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The sommelier suggests… Pignolo by Mattia Scarpazza

We invite a leading sommelier to pick a go-to, favourite grape variety or wine style.

Mattia Scarpazza has worked for the best part of a decade at Petersham Nurseries Café, near Richmond-upon-Thames, currently as head sommelier. Since completing his WSET Diploma in 2019, he has pursued his interest in wine communication, with articles published in The Buyer and Sommelier Collective, also producing a podcast @lookingintowine.

Like many other Italian grapes, Pignolo is part of a group of obscure but remarkable varieties. Producers of Pignolo are releasing an ever-increasing number of accomplished wines, but the market is yet to catch up with it. I’m ready for it when it does.

The heartlands of Pignolo are Colli Orientale and Gorizia in Friuli. Both of these regions in northeast Italy are typically associated with white wines, but production of reds is growing steadily.

Pignolo produces wines that are deep red in colour with aromas of fresh flowers, bramble and olives; the tannins are robust and packed, balanced by uplifted acidity. Long maturation is proving the right way to produce Pignolo – think of the attributes of a gran reserva Rioja, although such an appellation does not exist in the region, yet. The wines are typically aged in large botti, though experimentation with amphorae is ongoing.

In my experience, the most soulful Pignolos are released into the market at around the 10 year mark – for example, Josko Gravner’s Rosso Breg 2006 (£305/magnum in bond, Starling Wines) was released in 2020 and Le Vigne di Zamò, Rosazzo Pignolo 2009 released in 2019.

What I’ve loved most from my explorations of this variety is how many producers tend to buck the trends, growing a variety that until recently wasn’t on anyone’s radar and then maturing it for a long time – showing a true belief in its potential. Pignolo is low-yielding compared to the more widely planted Refosco grape, and plantings had fallen sharply – but the trend is slowly reversing, thanks to a better understanding of the grape.

It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for Pignolo, as producers are coming together to promote the variety. At the moment there are only about 50 estates that produce varietal Pignolo, but I’m certain this number will increase as its popularity grows. And not just in the region itself – I know of two producers who are looking at planting it in California.

Pignolo has the right to sit at the table of varieties known for their ageing ability, among the likes of Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. I believe that the best examples of Pignolo can easily age for 20 years or more, developing notes of cedarwood, cracked pepper and sweet spices as they evolve.

When it comes to food matching, much like Sangiovese, Pignolo shows at its best when served with a slow-cooked lamb shank with herbs and spices, polenta and seasonal greens – or try it with feta and tapenade on grilled bread.

A last word of advice: Pignolo wines are usually only available from specialist independent wine merchants, and in small quantities – these are not wines you will come across on the supermarket shelves. But it is worth the effort to seek them out.

Discover Pignolo: Scarpazza’s three to try

Ermacora, Pignolo (2016, £35 Vindinista) is a superb way to explore the variety, with its distinctive freshness, rich tannins and typical black olive aromas.

I would also highly recommend Radikon, Pignoli (2004, £72/50cl Buon Vino). Aged for a minimum of five years in botti and then cellared for six years, this is one for those who are looking to experience a mature, prime example of Pignolo. Enjoy the aromas – a medley of ripe red fruits and sweet spices – and the alluring palate.

For a more modern take on the grape, try the Visintini, Amphora series bottling (2014, £18.95 Lea & Sandeman). Fermented and matured in clay vessels, it’s abundant in wildflower and plum aromas.

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