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.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Pigato - Riviera Ligure di Ponente, Ligura, Italy

Today marks Fringe Wine's first foray into the tiny region of Liguria in Italy.  In fact, if I'm not mistaken, with today's post, Fringe Wine will have covered a wine from each of the individual regions within Italy.  Liguria is the last to be covered not because they lack interesting wines, but because they make so little of them and export even fewer.  Liguria is next-to-last in vineyard area and total volume of production within Italy, ahead only of the Valle d'Aosta.  When you look at a map of Italy, it's pretty easy to see why.  Liguria is a tiny region in northwestern Italy, right below Piemonte, that forms a narrow band that just wraps above the Ligurian Sea.  The landscapes here are dramatic, as there are steep hillsides and mountains that begin sometimes right at the shoreline and stretch back into Piemonte.  So what you have is an area that isn't that big to begin with that has very difficult ground to work, which results in a relatively small amount of wine being made.  Further, Liguria is a tourist haven, given their long shoreline and dramatic vistas, so much of the wine that is made locally is also consumed locally either by tourists or by the Ligurian natives.

I've been reading a lot about Italian wine over the past year or so, and have been eagerly seeking out some wines made from the unique grapes that are found in Liguria.  I've managed to pick up a few that we'll get around to in the near future, but for today, I want to talk about a grape called Pigato.  Pigato was probably the first Ligurian grape that I was able to try, though the first bottle that I bought was well past its prime.  It took me a few months, but I was able to find a replacement and I've been eagerly anticipating writing about this grape for a little while now.  I started flipping through some of my books to start my research off and noticed that there seems to be some controversy about just where Pigato may have come from, which started to get me even more excited since I just love those kinds of controversies.  And then I went to the Oxford Companion to Wine, who says that "DNA profiling showed that pigato and vermentino, both long-established in Liguria, and Favorita, cultivated in Piemonte, are all identical."

My heart sank.  There were all these great stories about how maybe Caesar's legions planted the grape in Liguria or that maybe the grape came over from Greece or maybe how it might have something to do with Arneis, but it didn't look like any of them were true.  The Oxford Companion doesn't cite their sources within the text, so I had to do some digging to find the article that they were referencing, and sure enough, in a study published in 1995, the proof was found.  The study itself was done to see whether microsatellite sequence-tagging was an effective method of differentiating between cultivars, and it turns out that it is (in fact,  nearly all DNA testing to determine relations between grapes use some form of microsatellite tagging these days).  The scientists took several different grape varieties grown in both Italy and Australia and ran them through the test to see whether the different varieties could be distinguished from one another and, further, whether the clonal variants from the geographically disparate regions would show up as the same grape.  Both tests were successful, but buried within the paper is the fact that in the course of the testing, Pigato, Vermentino and Favorita all tested as genetically identical, meaning essentially that they are clonal variants of the same grape.

It has long been suspected that Pigato has some relationship to Vermentino, with a few people believing that they may actually be the same grape, but the Italian officials currently recognize them as separate grapes (and, further, recognize Favorita as a separate grape as well).  I don't know if this has always been the case, as Nicolas Belfrage, in his Barolo to Valpolicella, mentions that there is reference to a grape called vermentino pigato, or spotted Vermentino, in a book called Bollettino Ampelografico published in 1883.  It kind of sounds like what may have happened is that there was a mutation of Vermentino at some point that had splotchy pigmentation on its skin which was then separated and cultivated on its own, but was still recognized as a variant of Vermentino (much like how Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are variants on Pinot Noir).  At some point, though, people may have just gotten tired of saying Vermentino Pigato and started calling the splotchy grape Pigato for short.  Over time, the connection to Vermentino wasn't totally forgotten, but it fell far enough by the wayside that Vermentino and Pigato started to be seen as totally different grapes.  Even with the DNA testing done and published, many sources are still not aware of the connection even today.  Bastianich and Lynch, for example, believe the Greek origin story for Pigato in their Vino Italiano, which was most recently updated in 2005.

This is all leading to a thorny question, and it's one that I've written about a few other times here as well without any kind of resolution that feels satisfactory to me.  Where do we draw the line in deciding which grapes are distinct and which are merely synonyms?  DNA testing, at least as it currently stands, isn't the answer since if DNA is all we are concerned with, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris shouldn't be considered separate grapes.  I wonder, in this case, if the odd, splotchy pigmentation on the skins of the Pigato grape is sufficient to make the case for its differentiation from Vermentino?  If so, then what about the different sub-varieties of Catarratto that have greater or lesser amounts of a foggy kind of bloom on their skins?  How can we accept the one and not the other?

The short answer is that I don't know.  For the purposes of this site, Pigato, Favorita and Vermentino are all considered separately in virtually every text that I have, so I will follow their lead.  We'll just have to know that they are indistinguishable from one another within the context of modern DNA analysis and marvel that modern science has allowed us to see so deeply into what makes up these individual plants, but for some of them, our own crude eyes may still be the best tool to tell them apart.

The first Pigato based wine that I was able to try was the 2005 Bruna "Le Ruseghine" from the Riviera Ligure di Ponente DOC, located just west of Genova and just south of Piemonte.  The wine set me back about $34, which, unfortunately, isn't all that unusual for wines from Liguria.  The unforgiving geography means that most of the vineyard work must be done by hand rather than by machine, which means that labor costs are higher.  Further, the touristy nature of the region means that they can get away with charging higher prices for the local tourist trade, and so most people do.  In the glass the wine was a light gold color, showing a bit of its age.  The nose was fairly open with aromas of pineapple and grapefruit peel.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of lemon, melon and citrus peel with a distinct and prominent stony kind of minerality to it.  Overall, the wine was old and there just wasn't really any two ways about it.  A lot of the fruit had faded to a bitter kind of pithiness and the wine was just clearly over the hill and suffering for it.

Luckily I was also able to find a 2009 Claudio Vio Pigato from the Riviera Ligure di Ponente from my friends at the Wine Bottega for a more reasonable $25.  The back of the bottle says that the grapes are "heroically cultivated" in the tough Ligurian terrain, though at least this producer is able to keep the overall costs below $30 a bottle.  In the glass the wine was a golden lemon color.  The nose was fairly reserved with a touch of lemon and grapefruit peel. I don't often say that a wine has a minerally nose, but this one did have a kind of steeliness to it.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  The fruits were again fairly muted in this wine with some flavors of lemon and lemon peel with pineapple and white pear.  There was a stony, almost flinty kind of minerality to it that had a harsh, bitter edge.  When opening the first bottle, I was certain that age had played a large role in the muted aromatics and flavor profile of the wine, but after this bottle, perhaps that's just characteristic of the grape.  Neither bottle really had much to recommend it, in my opinion, especially given the fairly high sticker prices on them.  They kind of tasted like Riesling that someone had sucked all of the fun out of.  If you're a fan of lean, steely white wines with acid to spare, then maybe Pigato is your thing.

1 comment:

Erwin said...

Hi Rob,
I really like your stories and investigations on grapes. This way I get to know a bit about that I never heard of.... Keep up the good work!