Preserving Perricone

There are many grapes that live as vineyard problem children. Those that demand a vintner’s understanding, nurturing and determination to endure, season after season. Like parents, growers and winemakers sense potential and beauty that isn’t skin deep. Some, such as Nebbbiolo and Pinot Noir, grow up to become superstars. Others wait patiently to be discovered, enjoyed by a passionate few, unknown to the vast majority, biding their time. Such is the case with Sicily’s Perricone.

I first tasted the grape — also known as Pignatello — six years ago in a small Sicilian town in the shadow of the Madonie Mountains. Though I was intrigued enough to seek out more, I found hardly enough stateside to build expertise. As such, I turned to two believers for further insight: Federico Lombardo di Monte Iato of Firriato, whose LinkedIn page dubs him a “Sicily Evangelist”, and Marilena Barbera of Cantine Barbera, who describes this unique varietal as the “deep and intense soul of West Sicily.”

Both brought me up to date on Perricone’s history, which reads like scores of other long-forgotten indigenous varietals. Initially grown as a blending grape (most notably in Marsala Rubino) for its high concentration of anthocyanins, important for tannic retention and aging, and resveratrol, a natural self-respondent to bacteria and funghi, it has only recently been given a starring role.

Barbera points out that “when there was almost no Nero d’Avola to the west, Perricone was the only grape that farmers could use to make red wines with intense body and longevity.” Many, according to Lombardo di Monte Iato, switched to Nero d’Avola in the latter part of the 20th century, as it was easier to grow and more generous in output. “Remember,” he adds, “grapes were sold by weight, so farmers needed to have guaranteed production.”

federico

Federico of Firriato

Even those invested in Perrricone acknowledge the difficulties in bringing it from vine to bottle. If the polyphenol content is elevated, it can be abrasive, or, in Barbera’s words, “give birth to rustic and sometimes grouchy wines, especially in fresh and rainy vintages.” Since it ripens late, changes in normal weather patterns can be disastrous. Timing the harvest is vital to ensure the acidity level stays intact.

Then there are the commercial challenges. “Perricone is difficult,” Barbera tells me. “It’s not very productive and it takes patience and experience. Its tannins and thick skin require time and attention during fermentation, and a long refining is compulsory in most vintages.” Producing fresh, fruity wines then, aimed to be sold and drunk young, is a virtual impossibility. “Making a wine that needs a minimum of three years before it becomes friendly,” Barbera continues, “is not an option for the big industrial wineries in West Sicily.

At present there are about 365 acres of Perricone on the island — an astounding decrease from 85,000 in the early 1900s — representing just 0.3% of Sicily’s grapes. Of that minuscule amount, 95% is used to make bulk wine. “It’s a real pity,” Barbera sighs. “We Sicilians lost confidence in our quality, and following the market’s passing fancies seemed the only way out. Many started to abandon indigenous grapes in favor of international varieties, a trend that continues. Even today there are producers who plant Pinot Noir, Syrah… They say that nobody knows Perricone, that it’s inconceivable to promote a wine with such a difficult name to pronounce.”

Firriato’s evangelist is equally optimistic. “It’s difficult because Italy in general, and Sicily in particular, has a lot of native vines,” he notes. “So it’s quite challenging to help consumers understand Perricone, to identify it as a quality grape that makes wonderful wine. This isn’t only a winemaking challenge, but a marketing one.”

It’s not all bad, of course. Perricone relishes western Sicily’s warmth and a long, dry growing season countered by a diurnal temperature range that enhances ripening and balance. The resulting wines are full bodied and darkly pigmented, with fairly high alcohol levels. Strong, sometimes austere tannins serve as the foundation for intense cherries, plums and dark berries mixed with green herbs and peppery spices. They may have a rustic, earthy edge when young, but will develop balance and finesse as they mature.

Marilena Barbera

Marilena Barbera in the vineyard.

“Perricone that you find today is made by small producers, people who love their vineyards and respect the personality of their grapes and terroir,” Barbera says. “These people will keep it alive. Though they might not have the money or organization for worldwide promotion, I’m confident things are moving in the right direction.”

“Perricone will be our signature grape for many years to come,” she concludes. “The small group of winemakers to which I proudly belong will continue to toil, with dignity and passion, to offer the best expressions of Perricone at every vintage.”