A Wine Meant To Scramble the Brain
Grignolino, hard to pronounce, is a light red that challenges you. In the best way possible.
So, I’m seeing a tiny bit of blowback to the In-and-Out list I published in Wednesday’s newsletter. Apparently, I have struck a nerve by declaring tinned fish, the espresso martini, and the country of Italy as being “Out.”
Fear not, friends, I still love tinned fish, espresso martinis, and Italia. But sometimes trendspotting requires cold-eyed observation. For instance, in 2021 tinned fish was “hot girl food.” In 2023? Well, we’ll just have to see.
One thing I am resolutely sticking to is 2023 as the Year of the Light Red. The reason I’m saying this is mainly because I really like light red wines and I would like you to enjoy them, too.
On Wednesday, we began our light-red journey in Liguria, with Rossese di Dolceacqua. Today, our next stop is Piemonte, where we check in on another of my favorite Italian reds, grignolino. The first issue with grignolino is one of pronunciation. Any American student of Italian can tell you that the “gn” of words like gnocchi is among the hardest to pronounce. So say it with me: gree-nyoh-LEE-noh.
Grignolino is an ancient variety in Piedmont, with the first mention of it dating to the mid 13th century. It’s always been grown in the Monferrato hills and around the province of Asti, always in the shadow of the more prestigious nebbiolo. If dolcetto has a shadow, then grignolino even falls in the shadow of dolcetto, too. That’s how obscure it is. It’s a light-bodied, pale wine that’s meant to be drunk young and unaged, and therefore most of it is consumed in Italy and never makes it to the U.S.
Yet just because it’s young, light in body, pale in color, and eminently drinkable doesn’t mean it’s simple. On the contrary, good grignolino scrambles the brain a little. It makes you take a step back, and then take another sip. How can something so light, so suggestively fruity and easy-drinking, also be so earthy, complex, and pack such a tannic punch?
The first clue is the name, which derives from the Piemontese word grignole meaning “many seeds.” Grignolino therefore is way more tannic than it appears, with a surprisingly bold backbone. The electric acidity is also jolting, along with the deep earthiness and minerality. As winemakers Eleonora Costa and Luigi Armanino (who produce their Crealto wines from 60-year-old grignolino vines) say about the grape: “odd wine, difficult wine, less lucrative but deeply loved.”
I poured several grignolino for some friends this week, and they kept commenting how dry it was. It’s true, and grignolino naturally wants food, even if it’s just a little prosciutto or bresaola. Honestly, because it’s so acidic, it’s one of the easiest wines to pair with pretty much the full range of Italian dishes. Cheese sauces, check. Tomato sauces, check. I had grignolino the other night with grilled artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes (so Out they’re In?) in a caper-lemon sauce and it was great with that impossible-to-pair combination.
Grignolino even pairs amazingly well with tinned fish. Regardless of tinned fish’s In or Out status.
Six Picks: Gaga For Grignolino
Gianni Doglia Grignolino d’Asti 2021, $17
Pale crimson in color, with nebbiolo-like notes of cherry, rose, herb, and pepper. On the palate, it’s fresh and vibrant, but with great underlying structure and earthiness. Excellent value.
Francesco Rinaldi Grignolino d'Asti 2021, $17
Pale ruby in color and also very nebbiolo-like. Here, the fresh cherry and berry notes take a back seat to the darker, earthier notes. Attractive tannins and a long mineral finish.
Crealto ‘Marcaleone’ Vino Rosso, $17
The producers themselves say of their grignolino: “odd wine, difficult wine, less lucrative but deeply loved.” This is a darker, fruitier style of the grape, with more black cherry, blackberry, plum, but still with a dry, stony finish.
Braida Limonte Grignolino d’Asti, $23
Light ruby in color, with savory, floral nose and a palate that’s surprisingly expansive, with flavors of cherry, herb, and a dry, stony finish.
Iuli ‘Natalin’ Vino Rosso, $20
Though you won’t find the grape or vintage on the label, this wine is made from 100 percent grignolino from the 2020 harvest. Light ruby, with a savory, earthy nose and flavors of black cherry and blackberry,
Luigi Spertino Grignolino d'Asti 2020, $30
Nose full of fresh herbs, cut flowers, warm citrus, and hints of amaro. Bright and fruity on the palate—fresh cherry, underripe berry—that’s enveloped by a swirl of peppery and savory notes.
Is Nerello Mascalese light enough to be on trend? Can't say I knew it when I bought two bottles and the first one caught me by surprise, I'll be better prepared when I get to the second bottle.