Have you ever known a place so well that you can see it, sense it in your mind—even though you’ve never been there? Liguria is one of those places for me. I can smell the scrubby wild herbs sprung from rocks, the lemon trees, the sea air. I can taste the pesto. Much of this is thanks to the power of suggestion—a.k.a. hoards of travel magazines—but the rest is a straight-up translation of a place through wine.
The vermentino grape is grown in several regions around and in the Mediterranean Sea—Tuscany, Sardinia, Corsica—and elsewhere, in California and Australia, but for me, it’s the Ligurian examples, with their crunchy sage, rosemary and thyme essence and salinity, that are most compelling.
Liguria’s seat at the corner of where the Alps meet the Apennines means that the grapes, in their steep, craggy vineyards, are washed over by that crisp breeze, while also warmed by the air that rises off the Mediterranean. But vermentino’s not the only grape that’s benefitting from this climate. Here, it shares space with pigato, which makes wines that are equally, if not more, aromatic, and broader, with less high-toned acidity and a trademark bitter edge. Though they are indeed distinguishable in character, the catch is that they’re essentially fraternal twins. I learned this from my friend Joe Campanale, the sommelier and owner of NYC’s Alta Linea, who’s always up for a good dog metaphor.
“You know how some golden retrievers have almost white fur—and others have fur that’s sort of red?” he says. “That’s how it is with vermentino and pigato; they’re the same grape, except pigato has brown spots, freckles.”
Is it strange that I, a freckled human being, immediately took an interest in them as they might apply to grapes? To say that I am defined by my freckles might be a bit of a stretch, but as a pale-skinned redhead who becomes covered in them every summer, they’re an unavoidable detail of my caricature. Pigato, though? Pigato is freckles. (Literally. The word “pigato” comes from “pighe,” the Ligurian dialect word for freckles.)
Could it be true that this slight difference in complexion is actually changing the wine’s character? And does pigato actually taste different from vermentino or are we all just being conned by our power of suggestion?
The language surrounding the shared DNA of these grapes is, it turns out, a little murky. Some sources claimed that pigato and vermentino (and Piemonte’s favorita, too, randomly) were so-called biotypes; others used the word clones. Not being a scientist by any stretch, I reached out to Dr. Dario Cantù, a plant biologist and associate professor in the viticulture department at UC Davis.
“I wouldn’t use the word biotype; rather ‘clones’ or ‘clonal variants’ of the same variety,” he says. “Genetic evidence established that pigato and vermentino are the same variety. They are clones derived from non-sexual propagation (clonal propagation) of the same plant and along the way mutations happened resulting in the differences you mentioned.”
Clonal variation often means that certain grapes have been shown to grow more successfully in certain areas, so I reached out to few producers to see if this was indeed the case. I wanted to know what it was about vermentino and pigato—beyond a couple of freckles—that made the wines so noticeably distinct. In true Italian fashion, I quickly realized that finding a consensus was nearly impossible.
Pierluigi Lugano makes one of my favorite vermentinos, Vignaerta, under his Bisson label. According to Lugano, vermentino is more of a go-with-the-flow grape: Planted in different vineyards, it will show different personalities along with changing levels of acidity and structure. This is why he bottles wines from his vermentino vineyards separately. This, he insists, is not the case with pigato.
“Its character is more stubborn,” says Lugano. “Its acidity doesn’t vary and, when fully ripe, [pigato tends to be] slightly more aromatic.”
While Lugano has hedged on the ability of vermentino to be a more terroir-expressive grape, Riccardo Bruna and his daughter Francesca are staunchly on pigato’s team—as mandated by the history and tradition of the rich, hilly soils of the Arroscia valley, an area that considers itself to be the grape’s native home. “Out of our area, [pigato] loses its typical characteristics,” says Francesca, pointing to flavors like aromatic herbs, yellow peach and citrus peel. And while in other areas vermentino and pigato seem to be planted intermittently, vermentino has never been planted in this region. Here, pigato shares the valley with red grapes like rossese, granaccia (grenache) and mourvèdre, undoubtedly thanks to warmer temperatures and lower altitude. This climate is evident in Bruna’s concentrated takes on pigato.
Meanwhile, along Liguria’s Riviere Ligure di Ponente (the part of the Italian Riviera that’s west of Genova and closest to the Alps), Paolo Ruffino of Punta Crena has experimented growing both pigato and vermentino in a cooler, higher elevation climate. “Pigato has more structure and can age 10 to 15 years,” he says. “Vermentino is meant to be drunk younger.” I’d heard precisely the opposite.
Clearly it was time to take this one to the streets. To find out exactly what differentiated these grapes—and to test whether we could actually tell them apart—we tasted a selection of more than a dozen wines blind. For the tasting, the PUNCH editorial team was joined by a few choice Italo-centric wine directors: Jeff Kellogg of Maialino, Grant Reynolds of Charlie Bird and Pasquale Jones and Matt Orawski of Del Posto.
The grapes were far more distinct from one another than any of us had anticipated. The vermentinos tended to be higher in acid, salty and herb-scented, while the pigatos were almost always more aromatic (with notes of spice and mustard seed) and richer in texture. While the group tended to lean toward vermentino, there were several pigatos that, when they channeled the linear, higher-acid notes of vermentino, stole our hearts.
Herewith, our top five wines of the tasting:
2014 Punta Crena Vigneto Isasco Vermentino | $24
All of Punta Crena’s high-elevation vineyards are planted less than a mile from the water, which means the vines get all of that brisk sea influence that vermentino, in particular, thrives on. The Ruffino family, now run by four siblings, has been growing grapes here for more than 500 years and are one of few producers devoted to maintaining old school Ligurian varieties, like mataòssu and lumassina, in addition to vermentino and pigato. Their vermentino is vibrant, savory and direct, so much so that it reminded some of us of Austrian riesling, in a loveably flinty, high-acid way. Importer: Kermit Lynch [Buy]
2014 Punta Crena Vigneto Ca’ da Rena Pigato | $27
From a nearly 40-year-old vineyard, this wine was unabashedly pigato, as evidenced by its honeyed, almost waxy side. As with the vermentino, it spends about four months on its lees, which gives it a rich texture that’s matched by higher acidity and more spice than we found in the other pigatos. Importer: Kermit Lynch [Buy]
2014 Bisson Vignaerta Vermentino | $20
Consistently our go-to when it comes to vermentino, this wine is has all the hallmarks of a classic: It’s fragrant and distinctly herbaceous with exceptional acidity and verve. Bisson’s owner, Pierluigi Lugano, had his start in wine sales—and still owns a wine shop—but has been growing grapes and making wine since the late ‘70s in the Golfo del Tigullio, near Cinque Terre. Like Punta Crena’s Ruffino family, Lugano also works with rare local varieties, including bianchetta, alongside with vermentino and pigato. Importer: Rosenthal Wine Merchant [Buy]
2015 Bruna Majé Pigato | $18
Located a bit inland, in the Arroscia valley, father-daughter team Riccardo and Francesca Bruna farm their pigato organically. The Majé is sourced from younger vines and shows higher-toned aromas than the rest of the pigatos in the pack, its citrus notes coupled with the texture and concentration that Bruna is known for. Importer: David Bowler [Buy]
2015 Cascina Praié Il Canneto Pigato | $18
A relative newcomer, Cascina Praié has only been around since 2002. Its pigato is made from grapes sourced from two distinct vineyards, is macerated on its skins for five or six and is aged in a big Austrian acacia barrels, which give the wine a little creaminess and some great baking spice notes. There was no mistaking this wine as anything other than pigato. Importer: A.I. Selections [Buy]