By Frank Cipparone
Anyone who has read this column for a while has probably noticed that I have a soft spot for grapes that don’t get a lot of attention. In what is a crowded field they might have been shunned as inferior or pushed to the background by familiar, readily available varieties with mass appeal. Some are so local they’re unknown outside the region where they grow. I once had a Tuscan winemaker admit she’d never heard of some grapes I mentioned from Puglia and Calabria.
Preserving Italy’s diverse vinicultural heritage is a noble endeavor, but not all grapes are created equal or deserve notoriety. There are as many misses as hits on the road to recognition. While I applaud the commitment of winemakers who rescue native varieties from obscurity, there are some I’ve tried that just don’t make the cut.
That can’t be said of Perricone, also known as Pugnitello, an unmistakably Sicilian wine I first tasted on a trip a few years ago. It was so different I wanted more of it. Of course, at the time, that meant it was easier to find Waldo than a bottle of Perricone in the states. So, I turned to a pair of true believers for insight: Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato of the well-known Firriato winery in Paceco, and Marilena Barbera, owner and winemaker of Cantine Barbera near Menfi. Both graciously agreed to conduct virtual interviews to spread the news about a unique grape Barbera describes as the “deep and intense soul of western Sicily.”
Perricone’s story reads like that of any number of long-forgotten Italian grapes. Near Palermo and Trapani it was blended with white grapes to make ambrato, a countrified farmhouse rosato, and is still used to make ruby Marsala. Its was valued as a coloring agent and for its ability to combine with tannins to make wines more age-worthy. As Barbera points out, “ … when there was almost no Nero d’Avola in the west, Perricone was the only grape farmers could use to make red wines with intense body and longevity.”
There were interacting natural factors that led to Perricone’s decline. For one, this soulful grape, like its environment, is such a tough customer it’s a wonder anyone works with it. Even those invested in it acknowledge the constant difficulties they
face. Perricone is thin-skinned and ripens late, meaning changes in normal weather patterns can be disastrous. If certain naturally occurring compounds are elevated it can be abrasive, or in Barbera’s words, “… give birth to sometimes grouchy wines, especially
in rainy vintages.”
It’s also not very productive, which caused growers to switch to other grapes in the last half of the 20th century. “Remember,” adds Lombardo di Monte Iato, “grapes were sold by weight, so farmers needed to have guaranteed production.” The dramatic results are confirmed by the numbers — in the early 1900s there were 85,000 acres of Perricone; at present there are about 365, making it the 20th most planted variety in Sicily. That represents a mere 0.3% of the island’s grapes.
To Barbera, “It’s a real pity.We Sicilians lost confidence in our quality, and following what the market wanted seemed the only way out. Many started to abandon our grapes in favor of international ones, a trend that continues. Producers plant Pinot Noir, Syrah and say nobody knows Perricone … that it’s inconceivable to promote a
wine with a difficult name to pronounce. “
That’s not the only commercial challenge. According to Barbera, Perricone must undergo a long period of refining, making it almost impossible to produce the type of fresh, fruity wines today’s consumers are looking for. “Making a wine that needs a minimum of three years before it becomes friendly,” she continues, “is not an option for the big, industrial wineries in west Sicily.” Her fellow Perricone advocate at Firriato notes that “ … it’s difficult because Italy in general, and Sicily in particular, has a lot of native vines, so it’s a winemaking and marketing challenge to help consumers identify Perricone as a quality grape that makes wonderful wine.”
The news isn’t all bad. Because Perricone thrives in Sicily’s terrain and climate it makes for full-bodied, darkly colored wines whose strong tannins house ripe flavors of cherries, plums and dark berries mixed with green herbs and peppery spices. Rough and rustic when young, Perricone will develop balance and depth as it matures.
Barbera’s optimism and commitment are evident. “Perricone that you find today is made by small producers, people who love their vineyards and respect their grapes.
They will keep it alive. It will be our
signature grape for years to come. We will work to offer the best expression of Perricone in every vintage.” IAH
Firriato Perricone can be found in Pennsylvania and Wine Works in Marlton, New Jersey. Other producers are available at Astor Wines in Manhattan and at winesearcher.com.