Obviously, the white wines from the pecorino grape – unlike the formaggio of the same name – are still not widely recognised, even within their own land. This does, however, seem to be changing, and not just in Italy.
The shared name originates from two quite different connections to sheep (pecora, in Italian). All varieties of the cheese are made from ewe’s milk. The link with grapes is more tentative: some suggest it is because the bunches resemble a sheep’s head but I prefer the legend that our woolly friends – attracted by the grapes’ high sugar content – made pinching pecorino a priority whenever passing through a vineyard on the way to a new pasture.
The grape was thought to be extinct until discovered in a vineyard in 1982. It was brought back into commercial production and eventually secured official recognition in 2001.
Pecorino works well with fishy fare and, rare among wines, is brilliant with a dressed salad. As well as the sugar content, it also has good levels of balancing acidity. The overall result preserves the traditional depth of Italian whites (and the herbal, nutty or mineral-based finish they often embody) but replaces the flabbiness of old with a zesty and floral crispness.
Here are a few examples I enjoyed, starting with three widely available versions costing under £10. All bear the handwriting of winemaker Rocco Pasetti, although the blends and styles differ. Possibly the driest is 2011 Contessa Pecorino (£7.99, Majestic), with its floral nose, smooth texture and white peach flavours. The depth and complexity – perhaps aided by the use of oak fermentation for a third of the wine – make this excellent food wine.
Slightly less dry is 2011 Pecorino Colline Pescaresi Contesa (£8.95, The Wine Society). This has all the summery freshness that propelled pecorino into the spotlight but has a slightly broader array of flavours. Lime and melon come through mid-palate to enliven earlier suggestions of grass and mint.
By contrast, 2011 Pecorino (£9.99, M&S) retains the trademark freshness but is a little more fruit-forward – leading with peach – and trades a degree of smoothness for a greater perception of sweetness.
Stepping up the price ladder introduces the complexity of 2011 Terre Alte Pecorino (£12.95, Valvona & Crolla). It begins with a violet-perfumed nose but moves into soft red apple flavours with just a hint of sweetness. The finish brings in touches of fresh mint and lemongrass that seem to turbo-charge its attractive acidity.
With more banana-centred tropical fruit flavours than lemon, 2011 Gran Sasso Alta Quota Pecorino (£11.50, WoodWinters) still offers excellent acidity and a twist of concluding minerality beneath its soft gentleness.
Dropping back to the previous vintage also seems to intensify the complexity, although you would never guess it from the gentle and subtle nose of 2010 Safari Pecorino IGT Terre di Chieti, Cantina Bove (£11.53, www.greatwinesdirect.co.uk). Slowly, however, fresh pear-drop flavours unfold and acquire touches of lime and then lemon. The finish encompasses clean, grassy touches that display an appealing elegance and subtlety.
It’s also 18 months old but the 2010 Trabocchetto Pecorino (£13.95, Valvona & Crolla) displays an incredible length that makes the most of its grapefruit-centred flavours. These are nicely rounded off with a herbal finish that includes mint and fennel.