Obscure Italian Varieties I: Grignolino, the Polarizer

4 03 2020

By Raymond Lamontagne

It is high time that I turned my wine blogging pen (errr, keyboard) to a project that has been bouncing around the dusty caverns of my mind for some time now. For several years, I have been enamoured by the viticultural diversity that is Italy. This country contains more unique native grape varieties than any other, and this sort of cornucopia deeply appeals to the part of me that relishes new experiences. My mind never stops collecting: a new plant in my (limited) deck garden, a new bird or mushroom found in the woods, a new wine grape that I’ve perhaps (likely!) read about but never experienced in person. My brain is just wired to quest. And why Italy? Well, Italy is part of my heritage, I love the food (who doesn’t?), and honestly, I can appreciate that so many of these wines are truly the products of a distinct culture. Although international grape varieties are entrenched in the Italian viticultural landscape and won’t be going anywhere, the natives are currently ascendent.



So my plan is to provide a series of blogs that introduce our intrepid readers to an Italian wine grape that they many not have heard of or tasted. Each will describe the grape in detail and then provide a tasting note for a single bottle that is hopefully emblematic of the grape in question. This project feels like a poor man’s homage to one of my wine writing heroes, Ian D’Agata, who spent more than a decade tasting nearly all of Italy’s native wine grapes. The resulting book shall be my primary companion as I share my own musings. Some (including probably Ian himself) would take umbrage with my use of the word “obscure” to describe these grapes. I am going to use the word because my view is that none of these grapes that I will cover are obviously well-known in wine markets outside of Italy, nor are they commonly available in this wine market, although fortunately Calgary wine shops feature a unique bounty that likely does not exist elsewhere in this country. Of course these grapes are not obscure in the Italian wine regions from which they hail, and perhaps some of them will become better known outside these confines. So there you have it. Let’s begin with one grape, Grignolino, that I find particularly compelling.

Grignolino would be the world’s most polarizing grape variety, if only it were better known. Those exposed to its wines seem to either love them passionately or detest them utterly. Even the back label on the present bottle describes Grignolino as an “anarchic wine that never leaves you indifferent; either you like it or you don’t”. If this isn’t enough to pique your interest, consider that Grignolino was once a common grape in its native haunt of Piedmont’s Monferrato hills, prized by local nobles for its extremely fine, refined mouthfeel. Grignolinos once fetched the same price as Barolos (!), and although quite clearly times have changed, there are some interesting facets of this grape that parallel Nebbiolo. Let’s unpack that more.


Grignolino is at its essence a high-acid, high-tannin variety, with too much time on the skins yielding an overabundance of astringent, bitter structure. Indeed, one view is that the grape’s name derives from a reference to the grimaces that often occur when one bites into the fresh berries, whereas another hypothesis states that the name means “pips” or seeds, as this grape typically features three seeds per berry as opposed to the more customary two. In either case, Grignolino’s biting nature is especially problematic when you consider that the grape is not particularly fruity, a characteristic that has led some modern producers to experiment with late harvesting and a small percentage of carbonic maceration in an attempt to make something more crowd-pleasing.

Thinner skins render this grape naturally very light in colour, so much so that these wines are often mistaken for rosé. The genetically variable red is said to be particularly adept at translating qualities of the soil, an excellent vehicle for the expression of terroir. As much as the Nebbiolo comparisons are inviting, one cannot help but conjure up associations with the finicky Pinot Noir as well. This link to site makes the grape’s currently rare status that much more heartbreaking, although perhaps the recent emphasis on preserving such diversity of expression is a strike in Grignolino’s favour in its native land. We shall see. For now, note that the grape’s aromatic nature is often compared to that of white wines, and it seems likely that Grignolino’s previously unfashionable status as a structured but less fruity pale red wine could in these times give it a certain cachet. And it is perhaps in Asti that Grignolino’s star may shine brightest.


The Grignolino D’Asti DOC might be even more obscure than the grape itself, at least in this wine market. The DOC rules stipulate at least 90% Grignolino is required in the finished wine, with up to 10% Freisa permitted. As detailed by Ian D’Agata in his biblical Native Wine Grapes of Italy (perhaps my favourite wine book of all time), the sandy soils of Asti lend themselves to perfumed, floral wines that skew toward the lighter side of an already light grape, with a few other clay-based sites yielding relatively bigger examples. I quickly note that tonight’s example producer, Crivelli, garners a vaunted D’Agata “three star” rating, denoting a winery that performs best with the grape in question. In Ian we trust.

2018 Crivelli Grignolino D’Asti (~$45)

Winemaker Marco Crivelli actually seems most passionate about another rare and nearly extinct variety native to Monferrato, Ruche, a red with only 110 hectares extant. Fortunately, he also recognizes how well Grignolino and Barbera fare in the local chalky soils. Marco decided to remain in the area despite a mass exodus of people to the cities after the Second World War, deciding to defend winemaking traditions in an area that some might consider a backwater, carrying on his grandfather’s legacy. Marco is so focused on varietal character that he has completely abandoned the use of wooden barrels in favour of stainless steel casks. Indeed, the Crivelli website is short on winemaking details and long on describing the grape varieties themselves. It is noted that the present wine hails from 33 year-old vines.


This does not look like a rosé in the glass but rather flashes a pretty middling ruby hue. That being said, no one with normal vision will mistake this for a Syrah or another highly pigmented variety. The fresh nose manages to tick off a few disparate boxes that do not always hang together in the same wine. There’s a core of red Fruit Roll-Up abutting against an earthy tea-like spice, freshly milled two-by-fours and carbide drill bit, hibiscus blossoms and candy apple, watercolour paint palette and carob pods. Lest this sound like pure chaos, rest assured that these seemingly dissonant threads do indeed entwine together, with fruit, spice, earth, and steel wound and spun into a deceptively light and airy composite of red forest berries (strawberry, raspberry), cherry Nibs, star anise, white pepper, rose hips, and iron-laden well water. The peppery note gathers traction with air. Some split wine near my laptop (dammit!) later smells like fig Newtons and sandpaper. The acidity is perky but not savagely sharp, and the tannins are sneaky, initially under the radar but ultimately accruing to build something substantial, even as that cloud-like lightness of being remains at the forefront. As D’Agata points out, 14% ABV is high for this variety, likely a product of global warming and a potential detriment to this grape’s classic character.

Although far from a Grignolino expert (assuming such a thing even exists), I will go ahead and pronounce this wine as aligning quite well with what I have read about its source varietal. It is weird, it is strange, and it is astoundingly elegant in spite of it all, with the somewhat burly levels of alcohol not immediately marring any of these signatures. I guess I know on which pole I land when it comes to the Grignolino dialectic.  Stay tuned for the next Italian encounter.

89+ points


Cork Rating: 5/10 (a tad stubby, but the producer is noted in a decent font.)



One response

29 03 2020
Jerzy (Jurek)

Jonathan (Marco’s son) took over full control of winery and vineyards in February 2020. From my experience of importing Crivelli Grignolino to Alberta, since 2016, the 2018 vintage was one of the most interesting (maybe for my taste?). Honestly every vintage of Grignolino is different. I am looking forward to bring the 2019 vintage…bottled last March 15, 2020.
Good article!


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