A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Pugnitello - Tuscany, Italy
Some of the larger shops have their Italian sections broken up into smaller, region-specific sections as well, and there are some parts of Italy that I really linger over and some parts that I blow right by. I really dive in to the sections devoted to the wines of Piedmont (or anywhere in northern Italy, really) and Sicily in particular, but the region that I find that I skip over the most is Tuscany. It's certainly not because I don't love wines from this region, it's just that for the most part, Tuscany's wines are very mainstream and the grapes that they use for nearly all of the wines are very well known. I've been dying to try a wine made mostly from some of the supporting players in Chianti like Colorino or Canaiolo, but so far haven't had any luck in finding one. The DOC reds are almost all made from Sangiovese of one form or another while the IGT wines are nearly all some blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I am a big fan of these wines at my dinner table, but for the purposes of this website, Tuscany doesn't provide me with a lot of material. To date, I've only written about one wine from Tuscany, a Teroldego/Syrah blend that was very nice, but which has proven to be an extreme outlier in the world of Tuscan wine.
Which is too bad, because it turns out that there are a lot of grapes that are native to Tuscany that may be of some interest to the wine world. In the 1980's, a group of researchers got together with the aim of identifying and preserving what was left of the native grape population throughout Tuscany in an attempt to stave off the selective extinction of a large number of heirloom grape varieties. They visited 500 estates throughout Tuscany and identified 229 different grapes that were growing throughout the region. They took samples and planted 18 vines of each of them in an experimental vineyard property owned by the San Felice winery called "Vitiarium." A large number of the vines produced grapes that were of no commercial or viticultural interest, but a few of them showed some potential. In 1990 the researchers selected 13 of the most interesting vines and made small lots of wine from the grapes produced at Vitiarium. Of those 13, a grape called Pugnitello quickly established itself as the star of the show, and the San Felice winery planted 1000 cuttings of the vine for more large-scale experimentation. The first commercial bottlings were made in 2003 and have been made each year except for 2005. In many cases, the governmental authorities are slow to recognize new discoveries like Pugnitello, but in 2002, the Italian Ministry of Agriculture put Pugnitello in the National Registry of Vine Varieties, and in 2003 the Tuscan Regional Commission approved Pugnitello for use throughout the region. As of today, only a few wineries other than San Felice are making a varietal Pugnitello, but it is happening.
The original Pugnitello vine had been found in a vineyard near the town of Cinigiano, which is just southwest of Montalcino in Tuscany. The owner of the vineyard site had no information about the grape itself and there doesn't appear to be any record of the grape in any previous ampelographical work. The name Pugnitello was given to the grape because the clusters resemble little balled up fists (pugno, in Italian). The researchers conducted DNA testing on the grape and have thus far found no genetic links to any other existing grape varieties. It's easy to imagine how the grape could have been overlooked in the past. From a grower's perspective, it doesn't have much to recommend it. The clusters are very small and the berries themselves are on the smallish side with thick skins. The vine is also a naturally low-yielder, so pretty much any way you look at it, it doesn't look like a very profitable vine to grow.
Except for the fact that it makes really interesting wine. On the consumer end of things, we often think that this should really be the only consideration given when one decides to plant and tend to the vine, but in reality, good wine is not always profitable for the grower, and it's all too easy to see how over time growers would abandon low-yielding, unreliable vines that make excellent wine for higher yielding varieties that make an inferior product, but make more of it and make it more reliably. Those of us interested in characterful, interesting, different kinds of wines owe a great debt to growers and researchers who are committed to discovering and maintaining the great diversity of vines, whether their efforts pay off with a discovery like Pugnitello or not. The world could very easily shift over to the major ten or so major grape varieties tomorrow without too much gnashing of teeth from the wine drinkers of the world, but part of what I really love about wine is its variety and the seemingly inexhaustible supply of grapes as source material. I am grateful when I hear about discoveries like Pugnitello because I'm certain that the discovery won't lead to any kind of major financial windfall for its discoverers, but the fact that they were curious enough to go out and find something like Pugnitello and make wine from it just so that they could see what might happen really excites me.
Curtis Liquors in Weymouth invited me to his back room to sample a Mavrotragano from Santorini, Greece, he had been given. As he mentions in the comments to that post, his disappointment was as great as mine was at how the Mavrotragano turned out, but little did I know that he had a backup plan. Joe hadn't told me about the Pugnitello before I showed up, but given the Mavrotragano's poor showing, he was gracious enough to open a bottle of the 2006 San Felice Pugnitello da San Felice that he had also been given as a sample bottle. I'm not sure about the SRP, but online prices for this wine seem to be somewhere between $36 and $60. In the glass, the wine was a deep purple ruby color with a medium purple-crimson rim. The nose was somewhat reserved with savory leathery funk over a bit of red cherry fruit. As the wine opened up a bit, some darker, blacker fruits started to show up as well. On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and medium tannins. There were ripe cherry fruit flavors with a bit of blackberry, leather, cocoa and espresso. The wine walked the line between dark, ripe fruits and savory, earthy flavors extraordinarily well. It was a bit closer to Brunello than Chianti in style, but really walked the line between the two nicely. This is a very very good wine and it was universally preferred amongst the local distributor's and customer's in Joe's back room to the flashier, oakier Mavrotragano that had preceded it. Yes, this wine sees some new oak, but it's much more integrated here and it gives the grape a chance to express itself in the glass. If you run across this rarity, I'd definitely recommend it to you not only for the great story, but also for the great wine you'll find in your glass.