Abruzzo, The New Tuscany, Part II

Although I’ve said it before, it’s worth repeating: wines from Abruzzo deliver more bang for the buck than you’d expect.  The region is starting to realize its enormous potential for making high-quality, well-priced wines.  Part one of this two-part series was an overview of the region. This column will cover specific producers in Abruzzo, Trebbiano and whites unique to the region, and a notable rosé.

Up-and-Coming Producers

Fratelli Barba, with its 400 acres of vineyards located in northern Abruzzo, is just one of many examples of producers in transition.  The family has owned agricultural land including vineyards for generations and was happy to sell all their grapes to the local co-op.  But in 1991 they built a winery and started bottling wine themselves.  Now they bottle half of their production — the higher quality wine — and sell the remainder in bulk.  They’ve recently planted Chardonnay and Merlot as an experiment, perhaps to use in a blend, but they haven’t bottled it yet.

The evolution of Villa Medora, one of the region’s leading producers, is an example of how a new generation of winemakers is attempting to transform the region.  Federica Morricone, a young, energetic woman whose family has been growing grapes for generations, runs the winery.  Her grandfather pulled out of the local cooperative in the early 1990s and her father started the wine company in 1996.  She arrived in 1999, and for the better part of the last decade has been rejuvenating the vineyards, building a state of the art winery complete with gleaming stainless tanks, new presses and a large barrel cellar, and is turning out a line of polished, clean wines made from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.  She said that her grandfather originally thought she was crazy to reduce yields but, after tasting the wines she made, he agreed with her philosophy.

Cabernet and Other ‘French’ Varieties

The current director of Orlandi Contucci Ponno, Marina Orlandi Contucci, explains that her father, Corrado Orlandi Contucci, a diplomat who lived in France for years, left the local cooperative in the 1960s and planted traditional French varieties — including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Chardonnay, and Grenache — because France was still the standard for wine.  He was the first to make a Bordeaux blend in Abruzzo.  She inherited the estate in 1990 and extended her father’s tradition by planting Merlot.  (The 1999 Liburnio, their Bordeaux blend, is marvelously complex and elegant).  Like many other ‘new wave’ winemakers, she is experimenting with other varieties, such as Viognier and Shiraz.

She believes that a legacy of co-ops in general is that Montepulciano’s image is one of a cheap house wine.  She is emphatic that that image must change, but because there is a ‘sea of Montepulciano,’ it is difficult and will take time.

The Sole DOCG: Colline Teremane

Cerulli Spinozzi has partnered with the Veneto’s high-quality producer, Sartori, and focuses on upper end wine from the region’s only DOCG, Colline Teremane.  Andreas Sartori believes the DOCG has the potential to be the locomotive for the region and change the image of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.  Although Cerulli Spinozzi eschews international varieties in favor of the native Montepulciano, Andreas Sartori notes, ‘we have no interest in making low-end Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.’  Like many other ‘new wave’ producers, they built a modern, high-tech winery — complete with stainless steel tanks, 225-liter barriques as well as larger barrels — housed in a classically proportioned Italian palazzo-styled building in 2002, using the famed Franco Bernabei as a consultant.

On the label Cerulli Spinozzi emphasizes the proprietary name, Torre Migliori, as opposed to the tongue twisting Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOCG Colline Teremane.  Torre Migliori, an intense but polished wine (imported by Banfi), sells for between $15 and $25 (for the Riserva) and is a fabulous buy.

The Mountain Areas

Only about 5% of Abruzzo’s wine comes from the mountainous L’Aquila province, but producers there believe it’s the best area because of the large diurnal temperature swings that accompany the mountain climate.  The fact that Masciarelli, Abruzzo’s leading producer, is planting vineyards — although with Cabernet and Merlot — in the province supports the contention that this mountainous area is unique.  Producers are lobbying for a new DOC, which they want to name after the region’s highest — and most well known mountain — the Gran Sasso.

Two quality producers located in the province whose wines are widely available in the US and represent good value are Valle Reale (Winebow) and Cataldi Madonna (Vias Imports).  Both producers focus on Montepulciano and aim for a Super-Abruzzo wine.

Cataldi Madonna, founded in the 1920s at a time when everyone was selling wine in bulk, was one of the first in Abruzzo to bottle their wine. Their top wine, named Toni (about $50), is wonderfully intense and polished.

Valle Reale’s owner is the young, energetic Leonardo Pizzolo.  They have 20 acres of 40 year old, pergola-trained vines from which they produce their best wine, San Calisto (about $30), and 125+ acres of wire-trained vines planted in 2000 and 2003.  Pizzolo notes that although the area is known as the ‘oven of Abruzzo,’ the night temperature drops by 20 degrees in September and October, which allows the grapes to maintain their acidity.  The harvest typically is quite late, from the end of October to November.  Like other new wave producers, they built their winery only 5 years ago.

With intensity, wonderful balance and vivacity, Cataldi Madonna’s Toni or Valle Reale’s San Calisto could be the Super-Abruzzo wine producers are looking for.

Masciarelli, the Region’s Leader

Masciarelli, the current leader in Abruzzo, was founded less than 30 years ago, in 1981 with barely 5 acres of family owned vineyards.  Gianni Masciarelli, who died suddenly at the age of 53 last July, and his wife, Marina Cvetic, gradually expanded it to a 1,200-acre estate, 2/3rds of which is planted, and have built a new, industrial-chic winery.  He had a ‘spare no expense’ philosophy when it came to making wine.  He even established his own importing company, Masciarelli Imports, to control distribution in the United States.  With a Gaja-like confidence, Masciarelli’s top end Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, ‘Gemma Rosa,’ sells for about $90 a bottle and is the current benchmark for the region.  His Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ‘Marina Cvetic,’ is a consistently good value (about $15).

Masciarelli’s love was red Burgundy.  He knew that Montepulciano d’Abruzzo couldn’t be Burgundy, but he felt it needed to lose its roughness and coarseness. He valued elegance and polish over power, and it shows in his wines.  His aim was to make a silky wine from Montepulciano that achieved a Burgundy-like sensibility.  A 1995 Gemma Rosa, tasted recently, showed that he had achieved his goal.  His aim for perfection, dedication to the region and inspiration to his colleagues will be missed enormously.

Whites and Rosato

Cerasuolo (literally, cherry red) is a dry, serious rosé made from the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape.  Although I am not a fan of rosés in general, even I urge consumers to try these rosés once spring and summer finally arrive.  Cerasuolo is different from most rosés, which are often made as an after-thought in an attempt to boost the concentration of a winery’s red wines.  With Cerasuolo, winemakers set out to make a rosé.  It’s not a by-product of a technique — ‘bleeding’ the tanks — to make Montepulciano more powerful.  Cerasuolo, paradoxically, has both power and lightness.

Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is the major DOC for white wines in the region.  They vary stylistically from zesty and citric to heavy and apricot-like.  The best advice is to know the producer’s style.  Valentini makes the most amazing bottlings of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, wines that age like white Burgundy.  Sadly, they are no longer available in the United States, but if you find one on a wine list while traveling in Italy, don’t hesitate to order it, even if it’s a decade old.

Many producers, such as Cerulli Spinozzi and Cataldi Madonna to name just two, are experimenting with lesser-known, indigenous white grapes, such as Pecorino (it might be hard to sell a wine that has the same name as a cheese).  Others are bottling Passerina and Cococciola, two more indigenous grapes, under the Controguerra DOC.  It’s hard to generalize, but more than a few wines I’ve tasted made from the indigenous varieties have good ripeness to balance the abundant acidity and hold great promise.

Some new wave producers feel obligated to try their hand at Chardonnay.  Whether they can provide a unique taste profile that will entice consumers remains to be seen.

A Great Future

Abruzzo is already turning out a bevy of well-priced red wines.  Pecorino — the wine, not the cheese — has good potential because of its vibrancy, and Cerasuolo could become this — or next summer’s — star rosé.  My advice is to visit your local wine shop and start exploring what Abruzzo has to offer.

Click Here for Part I

March 10, 2009