Why You Need More Pecorino in Your Life

And we don’t mean the cheese.

In our hyper-fragmented world, it would be difficult to imagine a grape enjoying the same sudden, all-encompassing success of, say, Pinot Noir. 

Remember that rocket ride? Production of the grape in California increased an estimated 170 percent in the decade after Sideways, via the unforgettable character of Miles, who suggested that the thin-skinned grape was the pinnacle of elegance and subtlety. 

And honestly, that’s probably a good thing. The growth in popularity of a grape doesn’t always lead to increased quality. Plus, a big win for one grape can sometimes mean a loss for another. (In the case of Pinot’s rise, that meant Merlot’s demise). 

Thankfully, a growing curiosity among wine enthusiasts looking for something new and unique–in particular when it comes to value–means one grape’s rise in estimation now no longer guarantees that another beloved grape gets literally and metaphorically supplanted.  Which makes the newfound Pecorino renaissance in Abruzzo particularly exciting and sweet. 

Pecorino’s Revival Is About More Than a Grape

Abruzzo is best known for its wines made with the red grape Montepulciano and the white grape Trebbiano. Its modern reputation, until recently, was primarily as a producer of mass-market wines that were dependably tasty, but not exactly paradigm shifting. Wines to pair with pizza, not poetry.

The region of Abruzzo runs from the mountains in central Italy to the Adriatic, about two and a half hours east of Rome. The 81,500 acres of vineyards get a steady breeze between the sea and mountains, and a significant variation in temperature between day and night. This diurnal shift, along with the blend of well-draining limestone and clay soils, and the high elevation (between 300 and 400 meters above sea level), create ideal conditions for grapes that are concentrated and powerful, but still fresh and bright.

Photo Credit: Emidio Pepe

Montepulciano makes up more than half of the acreage with about 42,000 acres of grapes under vine, and Trebbiano comes in second with 24,700 acres. Pecorino, while hardly nipping at their heels with a mere 6,200 acres under vine, has certainly had a growth spurt. In 2000, there were just 124 acres, which represents an increase of 4,900 percent. 

The revival of Pecorino in Abruzzo is about more than the grape; it is about the evolution of the place. Pecorino was present in the region as early as the 2nd century BC, but it was abandoned for many of the qualities that now make it a vintner’s darling. The growth of Pecorino plantings dovetails with the increased focus on quality over quantity in the region. Don’t get me wrong: there are 6,000 growers overall, with plenty of mass-market wine still being made by the 35 co-ops in the region. 

But the quality-minded winemakers in Abruzzo—there are 250 in total—are largely growing their own grapes. Thanks to auspicious growing conditions, many have converted to organic, or even biodynamic farming methods, and all are determined to showcase authentic Abruzzo.This includes exploring some of the under-utilized grapes of the past, like Pecorino. 

According to most producers growing Pecorino, including the teams at Pietrantonj and Guardiani Farchione, who served me the wine Pecorino alongside the sheep’s cheese Pecorino, the grape was named after the sheep. 

“Pecorino acquired its name from the sheep, who are called ‘pecora,’” says Roberta Pietrantonj, who co-owns the winery with her sister, Alice. (Roberta runs the business side and Alice makes the wine.) “In our region, the practice of transhumance is part of our culture. Sheep herds would pass through vineyards on their way up to the mountains, and the Pecorino grapes were their favorite snack. Some people also believe that the grapes themselves look like sheep’s faces.”

In exchange for the snacks the sheep extracted, she adds, shepherds sometimes gifted vineyard managers with their sheep’s milk cheese. 

Pecorino in the Glass

The grape fell out of favor in the go-go hustle-bustle years when growers were focused on lining their pockets with bigger and better harvests.

“Pecorino is low-yielding, and requires more time and care in the vineyard than other grapes,” says Giampaolo Guardini, a member of the second-generation winemaking team at Guardini Farchione. “In the past 20 years, there has been a growing interest in Pecorino, first from smaller family winemakers like us, and then later from wine lovers who realized how delicious it could be.”

Guardini Farchione Family | Photo Credit: Guardini Farchione

Pecorino is most frequently fermented and aged in stainless steel and/or cement tanks, which is a perfect way to preserve the tropical fruit notes of this grape. Other producers eager to explore Pecorino’s more opulent side age the grape in oak, while still others produce sparkling variations and dessert passiti with dried grapes. 

Depending on harvesting and aging choices, you’ll find apricots and pears, peaches and lemons, mineral verve, saline heft, savory spice, dried Mediterranean herbs, pineapple, and sometimes almonds. While the most interesting producers in Abruzzo are deeply invested in authenticity, they are also equally fluent in modernity, and are eager to meet wine lovers where their palates are. 

At Pietrantonj, Roberta explains that, after a devastating earthquake dubbed “L’Aquila” for the city that bore the brunt of it in 2009, they wanted to create a Pecorino wine that would serve as a rebirth and renewal for the region. The earthquake was rated 6.3 on the Richter scale, and caused extensive damage to the 13th century city and the surrounding area. More than 300 people died in the quake, and more than 60,000 were left homeless.

“It was a traumatic time for the country, but especially the region,” Roberta says. “Everyone in the country was doing what they could to help, and we wanted to contribute. We created a sparkling Pecorino named ‘Temé,’ which is an expression of surprise. It became an excuse for a party after a hard time.”

They made Temé in the Charmat method, because, as Roberta says, “Pecorino is so aromatic.”

“We gave it a longer aging time than is typical with Charmat, in this case four months,” she adds. “We also picked it early to preserve the freshness and acidity.”

The results speak for themselves: orchard fruits at the height of their ripeness, lemons as bright and powerful as the sun, baked bread fresh from the oven. 

At Ausonia, a deliciously progressive winery—think six spirited vineyard cats, a rainwater capture and reuse system, organic and biodynamic farming practices, and wild yeast—winemaker and founder Simone Binelli and his co-founder and business manager wife Francesca Lodi ferment and age some of their Pecorino in amphora. 

Amphorae at Ausonia | Photo Credit: Virtù Quotidiane 

“We find that giving Pecorino 11 months in amphora is just right,” Binelli says. “Because the amphora is porous, it exposes the wine to oxygen as it would in an oak barrel, which helps it develop deeper, richer, and more complex flavors. But, unlike the barrel, the amphora does not impart any additional flavors, like vanilla.”

Indeed, it is pure Pecorino in the glass. The 2022 Machaon Anfora Pecorino has notes of yellow plums and oranges, dried flowers, and licorice. 

Perhaps the most aspirational version of Pecorino in Abruzzo hails from Emidio Pepe, a man who is often credited with putting Abruzzo back on the wine lists and in the minds of the world’s leading sommeliers and critics. In 1964, Pepe created his own line of eponymous wines, eager to show the region’s potential and break away from the model of high-volume growing for co-ops that his family previously followed. Pepe was the first to prove the long aging potential and incredible finesse of Trebbiano and Montepulciano. He went on to cultivate and uplift other local grapes, most notably Pecorino. 

Pepe’s Pecorino hails from the Colli Aprutini region, and the 2021 has a rich texture, with layers of lemons, blood oranges, raspberries, Abruzzo garrigue, and almonds. 

Would it be silly to say it tastes like a poem? Perhaps. But it should certainly be paired with poetry. And why not? Pizza too.