Pignolo Power


Pignolo grape bunch

There are some powerful grapes in the world: by that I mean tannins that are full and bold and can sometimes have a tendency to rip your face off. Nebbiolo, Sagrantino, Touriga Nacional, just to name a few. And then there’s Pignolo. The little known grape variety that originates in Friuli. Likely cultivated by the Benedictine monks before the 17th century and well known in the areas of Albana, Premariacco, Prepotto and Rosazzo. Bound for extinction, the last 2 vines were saved in 1978 with recovery work being done since then. Now there are 30 producers making Pignolo, making a bit of a renaissance of this grape. Full bodied, structured, brooding and highly tannic, with an intense bouquet, these wines are certainly meant for ageing. It is considered the “noblest” of all Friulian red grapes. Because it’s so big and tannic, it is best paired mostly with grilled meats and hearty stews.

And true to Italy, the name Pignolo comes from the shape of the bunch – tight bunches in the shape of pigna or pinecone.  They are small berries with a high skin to juice ratio, hence the reason for high tannins.  Our tasting ranged from 2009-2012, so no real chance to taste something really aged. Nevertheless, it was extremely interesting, tannic tongue crushing, and lip-smacking experience!

  1. 2012 Arbis Ros DOC Friuli Isonzo BORGOS and DANIELE – This producer started planting in 1995 using massal selection from 50 y/o vines. Originally, this wine was a blend of Pignolo with small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon (10%) – holy, could they make a massive wine even MORE massive? This was the 2007 vintage and prior, but as of 2008, it became a single varietal wine with 100% Pignolo. He makes 2000 bottles of this wine per year from 2ha. This was technically an en primeur tasting, as this wine is not released yet. It’s aged for 2.5 years in a combination of new barriques and large Slavonian oak barrels. Very deep ruby in colour, it had a very ‘sweet” spice nose of cloves and cinnamon along with violets, black plums and blackberries. More of the same on the palate with high astringent tannins, and medium acidity. Alcohol was at 14.5%, but well balanced!
  2. 2011 Novecento DOC Friuli Colli Oreintali ROCCA BERNARDA – A very historic estate, making wine since 1567 (!) along with growing and selling apples. 2 ha of Pignolo was planted in 1999 with the first bottling in 2006, and total production is 3000 bottles. All of these wines are very dark in colour, and this was slightly softer than wine one, but make no mistake, the tannins were still huge! Lots of blackcurrant and smoky ash on this on with a meaty, smoky, tar palate with the undercurrents of black cherry and black currant. Another 14.5% abv, but balanced with the acid and tannins. Again, very much a baby and needs time!
  3. 2011 DOC Friuli Colli Orientali SCARBOLO – I was all excited to meet Signore Scarbolo, as I carry his Refosco del Peduncolo Rosso in my store, but alas, he couldn’t make it that day…sigh. Next time! 🙂 This estate was founded in the 19th century by two brothers and in 1928 were producing wine on behalf of a local hospital. In the mid 20th century, it was purchased by Attilo Scarbolo and now owned by Sergio Scarbolo. I didn’t get details about how many bottles he makes or how much Pignolo is actually grown, but his entire estate is 25 ha. His Pignolo spends eight days on the skins, two years in large 500L barrels and one year in stainless tanks. One of the lower alcohol wines of the flight (13.5%) it had a herbaceousness that the others did not. Like the others, high chalky tannins and black fruits along with clove and smoke.
  4. 2011 DOC Friuli Colli Orientali SPECOGNA – There’s something to be said about areas that have a great diurnal shift, creating fragrant wines. This property located between the mountains and the sea gives the wine just that. That temperature swing between day and night to retain the acidity in the grapes, yet allowing them to still ripen with the proper sugar levels. There is also a constant wind which allows for great ventilation of the grapes and therefore low levels of disease.  The soils are a marly- gravel which allows for excellent drainage and the weather allows for the grapes to hang longer on the vines. Sounds pretty much like perfect conditions for growing grapes, so one would hope the resulting wine would be just as good. I was not disappointed. This was my definite favourite of the flight as the wine (even though young) had an elegance that that others didn’t. Indeed fragrant, with savoury, herbal, floral notes and undertones of black cherries. Hints of violets, cloves along with black cherry and smoke on the palate, with a finish that made me want to have another sip, all rolled into a pretty wine.
  5. 2009 Monte dei Carpini DOC Firuli Colli Orientali DRI GIOVANNI IL RONCAT – A small family estate with only 600 bottles of Pignolo made per year. More age (well, that’s kind of relative here – give me a Pignolo that’s about 15 years old and then we’ll talk about age!) and more presence of oak here with chocolate, vanilla and smoke notes along with the black cherry. My notes on tannin are all pretty much the same, but you can’t diversify high chalky tannins! Some good winemaking though as this was one of the lower alcohol wines at 13.5%.
  6. 2009 DOC Friuli Colli Orientali LIVIO FELLUGA – I think many of us are familiar with Felluga wines – some of his whites are absolutely astounding wines with a price tag to match. But given a special occasion, (or any occasion really…) I’m never opposed to opening a Felluga wine. 100% family owned, in 2009, they rented vineyards from the abbey that had 40 y/o Pignolovines and started blending them with their own that they had planted in 1996. I was expecting great things from this wine, but at 15% abv, I must admit I was a bit dubious. THE hugest wine of the flight! Blackcherry, smoke, cinnamon and hints of mint in a high tannin, medium acid package. And the broken record continues…it needs time…just time.


Although structure on all of these wines was fantastic, they really do need time! Those tannins are sometimes really tough and chewy! That being said, I was thrilled to be able to taste a nothing-but-Pignolo flight of wines as part of the Collisioni Progetto Vino- Friuli! Salute!

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