The big match

If we hear the word pecorino – our first thoughts turn to cheese. Italy has a vast array of hard sheep’s cheeses sold under this name; but it is also the name of an exciting white Italian grape which has recently been revived and is causing a stir with Italian white wine lovers.

The shape of the bunches of the pecorino grape are triangular, resembling the shape of a sheep’s head. So this might be why this ancient grape got its name – from pecora which means sheep in Italian.

The real origin of the pecorino grape is unknown, but the excellent new book Wine Grapes (Jose Vouillamoz, Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, £120, published by Allen Lane) suggests that it might have been domesticated from local wild grapes. It originated from the Monti Sibillini area south east of Perugia where it was popular in the 19th century. Today it is found in a narrow gorge in Italy’s Marche region as well as in Abruzzo – where it tends to thrive at higher altitudes – and a little is found in blends elsewhere in Umbria, Lazio, Toscana and Liguria.

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Revived by east coast growers since the 1980s, it was Guido Cocci Grifoni who first took pecorino to his heart in Ascoli Piceno. We can now find some very tasty examples from both Marche and Abruzzo – producers to look for include Umani Ronchi, Costadoro and Ciu Ciu as well as Cocci Grifoni himself. There are still only miniscule plantings of this grape – under a hundred hectares in all Italy – so examples are still few and far between.

Tastewise, pecorino might well appeal to anyone who enjoys chardonnay. It is wonderfully aromatic with ginger, pepper, herbs and hazelnut notes, with a rich broad depth of creamy flavour on the palate, similar to chardonnay’s palate weight, and high alcohol. The best pecorinos have a vivid minerally streak which freshens the mouthfeel.

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I am told by Philip Contini of Valvona & Crolla that many of the highly regarded Italian wines actually contain a varying measure of Abruzzo wines in their blend, thereby making Abruzzo important for Italian winemaking as a whole – even though the region is not well known.

The best pecorinos from Abruzzo are most delicious served with food, matching well with seafood, risotto, grilled cheese and liver pâté. However, one of the most successful pairings is with Pecorino Saraceno, a robust, grainy, slightly salty sheep’s cheese from Sardinia.