Monferrato’s famous five

The most common complaint from those who know Piemonte well is that attention is overwhelmingly given, often exclusively given, to one grape variety, Nebbiolo, and one sub-region, the Langhe. The latter does contain the two great denominations of Barolo and Barbaresco but there is so, so much more to Piemonte. It has such great vinous variety that it is difficult to think of an international comparison.  Regarding Piemonte as just Barolo and Barbaresco would be like thinking of the Rhône Valley as just Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. However, the Rhône, unlike the Langhe, is not home to many grape varieties that make monovarietal wines, nor in addition to two contrasting styles of sparkling wine.  Similarly, Bordeaux has a range of styles but its whites, dry and sweet, and reds are predominantly similar blends. By comparison, even Monferrato on its own is a sub-region of great varietal diversity. 

Monferrato’s grape varieties

Two varieties dominate the plantings in Monferrato, Barbera for red wines and Moscato for sparkling, sweet, low alcohol wines. But the region also has the red varieties, Freisa, Ruchè, Grignolino, Albarossa and Brachetto.  Robin Kick MW, counts all of these, except Albarossa, as major varieties and notes that Piemonte as a whole has a further 36 rare varieties in production and perhaps a total of 300 varieties.* Thus, in general terms, Monferrato is home to Moscato, Barbera, Brachetto, Grignolino, Freisa, Ruchè and Albarossa and those are just its better-established varieties, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and some international varieties (mercifully few!) are also grown, but they are not particularly associated with the area. As Brachetto is mainly made as a sweet, semi-sparkling, low alcohol wine, we will consider Monferrato’s ‘famous five’ as Barbera, Grignolino, Freisa, Ruchè and Albarossa.

The chart below shows the production statistics. In the red varieties, Barbera towers above all others.

Notes: The Barbera denominations here are Barbera d’Asti DOCG (28.3m), Piemonte DOC Barbera grown in Monferrato (19m), Barbera del Monferrato DOC (3.8m) and Nizza DOCG (1.2m). The figure for Albarossa production is an estimate based on the hectares planted. **

For the sake of comparison, the total Barbera production of more than 52 million bottles was dwarfed by the 87 million bottles of Asti and Moscato d’Asti. Thus, we can see that there are two giants in the region, Barbera and Moscato, and then other varieties planted in smaller, and often, very small amounts.

But small can be beautiful

Of course, wine lovers are not that swayed by sheer numbers. Nebbiolo, unquestionably Piemonte’s greatest grape variety, is only the region’s third most planted after Barbera and Moscato. Further, it is only in the last decade that it overtook the humble Dolcetto. However, more broadly, we are seeing a wonderful revival of interest in local grape varieties, championed by Ian d’Agata among others. So what does the Monferrato have to offer by way of local red varieties? Here we will consider Grignolino (11th most planted in Piemonte), Ruchè (19th) and Albararossa (20th) in more detail. Freisa (10th) will have to wait as I have not tasted enough examples.

Update: I wrote about Freisa separately here: Freisa, Nebbiolo’s rustic relative

Monferrato's grape varieties
Four of the famous five, from the left: Barbera, Freisa, Grignolino, Ruchè
Grignolino – fragrant, austere and tannic near-rosé

This variety comes from the Monferrato and has a long documented past, back to the thirteen century. The main denominations for it are the rather larger Grignolino d’Asti and the smaller Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese DOC. As we have seen, in Piemonte as a whole, it is little planted and, indeed, is in modest retreat. It has dropped by nearly 20 per cent in the last decade but that shouldn’t put you off. The problem is two-fold. The variety has a high number of pips and therefore produces little juice (and therefore wine) and furthermore it is tannic and, if not well-made, given to bitterness. As a result, it needs real commitment from growers and very high standards to allow it to shine.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of committed people who want to take up the cause of this local champion. In particular, there is the group of enthusiasts under the banner of Monferace who are reviving a more traditional wine aged for a minimum of two years in oak (see Aldo Fiordelli’s article on Decanter Premium here.) But even aside from this particular splinter movement, there are plenty of examples of well-made wines released early. Top wines to try include Braida’s Limonte, Olim Bauda’s Isolavilla or Pio Cesare’s super pale Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese DOC. Note that the wine made by this famous house in the Langhe is from fruit grown in the part of the Monferrato that specialises in Grignolino to the extent that it has a DOC devoted exclusively to this variety – see the label immediately below.

As it happens, I love pale red wines which are more notable for their aromatic interest, internal tension and subtlety, rather than sheer heft – Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Langhe Nebbiolo come to mind. Grignolino shares many of these characteristics. In terms of colour, it is definitely pale with intriguing orange tints in even young wines (in the picture above, it is third from the left). It does look like a Nebbiolo relative but apparently is not one. Depending on the winemaker’s intention, it can be closer to a rosé than a red or it can be a bit deeper in hue. The nose is distinctly fragrant with rose, raspberry and cranberry notes enlivened by white pepper for added complexity. On the palate, the red berries quickly give way to a dry, austere style with firm, high tannins. If you tasted it blind, you could really only be in Italy but without the volume of top Nebbiolo or the bloody, earthly notes of Sangiovese or Nerello Mascalese. The combination of delicate aromatics and substantial structure make this a wine for the adventurous who will be richly rewarded.

Ruchè – super fragrant and exotic with a balancing structure

Ruchè smells like a bowl of roses, incense and red fruit, a truly aromatic variety, a real star in the galaxy of Piemontese red varieties. It probably originates from Castagnole Monferrato in the north-east corner of the sub-region. The main DOC for Ruchè is named after the town, hence Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato.

Ruchè is tricky to manage in the vineyard as it is so vigorous with many secondary shoots that need to be removed to stop the canopy getting too dense. Luca Ferraris, one of the leading producers and now the owner of the historic vineyard in which Ruchè survived, says that it costs three times as much as Barbera to manage, a good reason why it has only be championed by the totally committed. But it really is worth seeking out as it has the rare combination of a fully aromatic red grape variety with sufficient structure to balance the exotic taste. Top wines to try include Ferraris’ Opera Prima, the range of wines from Cantina Sant’Agata and the wines of Montalbera. Both Grignolino and Ruchè are available in some parts of the USA and via Tannico in the UK (try searching on Winesearcher).

Albarossa – the ‘BBQ wine’?

There are very few Italian grape varieties that I struggle to like or at least to appreciate. I love acidity and tannin in reds and understated fruit in white wines. However, I am yet to be persuaded by the charms of Albarossa. It is a modern crossing, made by the prolific Professor Dalmasso in the 1930s. The growers like to say it is a Barbera/Nebbiolo blend, which would be intriguing, but it turns out that the Nebbiolo in question is Nebbiolo di Dronero, properly known as Chatus. Looking back one might wonder why Dalmasso sought to improve on Barbera but of course really high-quality Barbera is a relatively recent phenomenon and he was trying to combine Barbera’s generosity with Nebbiolo’s innate quality. There is no specialist denomination for the variety and so it is mainly bottled as Piemonte DOC Albarossa.

The wines made with Albarossa are deep ruby in colour with expressive fruit in the blackberry to strawberry, red plum and cherry range, but, and here is the snag/distinctive point, ‘complicated by a strong note of tobacco’ as Ian d’Agata says. When I talked about the tobacco note to Stefano Chiarlo who makes one of the best examples (Michele Chiarlo, Piemonte DOC Albarossa), he just laughed and called it a BBQ wine. So that may well be the last word on this variety. The plantings of it are growing but from a tiny base. In 2008 there were 69 hectares, by 2018 this had grown to 118. Perhaps there are just not enough smokers or BBQ-lovers to boost its popularity? But if you get the chance, do try it – you might love it! Other good examples include Bava’s Rosingana and two well-known Langhe producers, Castello di Neive and Prunotto, are also believers.

Of course, Monferrato’s grape varieties, its famous five are just not famous enough yet, with the exception of Barbera. But this makes the journey of discovery ever more worthwhile. Let’s raise a glass to the vinous diversity of Monferrato.

*Robin Kick MW, ‘More than Nebbiolo: Lesser Known Indigenous Varieties of Piedmont’, presentation, 2020, private communication.  

** Production data from the Monferrato and the Asti consortiums and (for Barbera del Monferrato) Valoritalia. Albarossa planting data and the ranking of the size of plantings from L’annata vitivinicola in Piemonte.

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