From wine, food, to striking landscapes, Italy endlessly delights. Traversing the boot of Europe evokes visiting a dozen different countries as inhabitants of each province seek to preserve their singular heritage, including indigenous grapes. However, some regions, notably Monferrato in Piedmont, boast high numbers of autochthonous grapes which persist beyond mere novelty. In other words, Monferrato’s native grapes are commercially viable, delicious and worth seeking out. Here’s a look at how and why the region’s fascinating array of wines survived obscurity to become hidden gems.
In 1946, wine producers in Monferrato joined with their counterparts in Barbera d’Asti to create a consortium. Today, the organization known as Consorzio Barbera d’Asti e Vini del Monferrato or Consortium of Barbera d’Asti and Monferrato Wines, boasts 354 participating wineries, covering 13 different appellations. The consortium has myriad objectives, one being to support and promote heritage grapes. Though Barbera is a flagship variety of the region, many other grapes, some cultivated since the Middle Ages, remain critical to maintaining Monferrato’s fascinating biodiversity. Dedication to the preservation of those grapes is testified to by the high number of appellations protected by the consortium. Of course, Barbera d’Asti DOCG leads the pack, followed by denominations covering specific varieties such as red grapes Dolcetto, Ruché, Grignolino, Freisa and Albarossa plus white grape Cortese.
Barbera, the most widely planted grape in Piedmont, produces rich, concentrated wines. Fruit-forward flavors are redolent of black and red berries, licorice, and spice with a frame of velvety tannins. The appellation of Barbera d’Asti was upgraded to a DOCG in 2008 since the hills around Asti have proven fertile and favorable ground for Barbera. The reputation of Barbera d’Asti DOCG, plus the accessibility of its taste, quality and price point, make it popular amongst locals. The Superiore designation calls for 12 months ageing with at least six months in barrel. D’Asti has great maturation potential, often evolving favorably for 6-10 years in the cellar.
Officially recognized in 2014, the Nizza DOCG is a newer appellation devoted exclusively to Barbera. Wines are deep ruby red, dry and full-bodied, much like their counterparts in d’Asti, the appellation in which Nizza was formerly a sub-region.
Another signature variety of Monferrato is Dolcetto. In fact, this red grape known as the “little sweet one” is Piedmont’s third significant variety with 11 appellations of origin and a long history of production. Wines from Dolcetto d’Asti DOC and Monferrato DOC offer an appealing fruitiness, moderate to low acidity, deep color, and affordable price point, making it a consumer favorite. Dolcetto is usually bottled alone (no blending) and consumed while youthful in order to enjoy its cherry flavors and almond finish.
Those with an adventurous palate should consider Ruché. This rare grape grows around Castagnole Monferrato in the appellation of Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG. Thought to originate from a grape variety imported by monks from Burgundy, the wine earned recognition as a DOC in 1987, later elevated to a DOCG in 2010. Younger wines bottled without oak best express the grape’s propensity for perfume. The pale ruby-hued wine brims with aromatics suggestive of sun-ripened strawberries and black cherries, flowers, cinnamon stick, and white pepper.
Though harder to find in the U.S. market, the dry red wines of Grignolino deserve discovering. A good place to look for Grignolinio: wine bars and restaurants governed by thoughtful sommeliers. Though transparent and relatively light in hue, Grignolino d’Asti DOC offers firm tannins and bright acidity with aromatics ranging from Moroccan rose, African violet to forest berries. Production of Grignolino has been well-documented over centuries, making it one of the area’s legacy grapes. It can be difficult to cultivate, a likely factor in declining production numbers, yet when crafted with deft and finesse, results prove fantastic.
Freisa, found in the Freisa d’Asti DOC of Monferrato, delivers fragrant rose and red raspberry aromas and flavors. Typically bottled alone, this red grape is one of the area’s oldest varieties and a relative to Nebbiolo. Freisa’s versatility allows it to be produced in a range of styles. Look for lightly sparkling aperitif expressions, dry still table wines, to traditional farmer-favorite sweet styles for sipping alongside fruit-based desserts.
Another uncommon red variety is Albarossa. The grape was created in the late 1930s by a professor who crossed Barbera with Chatus. Though unrelated to Nebbiolo, Albarossa can fool the nose with its rose and violet aromatics, though on the palate it tends towards soft tannins, fresh acidity and a medium to full body. In 2001, the Monferrato Rosso DOC welcomed its use in blends and as a varietal wine.
Though Monferrato excels at red grapes, producers make beautiful white wines, too. Consider Cortese dell’Alto Monferrato DOC. Cultivated mainly in the province of Asti and in the northeast around Casale, wines from Cortese are typically dry, crisp and bright with aromas and flavors of white flowers, stone fruit, and citrus finishing with a touch of bitterness. Better bottlings showing structure and the possibility of aging.
Of course, the best way to discover Monferrato’s hidden gems is to visit. However, if such circumstances don’t align, pick up a few of these wines and take a virtual tour of the Monferrato hills using your glass at home.