Over nearly half a century, Gino Bardone, owner of his family’s classic Piedmont countryside restaurant Del Belbo Da Bardon, has watched one of the world’s great wine scenes change.
Located just outside of Nizza Monferrato in the Province of Asti, the restaurant offers a wine list that today is topped by legends such as Giacomo Conterno’s Barolo Monfortino Riserva, with vintages dating back to 1949. But even more importantly for his day-to-day customers, it also holds delicious bargains such as the light, crisp, local red variety Grignolino.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, Grignolino was a wine of signori, the well-to-do,” explains Bardone, who has worked here since childhood. “They started the meal with Grignolino and then finished it with a glass of Barolo.”
“If you drink Grignolino first,” he adds, his eyes brightening as he speaks, “it prepares the palate, and Barolo explodes in the mouth.”
Well, sign me up for that program!
Grignolino—delicately perfumed, crisp, relatively low in alcohol and so pale it’s only halfway to red—fell out of fashion amid the wave of big, bold wines that arrived in the late 20th century. But now, like many varieties from Piedmont, it’s made a comeback in recent years. In Italy, its renown has been helped by Argentina-born Pope Francis, who has family roots in Asti and reportedly likes a glass with his meals. (In November, Italian newspapers devoted coverage to a Piedmontese lunch, complete with Grignolino, that the pope ate at his cousin’s home.)
For me, however, the discovery came relatively recently, when a series of summer heat waves in Italy sent me searching for chillable reds. I’ve become a fan—and not just in the summer.
On a fall trip through Piedmont, my first stop was at Olim Bauda in Nizza Monferrato, run by the Grignolino-loving Bertolino family.
“Most people want more well-known wines like Barolo, Barbaresco or Barbera,” says Dino Bertolino, the family’s self-taught production manager. “But we love Grignolino; it’s part of our patrimony.”
In 1961, Dino’s father, Agostino, bought Olim Bauda, which for centuries had been a noble farm estate (owned for a time by 19th-century star operatic tenor Giovanni Battista De Negri). Here, he continued the family tradition of making and bottling Piedmont wines, including Grignolino.
The modern story of Olim Bauda, however, began more than a decade after Agostino’s premature death in the 1980s.
In 1998, after years of selling their harvest, Agostino’s three 20-something children decided to make a couple hundred cases of Barbera, the wine for which the estate and the region are best known.
“The grapes were beautiful for the second year in a row, and the idea was to use that occasion to restart things,” Dino says.
In 2002, Dino and siblings Gianni and Diana bought a new Barbera vineyard for Olim Bauda’s Barbera d’Asti Superiore Le Rocchette. In that vineyard were rows of Grignolino.
The Bertolinos studied, experimented with and replanted a selection of the Grignolino vines, eventually filling about two-and-a-half acres. In 2010, they vinified the grapes and produced their first bottles, with help from their longtime friend and enologist Giuseppe Caviola.
For centuries, Grignolino was a coveted wine of the area, but it’s easy to understand how it dwindled. The vines demand the best, well-exposed hillsides but produce little fruit, less juice and—as other varieties took off—comparatively little economic return. The variety takes its name from the fact that the berries are loaded with seeds, which are the source of its tannins.
“Seed tannins are completely different than skin tannins,” Dino explains. “When they are not ripe, they can be very green and much more aggressive.”
But when made right, Grignolino is gorgeous.
Olim Bauda’s Grignolino d’Asti Isolavilla is a straightforward, un-oaked version made in stainless steel tanks, fermented with indigenous yeasts and only lightly filtered.
I tasted several vintages that had the color of cranberry juice, the aromas of white flowers and red fruit, and tight, pleasant tannins that rolled down the center of the tongue with a slightly astringent finish. This is a great food wine.
Olim Bauda’s 700 cases per year of Grignolino are part of a modest Grignolino wave that includes stellar Asti area producers, such as Braida di Giacomo Bologna and Luca Ferraris, along with the Barolo area’s Cavallotto (whose tiny-production version is labeled Langhe Grign).
“Some of the first clients who wanted our Grignolino were in America and Japan,” says Gianni Bertolino, Olim Bauda’s sales director. “Now it’s on the return, with the demand for lighter wines. It’s the sommeliers who are asking to put it on their lists.”
Grignolino is amazing to me for two reasons. First, it’s just more proof of the crazy diversity in Piedmont. The more wine producers and researchers dig into the old vineyards, the more they seem to find. The region keeps giving. Second, Grignolino is a particularly intriguing grape. Close your eyes and you can wonder, “What am I drinking? A red? A white? Or something else?”
All too often, I’ve seen Italian producers respond to the boom of pale Provençal-style rosés by adding copycat pinks to their lineups. This does not make a lot of sense to me, given that Italy has real alternatives to offer in its native, lighter reds. More than a half-dozen such types of wine come to mind that have history, character and add an interesting dimension to a meal. Not the least of them is Grignolino.