Heading east over the Apennines and away from Rome’s chaos and glory, one finds the bucolic province of Abruzzi. Most Abruzzi natives live on a coastal plain and in a band of gentle hills sandwiched tightly between the towering Apennines and the Adriatic Sea. Unlike other regions of Italy, which give birth to a plethora of wine choices, the Abruzzese make it simple for themselves, and for us: one white, one red, and one rosé.
Same Name, Different White
The Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) appellation wine regulations identify the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo grape as a different variety from the ubiquitous Trebbiano Toscano. It equates with the Bombino Bianco grown in Apulia. During the 1960s Abruzzi farmers tore out much of their historic Trebbiano vines and replanted with Trebbiano Toscano, which has mold-resistant thick skins and gives higher yields. Edoardo Valentini, at his family’s winery in Loreto Aprutino, however, continued to select and replant the best clones of the historic Trebbiano from the family vineyards. For decades Edoardo Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzos have been the touchstone of quality for the category. Today Edoardo’s son, Francesco, continues his father’s legacy, and Francesco’s 2004 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is simultaneously fresh yet dense, profound yet simple.
At his family winery near Chieti, Gianni Masciarelli has recently created another Trebbiano d’Abruzzo paragon, Castello di Semivicoli. In this wine as in his other top wines, Masciarelli harvests at ultimate skin ripeness, attempting to get maximum color, perfume, and richness. While the Valentini and the Masciarelli Castello di Semivicoli fashion different interpretations of great Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, a baseline Trebbiano from well-regarded producer Nicodemi shows how delicious a simple Trebbiano can be. Nicodemi’s Notari masterfully balances Trebbiano with oak.
Similar Name, Different Red
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is often confused with Sangiovese-based wines from the Tuscan town of Montepulciano: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is an entirely different grape variety from Sangiovese. Furthermore, well before there was any mention of the existence of a Montepulciano variety in Tuscany, an eighteenth-century historian had identified the Montepulciano vine in Abruzzi. This documentary evidence gives both the producers in the region of Abruzzi and those in the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG, the highest appellation designation in Italy) of Montepulciano the right to use the name “Montepulciano” on their labels.
Until the 1990s nearly all Abruzzi wine was sold in bulk at low cost. The resulting low image for Abruzzi wine has lingered despite the increase in quality of the last ten years. On the other hand, Vino Nobile of Montepulciano has long enjoyed a reputation for quality, which is reflected in its premium wine prices. The producers of Vino Nobile are understandably not happy sharing the name with their Abruzzi brethren. Quality Abruzzi producers also don’t like the confusion.
Interestingly, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo may legally contain up to 15 percent of Sangiovese in the blend. Blending in some Sangiovese is common in less expensive wines. Montepulciano usually shows a rustic aroma, tending toward the vegetal and the animal. Sangiovese’s cherry scent can offset this rusticity. On the palate Montepulciano is soft, so soft that a little of Sangiovese’s pronounced acidity and sharper finish can add edge. On the other hand, it is widely suspected that a great quantity of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine “accidentally” ends up in many of Tuscany’s famous DOCG wines. Montepulciano’s deep color, its fulsome perfume, and soft but thick body puts steroidal muscle and flesh on Sangiovese’s often meager bones.
The Montepulciano grape variety is one of the latest to ripen in all of Italy. The temperate Adriatic extends the growing season. For this reason it does well along the flats and the low hills that line the sea. Montepulciano, however, also finds a home on an inland plateau near the town of Ofena. In this area the historic Cataldi Madonna estate and a 17-year-old estate, Gentile, make more elegant, more tart, and less tannic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Even more elegant are the wines issuing from the Valle Reale estate, which is located in a nearby valley. The continental climate in both locations provides hot summers and autumns that cool down rapidly. The ripening of Montepulciano can occur as late as mid-November.
As of the 2003 vintage, a new DOCG, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane, came into existence for Montepulciano wines. The delimited zone is a hilly area in the northern coastal area of Abruzzi, around the town of Teramo in the province of the same name. The vineyards lie in the shadow of the Gran Sasso mountains. The soil is calcareous clay, occasionally peppered with small stones or mixed with some sand. This soil produces a heavier, more structured wine than the sandier soils of southern Abruzzi. While two years of aging before market release is required for basic Colline Teramane, three years is the minimum for Riserva Colline Teramane. One intent for creating the DOCG was to allow producers situated in the Colline Teramane the possibility of carving an upscale identity for their Montepulciano wines. Unfortunately, some larger producers are using the DOCG to sell wines at prices comparable to basic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
A good example of low-cost but well-made Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is that made by Fratelli Barba. Recent vintages taste like Beaujolais with heft. Nicodemi makes a straightforward but well-made and classic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Young Valentini Montepulcianos show finesse rather than extractive power; with bottle age they reveal layers and dimension. Masciarelli’s Marina Cveticand Villa Gemma cuvées express a soft but dense superripe style with evident oak perfumes. Illuminati, one of the pioneering producers of quality Abruzzi wine, makes Pieluni-another step toward the dense, rich, exotic style. The Villa Medoro 2004 Colline Teramane Adran, which I tasted at the winery, is my paragon for chunky, hard, dense Teramane. Masciarelli makes a Teramane-based Idicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) Montepulciano wine, ISKRA. Its solid, hard style is very Teramane. Viva terroir!
Pretty in Pink
Cerasuolo is a rosé of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. To make it, producers vinify Montepulciano grapes as if the intended wine were white. Before the fermentation, Montepulciano grapes are cold macerated to extract just the right amount of ruby color and cherry scents. Chilled cold, it is a great accompaniment to fish soup or pizza margherita. A classic Abruzzi combo is Cerasuolo with maccheroni alla chitarra (guitar-string-thin pasta with a tomato–minced-meat sauce). Nicodemi makes a smooth, well-balanced Cerasuolo. Valle Reale’s comes across with more acidity. Villa Medoro’s is more Teramane in dimension. Cataldi Madonna mixes some fermenting red juice into cold skinless fermenting to make the claret-styled Pie delle Vigne. Bring on the meat.
Beyond the Classics
Abruzzi producers also experiment with nonnative and native varieties. For these wines, there is a DOC in the Colline Teramane hills called Controguerra, as well as an assortment of IGTs sprinkled throughout Abruzzi: Alto Tirino, Colli Aprutini, Colli del Sangro, Colline Frentane, Colline Pescaresi, Colline Teatine, Del Vastese or Histonium, Terre di Chieti, and Valle Peligna.
Producer Orlandi Contucci’s makes Liburni, a Colli Aprutini IGT, which pays homage to fine red Bordeaux. A native white variety, Pecorino, has caught attention. Because of its low yields yet evident quality, it traditionally played the role of a “spice” in wine blends. Cataldi Madonna makes one that shows great promise; its 2005 Pecorino is a deep yellow gold with red grapefruit, straw, pear, and orange peel in the nose. On the palate, it is thick and dry and finishes tart. Unfortunately, other Pecorinos pale in comparison. We will, however, see more of Pecorino; it is easier to sell than Trebbiano d’Abruzzo; its “sheepish” name is easy to pronounce; and, unlike Trebbiano, it has no image problems.
From Top to Bottom
Daniele Cernilli, codirector of Gambero Rosso, the leading international Italian wine magazine, calls the Valentini the Screaming Eagle of Italy. He compares Valentini with the brilliant French producers, Zind-Humbrecht and Henri Jayer. He also admires Masciarelli for taking a road that balances personal dreams with commercial reality. Cernilli recognizes the uniqueness of the Colline Teramane terroir, identifying Illuminati’s Zana as its classic exemplar.
The influential Cernilli greatly respects estates, mostly family owned, that have moved from being farming operations supplying cooperatives to producing quality, estate-bottled wine. There are still too few, however, given that large cooperatives and merchants account for 80 percent of the Abruzzi wine. They pump out very basic wine costing as low as one euro (approximately $1.35) per bottle retail. This is about one-third what small estates must charge for wines bearing the same appellation name. Giovanni Barbi of Fratelli Barba, a family estate, told me that someday he would remove Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from his labels and pin all his hopes on his brand. Cernilli singles out Cantina Tollo as an example of a cooperative that can rise above merely manufacturing wine.
The Road Ahead
The simple menu of Abruzzi wines has a lot to offer the US market. It is blessed with one of the best vine-growing environments in Italy and one of the best grape varieties, Montepulciano. Family estates mostly located in the north of the region have moved from supplying grapes to merchants and cooperatives to creating upmarket identities of their own. Image problems associated with the low standards of wine production of the past remain, with large producers selling DOC wine at jug-wine prices and with confusing associations connected to the words “Trebbiano” and “Montepulciano.” Several sources told me that producers, particularly those of the older generation, do not work together to solve the problems of their area. They are fiercely territorial and suspicious of each other. Perhaps younger generations can develop a collective momentum and bring some glory to the wines of Abruzzi.
Abruzzi on the List
At restaurants not serving Italian cuisine, Abruzzi wines are rarely seen on lists, but some can be found at prominent mainstream venues.
The scarcity of Abruzzi wines on-premises is not a mystery to top professionals. Wine Director Charles Scicolone of Manhattan’s renowned I Trulli admits, “They are still a hand-sell because customers are not familiar with this region. They do not travel [to Abruzzi] as they do to other regions of Italy.” Charlie Arturaola, a former restaurant wine director who is now a wine consultant and educator in South Florida, points to a lack of staff knowledge: “Even . . . sommeliers need to taste and study these wines, to know the producers, who is traditional and who is not.” The “Montepulciano” name confusion is another hurdle to overcome. “A customer will come in and ask for a bottle of Montepulciano, and I will say, ‘Vino Nobile from the town or the grape from Abruzzi?’” Scicolone comments. “I will get a puzzled look. Then I will have to explain the difference, often having to show the customer the different bottles.” Arturaola adds, “There is a confusion since the invasion of the Tuscan wines in America. That’s why many wine directors run from the category.”
When it comes to pairing Abruzzi wines with food, Arturaola remarks, “In Abruzzi, do as Abruzzese people do. Abruzzese families pair their seafood platters with crispy dry Trebbianos. Scallop carpaccio with Hawaiian sea salt and fish ceviche are two of my favorites. With the Montepulcianos, liguine pasta with sauteed rabbit in saffron and pomodoro sauce is my favorite winter dish!” Scico
Perhaps Abruzzi wines will be the next wines to be “discovered.” Arturaola notes, “I visited the area last December . . . and I was pleasantly surprised. . . . There is a relationship between quality and price that is better than any other region in Italy.”