Monferrato, an under-appreciated jewel

Monferrato lies at the heart of Italy’s Piemonte region but its wines are less well known than Barolo and Gavi. It’s time for the region to become more appreciated. For publication in the week starting 25 July 2016.

Part of Monferrato received UNESCO heritage status in 2014 to showcase the hundreds of historic wine cellars known as “infernot”. These caves, carved out of the soft tuffaut sandstone, were used to store produce before refrigeration, and maintain constant temperature and high humidity.

Monferrato is known for truffles and the Grignolino grape. The black truffle is more common and less expensive than the famous white truffle. The latter sells for between 2,000 and 4,000 Euros a kilogram, depending on their scarcity during the season. Black truffles fetch only about a seventh of that price.

Grignolino makes wines similar in hue to red burgundy. They tend to be light bodied with pronounced fruity aromas plus high acids and tannin. The name derives from the word grignole in the Piemontese dialect, which means “many pips”. These seeds contribute to the high tannins.

Local winemakers tame the tannins through gentle pressing which produces a wine that tastes a little like Beaujolais. Carlo Santopietro makes a delightful Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese at his estate, full of fruity joy and a perfect companion to pasta with truffle shavings. He tells us that a well-trained truffle dog can cost up to 15,000 Euros. Dogs replaced pigs as truffle searchers because dogs don’t eat the truffles.

Most Grignolino is made into still wine though small amounts of sparkling are available. The man who invented the process for making Prosecco, Professor Federico Martinotti, was born in the town of Casale, once the capital of Monferrato.

Grignolino has traditionally played a supporting role in other areas of Piemonte. Under new DOC/DOCG rules Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato must contain a minimum of 85 per cent of Barbera, which means a place for Grignolino, Dolcetto and Freisa as blending companions.

In English Dolcetto means “slightly sweet” (dolce is Italian for sweet). The grape produces fresh yet dry red wines with moderate tannin. These wines tend to be consumed young. Ampelographers, the people who study the history of grapes, believe Freisa originated in north Piemonte, and is probably related to Nebbiolo, used to make Barolo. Piemonte sits in the foothills of the Alps that form Italy’s natural border with France and Switzerland.

A century ago ago Freisa was Piemonte’s most planted variety. Like Nebbiolo, it produces wines with pronounced tannins and acidity. Traditionally it was made into a sweet style to balance those influences. This has produced a range of opinions. American wine guru Robert Parker once described wines made from Freisa as “totally repugnant”. The name probably came from the French word for strawberry, fraise, reflected in the flavours of the young wine.

Paul Balke, author of the Piemonte Wine and Travel Atlas, said Barbera and Nebbiolo replaced Freisa after the phylloxera crisis in the late nineteenth century because they were more in demand. “Only 2,000 hectares of Freisa are left in Piemonte. Freisa can produce delicious wines. It is time for a closer look.”

Monferrato Dolcetto DOC and Monferrato Freisa DOC are relatively rare, Balke said, and up to 15 per cent of other red grapes are permitted in the blend. A generic Monferrato red is also made that contains a range of red grapes as well as those already mentioned, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Ruche. Monferrato also produces a rare rose known as Monferrato Chiaretto that can be made from any of the red grapes discussed earlier, along with Cabernet Franc and Bonarda Piemontese.

White wines from Monferrato usually contain the traditional Piemontese grapes of Arneis and Cortese, and will be discussed in a future column. Chardonnay is the most popular international alternative, along with Sauvignon Blanc and Timorasso. The last is not common in Monferrato, and originated in nearby Colli Tortonesi which is not part of Monferrato.

In Colli Tortonesi, Paolo Carlo Ghislandi produces exceptional wines from Timorasso. The whites will be discussed in another column. His beautiful 2008 Bruma d’Autunno Barbera offers saline and balsamic notes and feels like a high-quality Douro red. About 20 million years ago the area was an ocean, and the minerality in Ghislandi’s wines echo the history of the calcerous soil.

This red feels opulent and majestic, and came from vines planted in 1926. “A winemaker is an artist and an engineer, and sometimes you also need to be a magician to understand the future,” he joked. Donatella Gianotti’s reds under the Cascina Montagnola label from the same region also impressed.

Piemonte expert Balke says many of Monferrato’s DOCs overlap. The wine map resembles a “plate of spaghetti” rather than a logical system. The hills have hundreds of communes, each with its own castle and history, he said. Many people left the region after WW2 to find work in the Fiat car factories in the city of Turin, Piemonte’s capital. Many vineyards were abandoned and some uprooted.

That situation has changed in recent decades as wine tourism has evolved, accelerated by the influence of the Slow Food movement and a desire among city dwellers to find a more relaxed and balanced lifestyle in the country. Small companies with a natural focus that grow medicinal herbs, ingredients for cosmetics and organic vegetables are doing well.

A feature of restaurants in the area, of which Osteria Piemontemare in Gavi offers an excellent example, is the “zero kilometre” rule whereby restaurants only use ingredients they can source locally. Osteria Piemontemare’s owner Roberto Ghio makes beautiful wine at his Bosio estate which pair well with his lovely food.

Many argue that Piemonte produces the best wine in Italy, mostly because of the reputation of Gavi and Barolo. Four bottles in five come under a DOC or DOCG designation, more than any other region in the country. Future columns will discuss other less well-known wines from Piemonte.

Words: 999

Categories: Italy, Not home, wine

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