The Pope’s Vineyard

by Christina on March 26, 2014

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This article first appeared in Gourmet Traveller Wine‘s October/November 2013 issue. Read it here in its full form:

As our van lugs its way up winding hills to the town of Portacomaro, I see it. A giant banner splashed across a retaining wall near the town’s entrance reads, “Portacomaro Saluta Papa Francesco, uno di Noi” (“Portacomaro welcomes Pope Francis, one of us”). An enlarged image of the newly elected Pope Francis peers down at us. Beside the road outside a corner shop is another life-sized poster; this time the Pope appears to be blessing the shop’s fruit stalls. The ex-Cardinal Bergoglio is, of course, Argentinean, but his roots are here in this 2000-strong hilltop town in the region of Monferrato, Piedmont in northwest Italy where his grandfather and father lived, and where the Pope visits his remaining relatives whenever nearby. Monferrato is an extremely traditional region deeply connected to winemaking. It produces two-thirds of all of Piedmont’s wine, including the famed barbera and moscato of Asti. The Pope’s grandfather produced “the best grignolino [wine] in the region,” according to a former town mayor. 

So it comes as no surprise that the Pope appears to be a wine man himself. In his first papal speech, he made reference to ageing wine as a metaphor for getting older. The day after his election, he appeared on national Italian television declaring grignolino to be his favourite grape, a variety he would’ve grown up with.

One of the region’s forgotten varieties amidst Piedmont’s wealth of indigenous grapes, grignolino had its hey day in the early 20th century when it was drunk by royalty and therefore highly prized. Back then, one kilo of grignolino was three times more expensive than today’s Piedmont celebrity, the nebbiolo grape of Barolo.

These days, however, it has nearly been forgotten, with only 60 producers making grignolino in the world. This is probably because it’s not an easy grape to grow. Its tight bunches are susceptible to rot and it is naturally high in tannins (thanks to extra seeds, known as “grignole”), yet light in body and colour. When compared to nebbiolo or barbera, it’s a much tougher grape to get right. And yet when winemakers do, the results are spectacular.

The colour of a dark rosé (although don’t dare call it that), its perfume of crushed berries, mountain flowers, herbs, and white pepper evoke the region’s rusticity, but the delicate nose belies the power awaiting on the palate. Mouth-cleansing acidity and those tightly wound tannins (naturally occurring, grignolino almost never sees oak) are interwoven with bright red berries and flowers resulting in surprising intensity. Its structure is what makes this paradoxical wine exceptionally food friendly, perfect for salami, smoked fish, and medium-aged cheeses.

So it seems Pope Francis has good taste in wine, and perhaps with such a celebrity endorsement, grignolino will once again gain some of the recognition it deserves.

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