Abruzzo might be the most underappreciated wine region in Italy. For many people, its reigning wine, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, conjures images of inexpensive, easy-to-drink—if sometimes inconsistent—wines. What’s more, there is much confusion around the montepulciano grape, which shares its name with the Tuscan town Montepulciano and its renowned wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is made in Tuscany from the sangiovese grape and has nothing to do with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
Abruzzo is 50 miles east of Rome, straight across the Apennine Mountains, on the Adriatic Sea. Its neighbors include Marche to the north, Lazio to the west and southwest, and Molise to the southeast. Incredibly, despite its proximity to Rome, Abruzzo is one of the least populated regions on the Italian peninsula. It is home to only three DOC appellations (compared with 29 in Tuscany), and one relatively young DOCG, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane. But despite its small size, it is Italy’s fifth largest wine producer, which has only fueled its reputation as a region where quantity is more important than quality.
While many wine critics write off Abruzzo as a region that only turns out bulk wine, it possesses a treasure trove of talented artisanal winemakers who are redefining what Abruzzo wine means by focusing on quality grapes and carefully crafting their wines. In the middle of the 20th century, two of Italy’s most important winemakers released their first vintages of what would become two iconic wines: Emidio Pepe’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Edoardo Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. Both winemakers practiced low-impact farming and believed that the winemaker should intervene as little as possible in their wines, letting nature take its course. They set the bar for Abruzzo, and inspired a generation of younger winemakers who are now coming into their own: brothers Sabatino, Roberto and Andrea Di Properzio, who founded La Valentina; Enzo and Lucia Pasquale of Praesidium; Fratelli Barba (Vincenzo, Giovanni and Domenico Barba); and Valentino Sciotti and Camillo de Iuliis of Farnese—to name a few.
My honeymoon with Abruzzo started when I met Chiara Pepe, Emidio Pepe’s granddaughter (the winery’s operation is a family affair), who offered to let me taste some of their wines.
Emidio Pepe took over his family’s winery in 1964. Since then he’s become a symbol of noninterventionist, artisanal winemaking. Pepe recognized the merits of the montepulciano grape that many of his peers overlooked. Where they didn’t see more than a grape that could be turned into inexpensive but profitable bulk wine that can go straight to market, he saw aging potential in carefully cultivated Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. He takes the most fastidious approach in his winemaking to guarantee his wines’ longevity. He farms biodynamically, which dictates that the strictest natural farming techniques be used. His winery is one of the few that still crushes grapes by foot—a time consuming process that’s worth the effort because it doesn’t shred the skins of the grapes, which can impart bitterness to the wine. He ferments his wines in cement tanks to ensure they don’t pick up any foreign flavors from the wood of barrels. In a move rare for most winemakers, he won’t release his wines before they have spent 10 years in the bottle, and some vintages he will hold even longer, tasting them each year until he decides they are ready. As a result, while he isn’t widely known in the commercial wine world, his wines have garnered an enthusiastic cult following. I was excited to taste the three vintages that Chiara brought, two that were more than 30 years old: 1980, 1983 and 1985. This was not the easy-on-the wallet montepulciano I’d been so fond of in college.
As Chiara poured the wines, she said she expected them to be closed at first, a term that means they need to breathe. We poured some into each glass, and then decanted the others. “Many times people asked my grandfather the reason why some of his wines were a little closed and they needed some oxygen before serving them,” she said. “He would tell them, ‘As the wine ages, I try to transfer the wine from one tank to another as little as possible, because any time you do that, the wine leaves a little of himself in the tank. After the first move, he takes off his jacket; after the second, he takes off his shirt; and after the third he is naked and won’t have the strength to age for 40 or 50 years. The wine would be very open, but his life would be very short.’” Each of the decades-old wines were still alive enough to be thought-provoking.
In general, a well-crafted Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is assertive in every way: Bold aromas of herbs, spices and minerals, and serious, gripping tannins softened by generous amounts of black fruit. Usually, one thinks of Bordeaux and Barolo when they talk about wines with great aging potential. Since the montepulciano grape has never been associated with the noble varietals that go into serious vintage wines, one might assume that these qualities would fade in a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo as it ages. They hadn’t, though, in any of the Pepe wines
I tasted. While the 1980 was showing its age, faded to the color of dark tea, if I were blindfolded I wouldn’t have guessed it, as it was perfumed beautifully with dried herbs and cocoa, and still had plenty of character. The 1983, also fading in color, was downright spicy and gamey, with lovely licorice and coffee flavors. My favorite, however, was the 1985, which was still vibrant, with mineral aromas and layers of stewed fruit and tobacco.
Since I tasted those Pepe wines, and at least two-dozen other wines from Abruzzo, I’ve become enchanted by wines from the region—not just high-quality montepulciano red wines, but beautiful whites, too; wines made with grapes such as trebbiano, pecorino and cococciola.
Edoardo Valentini, the other icon of Abruzzo, turned his trebbiano into the Cinderella story of Abruzzo. When he was starting his winery in the 1950s, most Abruzzo winemakers were tearing up indigenous Trebbiano d’Abruzzo vines and planting sturdier, higher yielding strains of trebbiano or other varietals that produced lower quality grapes. Valentini refused to pull out his trebbiano because he was convinced of its superiority. It was a move that couldn’t have paid higher dividends. His vines produce Abruzzo’s best trebbiano grapes. Today Edoardo’s son, Francesco, continues his father’s mission, crafting wines that are not only delicious when young, but able to age for decades, which is rare for white wines. (See sidebar, right.)
There are two other white grapes raising eyebrows among Abruzzo fans: cococciola and pecorino, both native varietals traditionally used to add aromatics and spice to Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC wines. Winemakers such as Cataldi Madonna (see Suggested Bottles) and Vallevo, who makes an herb scented and easy-drinking cococciola, are finding success with these grapes.
Montepulciano grapes grown inland, in the mountainous western province of L’Aquila, are used to produce rosato wines called cerasuolo (chair-ah-zwol-low). These wines have little in common with rosés from around the world because they are made more like a red wine, possessing the qualities of a good Beaujolais, with aromas of candied cherries and baking spices and mouthwatering berry flavors with a hint of tannin. Il Feuduccio, Praesidium (see Suggested Bottles) and Valentini make three standouts I’d recommend.
From Emidio Pepe to Valentini and the burgeoning number of young winemakers following in their footsteps, I’m convinced Abruzzo is poised to reinvent itself as a star of Italian wine.
Forget everything you thought you knew about wine from the misunderstood region of Abruzzo. With several of Italy’s top winemakers to watch, and a growing recognition of its unique terroir and promising varietals, its wines could be the breakout stars of 2013.
View a slideshow of suggested bottles
I Vasari Old Vines, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, 2008
A relative newcomer to the scene, Fratelli Barba has been quietly producing solid, even remarkable wines since 1991, giving momentum to the Abruzzo renaissance. With this Tre Bicchieri award winning wine, they’ve hit the bullseye. Rich yet lean flavors with a hint of bacon and forest berries ride a modest spine of tannins and a pleasingly briny finish.
Terre Aquilane, Abruzzo, 2011
If you love the aromas of white peaches and Bartlett pears, this pecorino could be your next summer fling. But when you take a sip of its angular minerality, which leans toward mint, sage and ripe summer stone fruit, it’s a full-blown romance.
After tasting several impressive older vintages of this wine (back to the 1980), it’s fun to imagine how this blockbuster bottling will taste in the decades ahead. Right now it’s exploding with power, and plenty of flavor, too, most of it dark and earthy. Yet it’s beautifully balanced with soft, supple tannins that make it utterly drinkable.
Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, 2010
This famous Renaissance-era property in the Colline Teramane hills was rejuvenated in 2004 by a team headed by Filippo Baccalaro and Mario Ercolino. They add a touch of malvasia to this trebbiano, giving delicate peach nectar and orange blossom aromas to layers of mineral and sating grapefruit acidity.
Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Superiore, 2011
This rosato possesses a beautiful ruby hue, which might lead you to believe it’s a delicate, floral wine. Its bouquet, however, would trick a blind-taster into thinking it’s cru Beaujolais, or maybe even dolcetto, only spicier and gamier than it ought to be. Cherries and plums throughout demand a fun pairing, perhaps with pheasant or duck.
Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, 2007
While the trebbiano grape grows throughout Italy, it rarely distinguishes itself. But in Abruzzo it finds its apogee in one of the crown jewels of Italian wine, Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. From 1956, when Edoardo Valentini founded the winery, until his death in 2006, he shaped a wine that has captured the imagination of collectors and critics worldwide. He understood that the heart of any wine is in its vines, and he held as sacrosanct the indigenous vines on his land.
On any given harvest, only five to 10 percent of the yield qualifies for bottling, while the rest is sold to local winemakers to make table wine. Valentini was notorious for his close-guarded secrecy around his winemaking process and rarely entertained journalists, which only added to the wine’s (and the winemaker’s) mystique. But he kept a scrupulous harvest journal in which he recorded all the conditions of the growing season and details of the grapes he harvested, which is used as a guideline for future vintages. His son, Francesco, has carried on this tradition. But, he points out, “With nature, you can’t always do things by the book. You must leave room for improvisation.”
Francesco chose to release the 2008 and 2009 vintages prior to the 2007, the current release, featured here, which he held back until he deemed it ready. It offers powerfully floral and peachy aromas, and a palate that explodes with juicy ripe stone fruit—balanced by fresh, lively acidity. The long and layered finish concludes with a slight mineral edge. While not an inexpensive bottle of wine, it’s a great value for such a rare gem. It’s one of Italy’s must-try wines. Available for shipping from Rare Wine Company. rarewineco.com.