Pignolo is an Italian grape found in Colli Orientali Del Fruili DOC, located in the Friuli Venezia Guila region, near the border of Austria and Slovenia. While sometimes mistaken for other varietals, including Aglianico, or Pignola Valtellinese (Robinson et al., 2012, p. 803), the grape has many synonyms, including Duracino, Occhailina, Pignoca, Pignola di San Colombano, Pignuola, Pignuolo, Rognosa, and more.
Pignolo has an excellent flavor profile that many wine enthusiasts enjoy. Pignolo is known for its acidity, silky tannins, and fruit flavors ranging from plum to red berries to licorice. Some argue that no other wines in Italy rival Pignolo’s rich tannins, except for maybe Sagrantino.
The grape is known for being “fussy” because it is hard to grow. In addition, with tight grape clusters, it is vulnerable to powdery mildew.
In Colli Orientali Del Fruili sits a majestic abbey called Abbazia di Rosazzo, which has existed since around 1000AD. The abbey houses the oldest wine cellar in Friuli, built in the late 13th century. Winemaking was appreciated so much in the area during the 14th century a document was created that threatened excommunication to those who refused to grow vines.
In the 12th century, the city of Udine gifted Pignolo to visiting nobles. And in the 17th century, many experts believed that Pignolo could make wine as good as that produced by Merlot or Cabernet.
However, Pignolo faced the threat of extinction as the deadly phylloxera louse overtook the area in the early 20th century, killing the vast majority of vines. Unfortunately, Pignolo was no exception to phylloxera’s destruction. It was practically extinct as recently as the 1950s. By the middle of the 20th century, none of the commercial wineries in the area owned Pignolo vines. Pignolo became so unknown that few even knew what it was.
But in the 1970s, Pignolo vines were rediscovered by the Abbazia di Rosazzo. Not only was an entire row of these vines rediscovered by the abbey, but they were also ungrafted and somehow survived phylloxera. These rediscovered vines were allegedly over 100 years old. A gentleman named Girolamo Dorigo was the first to plant Pignolo vines in 1973 using cuttings from these rediscovered vines. Because of him, others worked to restore the vineyards.
The winemakers who accepted the challenge of working with Pignolo in the 1970s produced it using the same techniques when producing other wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. This lack of winemaking knowledge for Pignolo was because they needed to learn better. Their thinking must have been, if they could easily produce delicious wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, then why should Pignolo be any different? However, according to a famous Pignolo expert, Silvano Zamo, the variety can be challenging for winemakers.
With a wine this difficult to produce, one can only imagine why some winemakers prefer to avoid it in favor of being more straightforward to work with wines. The term “fussy” can be applied to how hard it is to grow Pignolo and how difficult it is to make the wine.
Many noteworthy people helped preserve Pignolo’s existence. If it weren’t for these people and the role they played, Pignolo could have faded away altogether.
The Benedictine monks were known for growing Pignolo while at the abbey and were indeed the champions of the grape up until phylloxera hit.
Another important individual was an Abbazia di Rosazzo vineyard worker named Domenico Casasola, who helped preserve the grape when it was on the brink of extinction.
Silvano Zamo and Walter Filiputti also contributed significantly to Pignolo’s survival, as they worked together to save the variety. Zamo owns the Le Vigne di Zamo estate, while Filiputti is a renowned winemaker.
As mentioned, Girolamo Dorigo was the first to plant the rediscovered Pignolo vines in 1973. He paved the way for other small producers to embrace the grape and make beautiful wine. Over time, more and more producers adopted Pignolo. As of today, there are over 60 active Pignolo producers.
Experts say that when the vineyard hits 15 years of age, the vines reach full maturity and yield potential. For example, the vines planted in 2000-2001, the first planting for some winemakers, finally experienced the vine’s full potential in 2015-2016.
With that said, some experts consider 2016 “Ano Zero” for Pignolo, as this will be the first year in modern history where all the producers at that time had a vintage from this same year. Many argue that the producers don’t know what they have yet, meaning they could have exceptional wine. However, the full potential of the wine may not be realized for some time, as many of these producers are experimenting with aging. Some experts feel that ten years is required for this wine to age well enough to appeal to the market (Scarpazza, 2022).
Vine plantings have increased dramatically over the years. We already know that one row of Pignolo was discovered in the 1970s. It is estimated that in 2000, there was 20 ha of Pignolo planted in Italy. By now, that number has likely increased.
Pignolo is also getting the attention of winemakers around the world. The Santa Catarina region in Brazil had a Pignolo planting in 2010-2011. Its 2017 vintage won awards for best red wine in 2019. There has also been discussion of growing Pignolo vines in California. Many wine critics feel Pignolo has what it takes to make an age-worthy and fantastic red.
While some call Pignolo’s existence today a miracle, it almost seems it was destined to survive and be an essential wine for Italy. Not only were the right people in place to help sustain its existence, but others were also there to support its revival when it could have quickly faded away. The fact that Pignolo was considered by many to be a “fussy” grape could have further deterred people from ever wanting to grow it or make wine from it. But many saw its potential and committed to the grape regardless. Those who work with Pignolo not only get to enjoy a grape with a fascinating history, but they get to experience its potential at the same time.