Abruzzo on the Rise

If you are looking for wines that deliver more than their price suggests (and who isn’t during these economic times?), it pays to learn about Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, an intense red wine that stands up to the flavorful, chili-laden Abruzzi cuisine.

These wines often have a rustic side, which can be appealing, but when not controlled can impart wild ‘horsey’ flavors.  The very best have a polish and suaveness that complements their power.  Consumers are lucky because there are a slew of well-made, easy to recommend Montepulciano d’Abruzzo selling for $10-20.  Producers I can recommend easily include, in alphabetical order, Bosco Nestore, Cataldi Madonna, Cerulli Spinozzi, Ciavolich, Farnese, Fratelli Barba, Masciarelli Orlandi Contucci Ponno, Valle Reale and Villa Medora.  The future is promising because there are scores of producers, such as Constantini, who make terrific wines, but have yet to find a US importer.  So if your local merchant doesn’t carry any of these producers’ wines, ask for more recommendations.

This column will cover Montepulciano d’Abruzzo in general and a subsequent one will speak to specific producers, Trebbiano, and up and coming whites from the region as well as a notable rosé.

Abruzzo: The New Tuscany

After a two-hour drive east of Rome through stunning mountains and seemingly endless tunnels, you reach Abruzzo, a region on the way up.  It offers the tourist everything from charming seaside villages with extensive beaches–and great seafood–to rugged mountains with picturesque Italian villages and endless vistas.  Abruzzo has the reputation for producing the best pasta in Italy, which is no small feat considering the competition.  In scenery, charm, food, and especially wine, Abruzzo is reminiscent of Tuscany 20 years ago.

From Tanker Truck to World Class Wines

Despite its location in the center of Italy, the wines from Abruzzo–chiefly Montepulciano d’Abruzzo–are on the cutting edge of the ‘Southern Italian wine revolution.’  The wines are emerging from relative obscurity in export markets as well as their reputation for delivering quantity over quality.  In the past, the region was known for tanker truck quantities of cheap red wine made from the major grape, Montepulciano, sold in 5-liter plastic jugs for a euro or two.  It’s only been during the past 30 years or so that producers bottled their wine instead of selling it all in bulk.  Over the last decade dedicated producers have been rediscovering the potential of the area, reducing yields to improve quality, experimenting with ‘international varieties’ such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and producing top-notch award winning wines.

Confusion and Hurdles

Red wines from Abruzzo face two potential obstacles before consumers embrace them.  First, and most obvious, is the confusion between the primary red grape of Abruzzo, Montepulciano, and the Tuscan wine, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which is made from the Sangiovese grape.  Despite usage of the same the same word, there’s no connection or similarity between the two.  The Montepulciano grape is not a clone of Sangiovese.

Secondly, and less obviously, is the paucity of DOCs–areas of official geographic classification–in the vast region, which gives rise to a enormous gap between the highest and lowest quality wines.  Currently, in addition to the sole DOCG (Italy’s highest official category of wine), Colline Teramane, there is one major DOC for red wine–Montepulciano d’Abruzzo–and one for white–Trebbiano d’Abruzzo–in Abruzzo, a region as large and geographically varied as Tuscany.   (There’s another tiny DOC for reds and whites, Controguerra).  That’s the equivalent of recognizing the Chianti Classico zone in Tuscany, but ignoring Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile, Carmignano, or any of the other respected DOCs producing fine wines.

Look for the situation to change.  In 2006, regulators added subzones to the DOC of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, such as Terri dei Vestini, which ultimately will likely be awarded its own DOC.  Additionally, producers in L’Aquila province in the mountains are lobbying strongly for a DOC to recognize their unique terroir.

Abruzzo is a huge region with a multitude of different microclimates as the vineyards extend from mountainous areas right down to the sea.   Gianni Masciarelli, head of the eponymous firm, notes, ‘there are a half dozen unique microclimates within three kilometers.’  Hence the quality of the wine is highly variable and dependent on the producer.  Although the producer is always the most important name on a label, without DOCs to guide the consumer regarding quality, individual producers play an even more prominent role in Abruzzo.

A Consultant from Tuscany

Franco Bernabei, one of Italy’s great winemakers, sees great potential for the region.  Abruzzo has precisely the same potential for world-class wine that Tuscany had in the 1960’s, according to him.  In Tuscany, Chianti evolved over two to three decades from cheap red wine sold in straw covered bottles to wines of stature.  Bernabei believes a similar evolution will occur with Montepulciano, only far more quickly because Abruzzo already has producers making world class wines–Masciarelli for one–and an established DOCG. He likes the Montepulciano grape because of its rich color, its naturally high acid and its ripe tannins. Bernabei believes ‘there is a fantastic climate in Abruzzo for growing grapes.  The temperature variation in Abruzzo is great, with large diurnal swings (in temperature) between night and day.’  The cool nights means the grapes retain acidity, which translates into fresh, vibrant wines.

Pergola versus Wires

Bernebei believes that a major problem with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the traditional tendone or pergola system for vineyards in which the vines are trained to grow on a latticework six feet or so above the ground, covering the vineyard like a net.  It’s a form of planting that gives high yields and in Bernebei’s mind, results in under-ripe grapes with aggressive acidity and green tannins because the vine can’t supply enough energy to ripen the oversize crop adequately.   Not everyone agrees.  Masciarelli, the region’s most visible producer, like many to whom I spoke, wants to maintain  at least some of their pergola because of the shade it provides the grapes, which is beneficial especially in hot years.  And importantly, the oldest vines (which produce the best grapes for making complex wines) are trained in this way, as this has been the traditional mode of planting.  Nevertheless, Masciarelli will probably not replant using the pergola system when the current vines need to be replaced.

Vibrant Experimentation

Abruzzo and its wines are reminiscent of what Tuscany was like in the 1960s.  At that time, Chianti was fighting to liberate itself from the fiascobottle and the image of cheap red wine. Chianti producers revolutionized the wines by introducing international varieties and focusing on Sangiovese to show what stellar wine it could make by itself. The same sequence is occurring in Abruzzo. Young, innovative winemakers are experimenting with Cabernet, Merlot and aging wines in barriques instead of large older barrels.  Others, such as Masciarelli, are making exceptional wine from the indigenous Montepulciano grape.

The challenge will be for producers to change the image of Montepulciano from a grape producing cheap swill to fine wine. Upscale bottlings, such as Cataldi Madonna’s ‘Toni,’ Cerulli Spinozzi’s ‘Torre Migliori,’ Masciarelli’s ‘Gemma Rosa,’ or Valle Reale’s ‘San Calisto’ will certainly help.  These wines, along with the region’s many wines that are priced between $10 and 20, offer exceptional value because their reputation has not yet caught up with their quality.  But it will–and sooner than we think.

Click Here for Part II

February 10, 2009