The obscure reds of Piemonte

Transitional, easygoing red wines from Italy's Piemonte region will keep you warm this fall. File photo. Transitional, easygoing red wines from Italy’s Piemonte region will keep you warm this fall. File photo.

Now that our nights are dipping down to cellar temperatures, we can turn our attention back to red wines. No need to jump the gun though. There’s a whole category of transitional reds equivalent to fashion’s blazers that’ll warm you up and keep you going in style—unlike the Gigondas and Snuggie reserved for wintertime. Freisa, Grignolino, Pelaverga, and Ruché are a gaggle of easy-going reds from Piemonte, Italy’s most serious wine region. Esoteric, yes, but these are juicy, vivacious wines perfect for the foods and moods of these inbetween days.

The vineyards of this northwestern corner are most famous for their Nebbiolo (the grape that makes both Barolo and Barbaresco), with Dolcetto and Barbera playing well-respected (not to mention quite high-earning as of late) runners-up. Of the four oddballs that comprise the “farmhouse red” category for their immediate gratification, thirst-quenchability, freisa (fray-zah) is the most tannic. As an offspring of Nebbiolo, it follows that this blue-black grape would make a fierce wine; however, unlike Nebbiolo, it’s often vinified to be slightly sweet and frothy —a style that Italians call “vivace.” Redolent of wild raspberries sprinkled with earth, Freisa is Piedmont’s answer to Lambrusco. Dry versions have been met with dichotomizing responses: British wine writer Hugh Johnson described the wine as “immensely appetizing,” while American wine scorer Robert Parker called them “totally repugnant.” I tried one once that smelled exactly like a freshly popped can of tennis balls, so I’d say my opinion falls somewhere in the middle.

No better known, though slightly more approachable, is Grignolino (green-yo-lee-no). Its name is derived from a word in local dialect that means “many pips” (as in seeds, not back-up singers), because it contains three times more than the average wine grape. Tannin comes from seeds as well as skins, so Grignolino producers practice slow and gentle pressing to minimize bitterness and astringency. Short macerations with Grignolino make for a delightful rosé that’s not far off from a cranberry juice cocktail. Even the reds stay lightly colored, fresh, and floral. All wild strawberries and rose petals, it’s no wonder the wine was a favorite of 19th century king Umberto I. If it weren’t for the pernicious phylloxera that reigned at the same time and the grape’s naturally low crop yields, Grignolino might be today’s Pinot Noir.

Before the days when Barolo had to contain 100 percent Nebbiolo, it was fleshed out with some of these indigenous varietals, one of which was Pelaverga (pell-a-vahr-ga). No longer needed in a supporting role, producers are now giving Pelaverga top billing, capitalizing on an oenophile’s tendency towards lesser known wines. With a peppery, leathery quality, it reminds me of the breath of a saddled horse. (And what’s not to like about that?) It’s not as serious as Barolo, and it doesn’t need to be—it’s food-friendly and priced for a weeknight.

Ruchè (ru-kay), a grape whose origin is contested between the French and the Italians, is probably the most widely recognized of these fringe wines. While it dates back to the 18th century, only recently did it experience a resurgence following the grape’s 1987 DOC classification and then Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato’s DOCG upgrade in 2011. Smelling decidedly grapey and tasting like a more intense, mintier version of Grignolino, Ruchè will grow in spots where Barbera won’t even mature, making it a workhorse of a grape that brings in extra bucks when the bigger boys are still in the cellar. One example I tried recently had the pleasantly bitter finish of grapefruit peel—particularly revelatory paired with a salad of arugula, duck confit, pickled butternut squash, and dried cherries.

Few of these wines venture outside carafes plunked down on farm tables on their home turf, so unless taking a trip to Italy to drink them alongside a plate of tagliolini with white truffles is within the realm of possibility, ask your favorite local wine retailer to track down more than are listed below. We have two long, cold seasons ahead of us to delve into the more solemn reds, so for now, seek out these happy-go-lucky wines that beget laughter, second helpings, and contentedness.

Castello di Uviglie Freisa 2009. Wine Warehouse. $9.99
Crivelli Grignolino d’Asti 2010. Market Street Wineshop. $14.99
Fratelli Alessandria Verduno Pelaverga 2009. tavola. $39
Crivelli Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2010. Tastings of Charlottesville. $21.95
Osel Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2010. Market Street Wineshop. $11.99