Pecorino, isn’t that a cheese?

By Celia Strong

When almost anyone first comes in contact with this week’s wine, their reaction is almost always some confusion. With all the Italian food we cook, we have become well aware of and familiar with some of their great cheeses — Parmesan, obviously, but also Pecorino. But, and this is the fun part, Pecorino is also the name of a grape variety from Italy. So, off we go, on to another lesson that takes us to another new good wine.

We’re going to visit the Marche (that’s pronounced “mar-kay”) region of Italy. Marche, or Marches as it is also known, is located on the western Adriatic coast of Italy, right where the back of your knee would be if you think of the country as a boot. (A good Italian leather boot, of course.) The name for this region comes from the Latin for the plural name of “marches” — “marca.”  The rough translation into English means boundaries or borders of a district or province.

This area was colonized by the Romans in the third century BC, and invaded by the Goths when the Roman Empire fell. In the sixth century, the northern part of the region was under Byzantine rule and the southern part was under the powerful Lombard duchy of Spoleto. In the eighth century, in two steps, the region was donated to the Papacy by Pepin the Short, the first Carolingian king of the Franks, and then by his son, Charlemagne, in 774. The name Marche came in the tenth century when the region was named as the border of the Holy Roman Empire.

Popes and emperors fought back and forth over control in the area, but between the 13th and 16th centuries, the popes gradually regained political rule.  Then, for a short 18 years, from 1797 to 1815, the French occupied Marche. And, then, the papacy took over again. For a time, Marche was part of the kingdom of Sardinia along with Tuscany and Umbria. Marche is now, and always really was, slightly separate from mainstream Italy. Fewer tourists, too.

Along the Adriatic coast, a thin strip of Marche is relatively flat, but the rest of the region is hilly and mountainous. Farming and agriculture are the main occupations of the residents of Marche. They specialize in olives, grapes and livestock. In addition, Marche produces ships, textile, chemicals, pottery, hand-made musical instruments, and they have four fishing ports on their coast. Their climate is temperate, with moderating breezes from the Adriatic.

Vines have been grown here since before the Romans, as the rolling hills are well suited to them. The wines produced in Marche are relatively simple compared to some other Italian regions. They have about 60,000 acres of vines and produce over 50 million gallons of wine each year. Only 20 percent of all this wine is DOC or DOCG level. Most of it is released as IGT or Vino di Tavola, both lesser levels in Italian wine laws. (Don’t forget: Lesser levels do not necessarily mean lesser wines. Remember the Super Tuscans.) They make about half whites and half reds, each from predominantly one variety — Montepuciano for the red and Verdicchio for the white. But, we have a wine from a much lesser known variety. Pecorino. Yes, that is the grape’s name. Not a cheese this time.

Pecorino is a white grape, probably native to Marche. It is believed to be a very old variety. Its name is probably related to the Italian word “pecora” for sheep. (Of course, the cheese also got its name from the same word. Pecorino is a hard cheese made from ewe’s milk and has four legal types: Pecorino Romano from Sardinia, Pecorino Sardo  also from Sardinia, Pecorino Toscano from Tuscany, and Pecorino Siciliano from Sicily. None from Marche. Humph!)

Pecorino, the grape, is early ripening and tends to produce low yields. Even without strict pruning it is also a healthy variety, with a natural resistance to mildews and grows well at slight elevations. These grapes are naturally high in sugar, which explains the ancient stories of the sheep grazing on the hillsides and eating them. They are also naturally high in acidity.

In 2000, a little more than 200 acres of Pecorino were planted in Marche. The first producer of Pecorino DOC wine, Offida DOC, was Guido Cocci Grifoni in the 1980’s. He was doing research on native grapes and tried to save heirloom varieties By researching old records, Grifoni found a tiny vineyard, about 3,200 feet above sea level, on the right bank of the Tronto River. This vineyard was owned by an 80-year-old man and had a few, struggling, old Pecorino vines. When he visited the site, in 1982, Grifoni took some cuttings and grafted them onto newer rootstocks. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that these vines started to really produce. And he had enough to make and sell some of his first Pecorino wines. These were Vino di Tavola level wines. But, Grifoni campaigned for official recognition of his wine and received it in 2001 — DOC Offida.

In the various DOC wines of Marche, different percentages of Pecorino are allowed, mixed with Verdicchio and Chardonnay and Trebbiano. In the Offida DOC, our Pecorino must be up to at least 85 percent of the blend. The rest of these wines can be made from local, non-aromatic varieties.

Our Velenosi Pecorino is 100 percent Pecorino; a true opportunity to learn this grape. For our wine, the grapes are fermented in stainless steel at controlled temperatures. And, then, the wine is aged for five months in stainless steel as well. It is straw yellow colored with hints of green. It has aromas of exotic fruits, citrus, jasmine flowers and even tropical notes of lime and bananas — similar flavors to a medium body dry wine, and very different from our usual range of flavors.

But, a quick look at traditional Marche region food and the doors open. There is a lot of seafood from the Adriatic, as well as poultry and chunks of pork, cream sauces, flavorful meat sauces, sausages, fennel, olives, and wide egg noodles such as lasagna and pappardelle, and, of course, cow and sheep cheeses. These all sound like a lot of what we love to eat anyhow, and our wine of the week pairs well with these foods. My thinking is our new Pecorino fits right in.

This wine is available now at Bill’s Liquor for only $15.49. Enjoy.

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