Monsecco “Barbatasso” Vespolina 2011

monsecco-barbatasso-vespolinaBy now it should be evident Mike and I are always on the lookout for lesser known Italian varietals, those grapes that exist in long shadows cast by Barolo, Brunello, and all too many Chianti Classicos. Mike’s recent analysis of Lagrein shows how these offbeat wines are gradually altering American perceptions of what Italy has to offer, once you come to the fork in the wine trail and venture down the path less traveled.

There are hundreds of indigenous grapes that soldier on in obscurity, in most cases lending their singular and complementary characteristics to more recognizable varietals, or turning up in local blends. In the last twenty years or so, there has been a move by some winemakers toward preserving the history and individuality of these grapes by bottling them in purezza – on their own. The results have been uneven. For every Casavecchia or Susumaniello, there are a half dozen exhibits of experiments gone awry, wines that even the most ardent advocates of maintaining Italy’s vinous heritage find hard to champion.

Which brings us to Vespolina, a low yield grape that has to work overtime to achieve a level of ripeness to match its inherently high acidity – two factors that account for so few mono-varietal examples. It is notoriously temperamental, not surprising given recent DNA studies that establish it as an offspring of Nebbiolo. It’s the sort of grape that needs a specific set of natural conditions to be viable, such as those of the Alto Piemonte, in the foothills of the Novare mountain range. The ancient soils are laden with mineral salts and glacial deposits, and the diurnal temperature variances and long growing season allow Vespolina to develop manageable ripeness-acidity equilibrium.

The Monsecco estate in the Colline Novaresi DOC is run by the Zanetto family who have been producing a 100% Vespolina only since 2009. They also grow Nebbiolo, Uva Rara, and Croatina on their few acres, typical for the region. Their Monsecco Barbatasso Vespolina Colline Novaresi 2011 shows the grape’s high acidity and tannins that are soft but still mildly dry. Assertive on the entrance, the texture is a little rough, earthy, and peppery. A core of dusty dark cherries and berries join with minerals to form a wine somewhat atypical of Piemonte – ripe aromas that differ from the palate, perhaps the result of whatever natural balance the vintage was able to attain. This is an interesting wine that demands food (I know, redundant for an Italian red). Something hardy, or meaty, or protein-driven. At $19.99, it may not be some peoples’ idea of a bargain, but you could easily pay the same for a fair-to-middling Chianti and miss the experience of drinking on the wild side.