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The rolling hills of Marche, a province in east-central Italy, are home to the pecorino grape.

CHRIS WARDE-JONES/NYT

The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals

Cheese connoisseurs know pecorino, the salty, pungent, ewe's-milk variety commonly grated over pasta. But have you heard? It's also a delicious beverage.

I've sometimes wondered if the name on bottles of the crisp Italian white wine has given pause to the lactose intolerant. Rest assured, there's no dairy in the drink. Native to the central region of Marche on the inside knee of Italy's boot, the wine and the vine do share an etymological relationship with the family of cheeses that includes pecorino romano and pecorino toscano. The root "pecora" means sheep, and it's commonly believed the sugar-rich variety was so dubbed because of its sweet appeal to woolly creatures.

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When fully fermented into a dry wine, though, the grape's sweetness disappears, leaving behind something far more attractive to humans than to quadrupeds. Pecorino tends to be crisp and tightly structured thanks to its abundant, balancing acidity, displaying a lemony zip and subtle complexity, often with floral, herbal and mineral-like nuances that match the delicacy of light seafood, especially shellfish dishes, and even lighten up cheesy pecorino-topped pastas and pizzas. It's usually graced with no more than a whisper of oak from time spent in barrel, the sort of treat for people who like their whites fresh and invigorating.

Though prominent in the 19th century and semi-voguish now, pecorino had become something of a lost sheep by the early 1980s, in danger of disappearing completely like so many other low-yielding European varieties that had been orphaned by the global thirst for more familiar grapes. Its rediscovery reads something like the search for Homer's Troy. Guido Cocci Grifoni, a producer in the Marche, had been scouring agricultural texts for references to fabled local heirloom varieties. Pecorino caught his fancy, and his subsequent search, in conjunction with a couple of agricultural experts, took him in 1982 to the hamlet of Pescara and a farmer named Cafini, who had been tending a vineyard 1,000 metres above sea level.

The following year, Cocci Grifoni grafted cuttings from the property onto about 100 rootstocks at a vineyard in nearby Offida, now a key appellation for some of the best pecorino wines. The variety spread from there to such regions as Abruzzo, Umbria, Tuscany and Liguria. It even spawned its own book, The Rediscovery of Pecorino, published in 2009. Notable producers, besides the pioneering Cocci Grifoni, now include Cantina Tollo, Ciu Ciu, Costadoro, Poderi Capecci San Savino and Umani Ronchi.

With bottle prices starting at around $14 and rarely exceeding $20, pecorino is an affordable escape from the ordinary.

The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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