Elaine trespasses on Walter's territory this week – with his considerable approval.
From €13.50, $19.99, £19.48, 21.50 Swiss francs, CA$30.50, AU$49.99; or HK$953, SG$257, 1,225 Chinese yuan per case of 6
Pelaverga Piccolo is a rare but beguiling Italian red wine grape that promises a glassful of perfume and charm. It’s the aromas that get me. They remind me of early summer in Alaska. My mother would harvest rhubarb from in front of our house to make pie. Rose hips would begin to form on the bush planted alongside our driveway. The air would be filled with the smell of wet earth and last year’s leaves that were no longer covered by snow. Rhubarb, rose hips, wet earth and crushed leaves – the same smells that greet me from a glass of Fratelli Alessandria Speziale. And then on the palate, it’s mouth-watering, zesty and medium-bodied with the texture of sheared velvet. It’s a wine I can drink to remind me of home in Alaska just as much as to daydream of Italy.
In Piemonte fewer than a dozen wineries bottle Pelaverga Piccolo on its own. Until the 1990s the variety was sometimes confused with Pelaverga Grosso, a larger-berried cultivar that is more widely planted. The confusion meant that the less common of the two was almost forgotten, until the 1970s when a handful of vintners began to showcase its more interesting side and singled it out as a distinctive grape of the commune of Verduno near Alba. Today it enjoys its very own denomination, Verduno Pelaverga DOC.
Now led by the fifth generation, Fratelli Alessandria is one of the producers that have helped the variety not only survive but gain in quality, as well as prominence (even if still quite modestly). The winery is better known for its Barolo, with 12 hectares (30 acres) across the communes of Monforte and Verduno. But they grow Pelaverga on the higher slopes of Verduno only, such as that shown above near the north-western edge of the Barolo zone. It would be much more profitable to produce Barolo here but, as the name Speziale suggests, the grape is special to the family.
The wine is made from a blend of a few small parcels grown at elevations between 250 and 400 m (820–1,310 ft) in silty-limestone soils. Cooler vintages showcase the grape’s exuberant acidity, but in warmer years it can ripen quickly, making familiarity with the vineyards especially important. In the cellar, the fruit is destemmed and fermented entirely in stainless steel, then aged in a mix of stainless-steel and concrete tanks for five to six months. It is then kept in bottle for several months before release.
The Alessandria family began making the wine in 1973 but renamed it Speziale in 2011 to celebrate its rarity and their affection for the grape. According to local lore, the variety is an aphrodisiac. Admittedly, the wine is seductive with its evocative aromas, distinctive palate and friendly complexity. But even more, while the wine starts out fruit-centred and high-toned in its youth, it becomes more brambly, herbal and savoury as it ages. Three years in bottle is generally seen as ideal, but I have enjoyed it with six to seven years’ bottle age as well.
At the table it offers great versatility, working as well with early summer vegetables and sausage as with late autumn mushrooms, pasta and grilled meats. I’m told it goes well with snails too but can’t put this to the test due to allergy. It’s also enjoyable slightly chilled. The flexibility of the variety alongside food makes it perfect for a holiday meal. Think of it as a medium-weight red with more versatility than cru Beaujolais, more consistency than Poulsard or Pineau d’Aunis, and more intrigue than Pinot Noir. Even better: it is affordably priced.
I enjoyed the 2020 vintage (14% alcohol, purchased for $24.99) recently. My tasting note for it went:
With exuberant aromas this wine is stunning right out of the glass. The nose is full of rhubarb, rose hips, cracked pink peppercorn and even zesty orange peel, all mixed through with an earthy accent. The palate is mouth-watering and fresh with modest tannin, a velvety mouthfeel and a long finish. Intriguing, distinctive and deceptively easy to drink. Enjoyable. 16.5+ Drink 2022–2024
This charming, versatile and affordable wine can be purchased in the UK, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, China and widely across the US (in MA, CA, WY, CT, FL, RI and NY). In California, K&L Wine Merchants lists the 2020 vintage for $25.99, while Spirited Wines in Massachusetts has it for a mere $19.99. The SAQ in Quebec carries it for CA$30.50, but other vintages are also available in both Alberta and British Columbia. It’s even more affordable in its home country of Italy, at prices starting from €13.50.
See Walter's 2015 article, The rise of Pelaverga.