferace Grignolino.
The wine must be made from 100% Grignolino grapes. These wines can only be released to market after a minimum aging period of 40 months, calculated from November 1st of the vintage year, of which at least 24 months must be in wooden barrels. 4,000 vines or more are required to be planted per hectare. Additionally, the vines must be planted to limestone, silt, and clay soils.
Grignolino in the Glass
Despite its high tannins and significant structure, Grignolino is typically a light-to-medium ruby color in the glass. It’s a high acid, mouthwatering wine with medium-plus intensity aromas of wild strawberry, red bramble fruits, and dried herbs. Grignolino wines can have a slight bitter edge. Most wines are vinified and aged in stainless steel. However, there has been somewhat of a renaissance movement in oak aging Grignolino. These wines are slightly deeper in color and perhaps more reminiscent of Nebbiolo. Oak-aged Grignolino also expresses aromas of dried flower petals and spice. Interestingly, this variety lends itself well to sparkling wine production, too. I especially enjoyed this Spumante di Grignolino from Gaudio.
Here’s a bit of info on two producers we visited while in Piemonte making exceptional Grignolino.
Accornero is a family-owned winery located in the commune of Vignole Monferrato northeast of Asti. The Accornero family of grape growers has been cultivating vineyards in Monferrato since the mid-1800’s starting with founding father Bartolomeo Accornero. In 1957, 6th generation Giulio Accornero established some of the current family vineyards in Vignale Monferrato and began producing wine. His sons, Ermanno and Massimo, followed in Giulio’s footsteps and further developed the family winery and vineyards with respect to tradition and history of the region.
From 25 hectares of estate vineyards cultivated within the municipality of Vignale Monferrato, Accornero produces wines with a strong connection to the Monferrato terroir. Their winemaking philosophy is centered around looking towards the future while remaining grateful for the past. Accornero believes “to make an excellent wine, there can be no rush” and this passion, commitment, and dedication to quality shines throughout their full range of wines.
My tasting notes on the Accornero Bricco del Bosco Grignolino Monferrato Casalese DOC
- Medium+ intensity aromatics of orange peel, cranberry, tobacco, dried cherries
- Medium acidity, great concentration
- Lingers on the palate
- Well integrated delicate tannins
- Tart cherry flavors, dry and very elegant
- Big fan of this one!
Accornero started experimenting with oaked Grignolino in 2006. Ten years later, they took an oaked style to VinItaly and nobody thought it was Grignolino.
- Aged 2 years in oak, 2 years in bottle before release
- Aromas of woody spice, orange zest, berry jam, and dried flowers
- Medium bodied, astringent, but not mouth coating tannin
- Hard to describe, but rests in the perfect spot of acidity, delicate tannin, and astringency
- More tertiary notes than fruit
Another family-owned winery in Vignale Monferrato, Gaudio was founded in 1970 by Amilcare Gaudio. He was an enologist his whole life for other Italian wineries and decided to make his own vision of winemaking a reality at 63 years old. It’s never too late to live your dreams! His daughter, Beatrice, a close friend of my husband, studied enology and worked in wineries around the world in Germany, Portugal, and Australia. Today, Beatrice is an integral part of the family business, working as the enologist, as well as managing viticulture, and commercial aspects of the winery.