I’m not much of a traditionalist when it comes to wine and food pairings. I love to cook, I love to cook simply and I love a wine that can pair with the food – but that can also be drunk on its own. White wines with good acidity and some structure are, I think, far more versatile than people generally give them credit for, and I am happy to pair them with many kinds of red meats.
Today, it is one of my go-to ground beef and vegetable dishes, and I’ve chosen a Pecorino.
What is Pecorino
In Italian, Pecorino can mean a few different things. It can mean a small sheep. It could be any of a variety of delicious cheeses – young or aged – made with sheep’s milk. Or it can refer to one of the Marche and Abruzzo’s indigenous treasures: a grape variety so named because its bunches resemble the sheep’s head so familiar to the bucolic region’s shepherds – or because those shepherds ate the grapes as they tended their flocks in the region’s mountains. Take your pick; both stories have currency.
In wine, Pecorino is a pale green grape with a decided bloom on its skin. It’s resistant to powdery and downy mildew. Blessed with fabulous acidity – and with high concentration due, in part, to its naturally low yields – the grape can cover a broad spectrum of wine styles, from sparkling to still to sweet. It can handle oak, but it doesn’t need it. Extended skin contact, as is often done in the Marche, will give it a lot of extract, but the wine can be light, fresh and zesty, particularly with the wines from Abruzzo.
The variety is ancient, but nobody beyond the Adriatic coast of Italy would know about it today had it not been “discovered” in the early 2000s, after having languished in relative obscurity for a couple of centuries, give or take. Thanks to some prominent sommeliers who fell in love with it, New York was the site of its launch into the renown it enjoys today.
But the revival of Pecorino can be traced back to just two individuals.
In fact, “revival” isn’t even the right word. Pecorino had never been on the market as a monovarietal wine until Guido Cocci Grifoni made one for the first time. Until then, it was just “part of the blend” for white wines from the Marche; many growers didn’t even know what it was that was mixed in with their white grapes in their vineyards.
The grape is challenging in the vineyard, despite its resistance to mildew. Yields are low and most of the existing vines are troubled by viruses. Its poor production is one of the main reasons the grape was abandoned by most grape growers in the area; no farmer wants a difficult, miserly crop when there are more productive, more easily-maintained alternatives.
Pecorino is the kind of success story that should inspire every lover of indigenous Italian grapes. In this case, a single man – the aforementioned Guido Cocci Grifoni – had tired of the other common local white grapes and was looking for something new. He heard about an ancient variety named Pecorino in the vineyards belonging to an octogenarian grape grower named Cafini, in a Marche village called Arquata del Tronto. Cocci Grifoni made cuttings in 1983, planting his own vineyard with them. The first monovarietal Pecorino took a bow in 1990.
When I talk about a success story, though, I mean more than simply that it was rediscovered and then went on to sell well. The grape sits well with sommeliers because of its versatility, its quality and its “newness”, which allowed them to buy at a very reasonable price and pass on good value to their customers – as well as being able to present something novel. Its high acidity, its good fruit, and its herb flavours allow it to pair well with a wide range of dishes and ingredients. And, with its high extract and concentration – not to mention generous alcohol – it’s a hit at home (the homes of the buyer) for people who want a solo white wine with substance and character, too. Added to this array of advantages, however, is the fact that it is resistant to some of the worst molds that grapes face, meaning it needs less spraying than many of its counterparts, making it a better choice for those looking at reducing their impact on the environment.
So thank goodness for Guido Cocci Grifoni! The wine world is, globally, blessed with individuals who eschew profit and personal gain (sometimes garnering it in spite of – or, perhaps, because of – those tendencies) in order to pursue their ideals. Particularly in Italy, those ideals are often tied in to the preservation of agricultural history, often in the face of great adversity.
But, even more than Cocci Grifoni, thank goodness for old farmers who don’t uproot their vines. Had Signor Cafini not had the vines which first enchanted Cocci Grifoni, we probably wouldn’t be drinking Pecorino today at all. It is to him that I raise my glass.
It’s a 2015 (!) vintage Pecorino bottled as a Colline Teatine IGT, made by the Cantina Wilma near to the city of Chieti in Abruzzo. Like all the wines made by Cantina Wilma, this Pecorino is organic, spontaneously fermented using indigenous yeasts, and vinified only in stainless steel – and with extended lees contact – to preserve the character of the grapes. They are bottled directly from barrel. There is no clarification, no filtration – not even stabilisation.
Cantina Wilma is new, founded just 12 years ago by Maurizio Nonno, a tradesman by profession. The estate makes four wines from its scant two hectares of vines. The wines are bottled as “Il Vino di Donna Tethi”, which is a nod to the legend that Chieti was founded by the mother of Achilles, who then bestowed the name “Theti” – her own mother’s name – on the fledgling settlement.
Besides Pecorino, the cantina makes two wines with the iconic Italian native grape Montepulciano: a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – one of Italy’s most recognisable red wines – and a Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, which is surely one of the world’s most underappreciated rosés. And there is a Trebbiano d’Abruzzo that I have not yet been able to try – I don’t even know which of the (too many) Trebbianos is used to make it. I hope very much it is Trebbiano Abruzzese, which can be fabulous, and not Trebbiano Toscano, which is not only far more common, but also far less interesting – better suited by far, in fact, to being used for the production of Vin Santo in Chianti, or for base wine destined for distillation into brandy, as is done with it in Cognac, where it is known by the name of Ugni Blanc.
The Tasting Note
The wine is already four years old, and 2015 was a beautiful, warm vintage. But with the extended lees contact, the lack of filtration and the high acidity of Pecorino, I was optimistic that it wouldn’t be showing too much age just yet.
The colour is a beautiful, deep lemon with more than a dash of brass.
The low-intervention character of the wine is immediately apparent on the nose, with plenty of ripe pear and apple skin, but also a bit of raw hazelnut and a strong floral character: arnica. As the wine opens up, there is a delightful element of apricot and lemon curd.
The wine is beautifully structured and has excellent texture. Sage and greengage emerge on the palate, with ginger bringing up the rear. Dried white flowers and a defined salty edge linger in the finish. The wine has 14% alcohol, but you wouldn’t think it – it remains fresh, elegant and relatively light; a medium-bodied white, but with enough heft to accompany dishes with some seasoning.
When I cook for my family or for myself, I nearly never use a recipe. I cook simply, and I try to make everything from scratch.
Today’s dish used:
- 400 grams low-fat ground beef (under 5% fat)
- Two stalks of celery, chopped
- Two medium carrots, chopped
- Two red peppers, chopped
- 80 grams mushrooms, sliced
- One jalapeño, chopped
- Paprika powder
- Tomato paste, triple-concentratated
- Olive Oil
All the vegetables go in an iron pan with the oil and get salted. When they start to get soft, I add the beef, the spices and the rosemary. Once the beef is browned, I add the mushrooms. When I feel the dish is done, I stir in some tomato paste. Finished!
Italian Food, Wine and Travel
To see what some other members of the Italian Food, Wine, and Travel group of bloggers have to say about Pecorino, check out their posts!
Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla will dazzle us with “Oven-Roasted Trout with Citrus Salsa Crudo + 2017 Lunaria “Civitas” Pecorino”
Gwendolyn, the Wine Predator is “Pairing Pecorino d’Abuzzo from Ferzo: Lemon Caper Shrimp #ItalianFWT”
Cindy at Grape Experiences does a “Twirl. Sip. Savor. Creamy Garlic Shrimp with Linguini with 2016 Tenuta Cocci Grifoni Offida Pecorino Colle Vecchio”
Cindy at Grape Experiences does a “Twirl. Sip. Savor: 2016 Tenuta Cocci Grifoni Offida Pecorino Colle Vecchio and Creamy Garlic Shrimp with Linguini”
Lauren at The Swirling Dervish asks “Looking for a New White Wine to Serve this Spring? Try Pecorino from Tenuta Santori in Italy!”
Susannah from Avvinare shares “Pecorino from the Lady from Le Marche – Angela Velenosi- Velenosi Vini”
Jeff at Food Wine Click goes “On the Hunt for the Pecorino Grape”
David from Cooking Chat shares “Roasted Asparagus Pasta with Pecorino”
Jennifer at Vino Travels discovers “Grape of the Sheep with Umani Ronchi Pecorino”
Steven from Steven’s Wine and Food Blog cooks up a “Brodetto di Pesce Wine Pairing #ItalianFWT”
Katarina at Grapevine Adventures discusses “Le Marche & Abruzzo – Two Regions… Two Expressions of Pecorino”
At Savor the Harvest, our host Lynn is “Discovering the Pecorino Grape #ItalianFWT”