Abruzzo: The Great Divide


Upon landing in Abruzzo and starting my visits with producers, I quickly realized that there is an insurgency taking place. It’s not something that you hear about in marketing materials, consumer or even press tastings. No, you hear it from the producers on the ground as you tour their vineyards and cellars and start to talk about their biggest challenges. In Abruzzo, just like everywhere else, producers are scared about global warming and drought, but what they are really frustrated about is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo itself, simply the DOC, and what it represents. 

Looking out toward Loreto Aprutino and Cugnoli from above the mountain-side town of Corvara.

Imagine you are a producer who works hard in your 5 to 20 hectares, likely all by hand. You put in countless hours, constantly learning, trying to make the best wine possible. You follow the traditions of your region and your family but keep your mind open to new ideas: better, healthier farming practices and innovations in the cellar that will improve quality without removing that wonderful stamp of terroir. When you value your wine, you look at all your hard work and money spent, and then assess the quality that was placed into each bottle. However, once you do all of that, and put a price on your wine that you believe is fair and communicates the importance of what you’ve created, you need to label it Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC and compete with an ocean of mass-produced bulk wine that bears the same name, yet sells in a supermarket for one tenth of the price. 

How do these producers survive? How do they grow? How do they inspire others to follow the road of artisan quality and traditional values? This is the main challenge for Abruzzo’s quality-minded and artisanal producers today. So much so, that more than a few of them are considering leaving the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC altogether. If that happens, it will not only hurt the region as a whole, but also cause mass confusion, as consumers will then need to navigate a minefield of fantasy names and IGTs that may or may not communicate any sense of place. I firmly believe that a reorganization of the region is in order, so that the DOC can keep its greatest producers within the appellation while addressing their needs, even if it is something as simple as the allowance of village or place names, such as Loreto Aprutino, Ofena or Cugnoli, so that these producers have some way to distinguish themselves.

We’ve been down this path before, going back to 2003. At the time, the prevailing belief was that the best reds in Abruzzo hailed from the north, in Teramo, hence the creation of the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane DOCG and in Controguerra, where the Apennines reach closest to the Adriatic Sea before spilling over into Marche. Here the elevations are generally higher (the highest permitted vineyards in the area sit at 550 meters), with cooling influence of the mountains, ventilation from the sea and soils that are a mix of clay and limestone. Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions (the most obvious being Emidio Pepe, but others include Terraviva and Camillo Montori), many producers in the north have not done an adequate job of conveying the value of their terroir over time. Then we have the subzones of Alto Tirino, Casauria, Teate, Terre dei Peligni and Terre dei Vestini. With the exception of only a handful of producers, how many of the wines are markedly different, and do consumers know, or even care? In fact, the most exciting wines that I’m finding today are instead from the hilly interior of Abruzzo, within the valleys formed by the Gran Sasso and Maiella massifs, where the soils change to glacial, river and seabed deposits created over several centuries. It’s here that we are witnessing a quality revolution that is unparalleled by any other location in the region. It’s also here that new and young producers are struggling to prove the worth of their terroir, while looking up to the likes of Francesco Valentini, Cristiana Tiberio and Fausto Albanesi of Torre dei Beati for inspiration.

Fausto Albanesi in his old-vine pergola vineyards within Loreto Aprutino.

There is a silver lining. The managing members of the Montepulciano DOC are fully aware of the issues producers currently face and assure me that steps are being taken to allow the use of place names on labels. However, it rests with the EU to decide upon and approve these measures. Only time will tell, but I for one seriously believe that it would be a tragedy to lose the biggest names in the region to a system that favors mass production and cooperative winemaking.

The Pros and Cons of Montepulciano

It is so easy to make a Montepulciano with little in the way of winemaking intervention that impresses wine lovers. As an example, I taste through numerous portfolios where the best wine (from a balance and enjoyment standpoint) is often the entry-level offering, usually a wine that was simply aged in concrete or stainless steel for a short time prior to bottling. Things get messy when producers try to make wines more important through too much technique, including long extractions and the overuse of oak. Many of the top wines in the region are done only with stainless steel, cement or large neutral barrels. Emidio Pepe, who makes one of the longest-lived Montepulcianos in the region, uses only cement followed by bottle aging and nothing else. It’s interesting to consider how many producers simply don’t get it or, from a different perspective, are trying to cover up a lack of quality material and terroir under a veil of wood. There are some exceptions (Torre dei Beati comes to mind) where a deftly applied use of oak elevates the wine without robbing them of Montepulciano’s inherent charms. The fact remains that the best Montepulciano wines can and do age beautifully without the assistance of wood tannins. The best part is that, even at the top of the price pyramid, they provide amazing value for collectors.

Stefano Papetti Ceroni of De Fermo shedding light on biodynamics, cosmic rhythms and winemaking politics.

The Pecorino Conundrum

Each year, we see more and more producers expanding their portfolios and raising their prices with Pecorino. This grape remains a restaurant favorite around the world for its ability to enchant with gobs of ripe fruit and citrus tones that are perfectly contrasted by juicy acidity and a salty minerality that keeps the mouthwatering for more. The popularity that Pecorino has enjoyed has vastly increased the production of the wines through new plantings in locations that are frankly too fertile and warm for the variety to communicate importance. One of the standouts of the region, to this day, comes from Cristiana Tiberio, who will tell you that Pecorino is a mountain grape, not intended to be planted close to the sea or allowed to ripen to the degree that many producers push them to. Having tasted a vertical of Tiberio Pecorino, going back to 2005, I admit that I am a firm believer. The sad part is that many of the Pecorinos that are touted in the market are often a bulked-out tank wine with fancy marketing; and as pleasurable as each sip might be, you’re not experiencing the real depth that the variety is capable of – and you’re likely overpaying for what you get. Within the notes that follow, there are a number of fantastic Pecorinos that are now being produced from higher-elevation sites and a mix of drastically different terroirs. Simply look at the portfolio of Cataldi Madonna, which now includes three separate bottlings of Pecorino, and each a completely unique expression. The future of Pecorino is not yet written, but with the focus that quality-minded producers are placing on it today, I expect there will be many more coming that are worth trying.

Is Trebbiano Abruzzese the Future of Abruzzo Winemaking?

One can’t help but feel that Trebbiano Abruzzese, not Trebbiano Toscano or the myriad of other Trebbiano varieties that can be found throughout Abruzzo, may very well be the future of the region. While many producers won’t admit it, and some benefit from a unique terroir that has helped to offset its effect–up until now, they’re scared about global warming, and many are already beginning to look at the possibility of replanting with experimental varieties. Unfortunately, unlike many other regions of the world, looking to higher elevations to plant Montepulciano isn’t necessarily an option, as the variety needs a long growing season to fully ripen, and the window of warm weather at higher elevations isn’t wide enough. On the extreme side of this, one notable producer, Francesco Valentini, has chosen not to bottle any of his Montepulciano since 2015 due to their overripe fruit sensations, color and high alcohol. Whereas Trebbiano Abruzzese, a native cultivar that continues to be grown using the Pergola training system which much of Italy considers outdated, thrives. The trick to successfully cultivating Trebbiano Abruzzese, using the Pergola system, is ventilation. With the right terroir, the shading effects of Pergola training and the fact that many of the best vineyards are 40 to 70 years old or older, world-class white wines are within reach. The only downside to this is the limited resource of vineyards that fit this profile, along with the number of Trebbiano d'Abruzzo wines in the market that are not making use of the true native variety. It’s because of this that I attempted to clarify between the two within my notes whenever a producer is using true Trebbiano Abruzzese. 

The barrel aging room at Masciarelli - Villa Gemma.

Ripe Vintages Aplenty

Global warming is taking its toll throughout all of Italy, as each year seems warmer than the last. Drought conditions become normal, and the occasional rain consists of a massive wall of water that delivers in one hour what it traditionally would have delivered in one week. It’s a scary time; yet in Abruzzo, most producers seem less obviously concerned at the moment. Be it their proximity to both the Apennines and Adriatic, the water-retaining soils or the unpopular use of drip irrigation, in Abruzzo, the biggest concern is heat, with each vintage providing more high-test Montepulciano that’s darker and richer, as well as Pecorino that’s bursting at the seams with sucrose ripeness. For the time being, the wines are holding onto balance and impressing consumers; but one must wonder what the future holds, especially at the time of my visit this past summer, where the 2022 season was easily two weeks ahead of schedule.

Looking back at 2020, this was a vintage that many producers felt was the most balanced of the last three warm years (2019, 2020 and 2021 – with 2022 about to join the mix). Having now tasted the young Montepulcianos that are just entering the market, there is an undeniable elegance and suave character to these wines that will make fans of the region very, very happy. What the 2020s lack, for the most part, is the structure for long-term aging, yet that’s where the 2019s shine brighter. While 2020 was a low yielding year, due to extreme cold temperatures in the spring, the vines enjoyed a long growing season devoid of any major climatic swings or any of the drastic weather events that global warming has brought about in recent vintages. Both early- and late-ripening varieties were picked on time and were physiologically ripe under the best conditions. 

In 2021, producers were faced with drought throughout most of the season. While the winter months were moderate, the springtime temperatures remained unseasonably low and dry through May. June warmed up, but also displayed fresh temperatures through the evening. Both budding and flowering were normal. It was in July when intense heat arrived and lasted through August. Only small sporadic rain showers provided any relief until the very end of the summer, when much needed precipitation arrived. It remained warm throughout September and into the Montepulciano harvest in October. For the white varieties, both Pecorino and Trebbiano were picked early, featuring smaller berries and thicker skins, but also complete physiological ripeness. That said, based on the bulk of the whites tasted for this report, even at the top estates, they struggled to find balance. As for Montepulciano, which in some cases was harvested nearly two weeks early, the combination of thick skins and lack of juice created a smaller harvest than usual. From the small selection tasted so far, these are large-scaled and concentrated wines, yet they lack the depth and structure to balance. 

The wines featured in this report were tasted both in Abruzzo and in our office in New York City through the summer of 2022.

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