talians produce some 450 different kinds of cheese. Some you can find easily in your local supermarket while others you can taste only by visiting the cities and small villages where they’re manufactured.
Italian cheeses made from sheep’s milk are lumped under the universal name pecorino (peh-koh-REE-noh). The name for the cheese is derived from the generic word pecora, “sheep.” A grocery store trip will usually turn up Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Toscano, Fiore Sardo, Pecorino Sardo, and Pecorino Siciliano. But that selection only scratches the surface.
There are pecorinos covered in autumn leaves, pecorinos matured in caves, pecorinos peppered with black pepper, and pecorinos made with tartufo (truffles). Sardinia even has a pecorino where the larvae of the skipper fly are deliberately introduced to promote an advanced level of fermentation to help produce the local delicacy known in Sardo as casu marzu, literally “rotten cheese.” Yaroslav Trofimov, in a food story for the Wall Street Journal, called it “a viscous, pungent goo that burns the tongue and can affect other parts of the body.” There’s also Florence’s lampredotto, made from maw, or cow-stomach remains. I’d need a whole lot of wine before being brave enough to give either one a taste.
Which brings me to another pecorino, which is much easier to swallow. So much so that it’s nearly unheard of. It’s a wine made with the little-known but increasingly popular pecorino grape, found in Abruzzo, Le Marche near the Adriatic, and Ascoli Piceno.
In Le Marche, local farmers say vines being grown today are the result of grafts taken from century-old ones that still grow near the medieval hilltop village of Arquata del Tronto, on the slopes of the Apennines. How the sturdy vines survived Europe’s phylloxera sap-suckers is unknown. The wine itself apparently got its name from the sheep that loved nibbling on the crunchy, thick skinned grapes while being herded through this craggy mountainous area.
I’m just glad the sheep left us some.
Pecorino’s evolution in the glass is progressive. First sniffs reveal a delicate mixture of flowers and pomaceous fruit later infused with a velvety minerality that becomes more harmonious as it opens up and starts revealing itself. It’s a glorious choice for delicate fish dishes. Most who taste it appreciate its natural unassuming complexity and lingering finish.
Since the wine is still working to establish itself in stores, traveling gourmands should make a point of picking up a bottle or two of Pecorino when they come across it. It’s a more memorable souvenir of the best that Italy has to offer than a miniature of the David or Milano’s Duomo.
Here are three worth looking for.
- Produced in Le Marche from 13-year-old vines, this is an engaging California-styled white that’s higher in alcohol than many traditional Italian whites. Made from handpicked grapes harvested late in September, the grapes undergo short term skin-contact maceration followed by fermentation in stainless steel vats giving the wine its crispness. The wine is then allowed an extended refinement period on fine lees until the following spring.
Ciprea 2008, DOC Offida Pecorino, Poderi Capecci San Savino
- Recommended to me by Angelo, Gaetano and Fabio at Rome’s Enoteca 13 Gradi (Piazza Bartolomeo Romano 4; tel. 06.8360.1573), this highly aromatic wine from Abruzzo is made by a coop in the province of Chiete (not the town of Chieti) midway between the Apennine mountains and the Adriatic sea. It’s inexpensive and has a concentrated and complex fruity structure with just a slight hint of hazelnuts. A wine worth lingering over, it has the perfect acidic backbone for shellfish. If you like the unusual, try it with seppie coi piselli (a Rome dish of cuttlefish and peas sautéed in olive oil).
Pecorino-Colle Fratine 2008, Cantina Frentana
- An earthier Abruzzese version of this wine is available in the U.S. and Britain. Catering to these more pungent tastes, the wine is made by macerating the grapes on the skins for 12 hours to give the wine additional depth. Twenty percent of the wine is then fermented in barriques and left to age in the barrel six-to-seven months. Its taste is more buttery, giving voice to the wood, but still maintains a good balance between mellowness and citrus.
Casale Vecchio Pecorino, Terra di Chieti IGT 2008, Cantina Farnese