Chomping at the Bit: New Releases from Abruzzo


Abruzzo could be the next emerging region in Italy. Beneath the ocean of forgettable tank wines and vast vineyards that feed the large production cooperatives, there’s a murmur of a high-quality, artisanal revolution. However, the road to achieving such status will be long, and it will take even longer to convince consumers that this is the case.

Looking out across the gentle hills of Cugnoli from Cristiana Tiberio.

First and foremost, I am very happy to report that there have been significant changes in the rules, governing body and overall outlook for the future in Abruzzo. However, these changes have not yet resulted in a surge in quality. Let’s start with a few issues I cited in last year's report.

A significant point that I discussed in the article, Abruzzo: The Great Divide, was that “a reorganization of the main DOCs is required in order to keep the region’s leading producers within the appellations 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.”

Moreover, I cited issues with bulk Montepulciano being bottled outside of Abruzzo yet labeled under the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC and then sold at a price that undercuts many regional producers. Lastly, the Consorzio di Tutela Vini d’Abruzzo, the biggest and most active producers’ association, had never had a president that was not the leader of a large cooperative or bulk producer, meaning that smaller and family-run wineries never felt like their own governing entity adequately represented them or that the Consorzio had their best interests in mind. It was “a system that favors mass production and cooperative winemaking.”

It’s incredible how much can change in one year, but there is much work to do for Abruzzo to recognize many of its elite producers properly. The Consorzio has been working to alter the DOCs regulations since 2019, which would help fix many issues cited above. A major change that took place at the end of 2022 was the election of a new president, Alessandro Nicodemi, the first private wine producer to hold the position. The second was unveiling the new plan that the Consorzio had hinted at previously.

Forty-eight-year-old Pergola-trained Trebbiano vines at Chiara Ciavolich.

Introducing Superiore and Riserva

The classifications of Superiore and Riserva will go into full effect with vintage 2023. To be clear, the Superiore designation already exists for Trebbiano d'Abruzzo and Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo. However, it's now extended to the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC and Abruzzo DOC. As a stipulation for using the new classifications, winemakers must also indicate the appellation where the wine was produced. The current appellations include the northern region of Colline Teramane (Teramo province), near the border with Marche. The rather large and central Colline Pescaresi (Pescara province) can be quite Mediterranean near the sea and more mild verging on continental throughout the hilly interior. Terre de L'Aquila (L’Aquila province) covers the western reaches of Abruzzo, and Terre di Chieti (Chieti province) comprehends the areas around Chieti and the hills that once formed the Colline Teatine IGT. Together with Controguerra, Villamagna and Ortona DOCs, the Abruzzo DOC is the one that requires bottling in the region.

The Consorzio’s long-term aim is to restrict where the Superiore and Riserva wines of the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOCs are bottled to only the appellations where they are made. This means that it is possible that in the future, a Superiore or Riserva cannot be bottled outside of Abruzzo. This will be useful to winemakers who want to distinguish themselves from the bulk wines that flood the market. The Consorzio also hopes it will inspire growers who currently sell their production to large bottlers outside of the region to keep the grapes within Abruzzo, where they will be more valuable.

With the new addition of the appellations, the eight existing territorial IGTs have now been removed, leaving only the new Terre d’Abruzzo IGT, which is awaiting EU approval. However, this presents unique challenges to producers who proudly used these IGTs in the past to indicate specific terroir. Tiberio is a perfect example. Their Colline Pescaresi Pecorino, labeled as an IGT and clearly representing the terroir of the hilly interior of the region, will now be lumped together with wines from drastically different geological locations. Cristiana Tiberio, a huge proponent of the importance of place, explained, "I’m sad to see how the classification doesn’t consider the aspect of the grape variety or the characters of the terroir, and doesn’t distinguish the area." Her concern is focused on the size and wide-spanning terroir of Colline Pescaresi, which will permit a Pecorino tank wine sourced from the flat-lands near the coast to be grouped into the same category as her higher elevation vineyards that are drastically affected by the surrounding mountains.

Clay, sand and limestone soils at Praesidium in the Peligna Valley.

To me, these changes, while made with good intent, were hastily drawn up. It will be many years before we see their positive effect. To be clear, this is a huge move in the right direction, but it will also take time before they appease many of the region's wineries, who are demanding further definition of terroir. For instance, the producers of Loreto Aprutino formed the Custodes Lauretum association to promote their own unique terroir. These are some of the top producers in Abruzzo, including Ciavolich, Valentini, Torre dei Beati, De Fermo, Amoratti and Talamonti. While these new rules will help to distinguish them from a bulk producer of Montepulciano, they do not help to communicate much to consumers since Loreto Aprutino would again fall into the vast Colline Pescaresi place name. The good news is that the Consorzio has plans to expand further upon the defined subzones, such as adding villages, additional Geographical Units and single vineyard mentions. However, it will be years before we see all of this happen.

While it would be wonderful to think that the first official vintage of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Superiore could be a good and plentiful year full of wines we can celebrate, Mother Nature had other plans. Like much of Central Italy, Abruzzo has been plagued by rain throughout most of 2023, including two months of rain and cloudy skies in the spring that brought upon the worst case of Peronospora (downy mildew) the region has ever seen. During my visit in July 2023, the humidity in the vineyards and the extreme heat were nearly unbearable, even under sunny skies. At the time, reports from Chieti spoke of producers estimating a 70% loss in production. In Cugnoli and Loreto Aprutino, most estimated 25-35% while at Emidio Pepe, Chiara De Iulis Pepe spoke of 35-40% loss. To make matters worse, at the time that this article is being written, rains have returned to the region after a mostly dry July. Unfortunately, while rain is doing an excellent job restoring water reserves after two years of drought, the effect on wine production in 2023 will be drastic.

Looking out across the Casa Pepe Vineyard from Emidio Pepe.

Global Warming and the Pergola Advantage

When driving through the mountainous interior of Abruzzo, it quickly becomes apparent that this is wine country. Still, the vine training system of choice differs vastly from other regions. Here, the pergola system still rules, and for excellent reason. For many decades, pergola training was looked down upon as a way to grow large quantities of grapes that would create sub-quality wines. As a result, many producers in these regions worked to change their training system to Guyot. The government had even offered stimulus for farmers who changed their vine training or planted new vineyards using more modern designs, which is why many of today's growers will have a mix of pergola and guyot.

Today, however, it has become apparent in regions like Abruzzo that pergola, when properly maintained, is far superior. Pergola uses a trellising system built on poles spaced eight feet apart and standing six feet high on average. The advantage in a world of global warming is a large canopy of leaves that shade the fruit from the scorching sun. Microclimate comes into play when discussing moisture. In nearly all inland parts of Abruzzo, circulating air currents push and pull through the valleys between the mountains and the Sea. Add in their water-retaining clay soils, and it becomes apparent why many of the top producers in the region depend on pergola. 

In fact, at Emidio Pepe, all new plantings are being made using the pergola system. When speaking with Chiara De Iulis Pepe about increasing temperatures and the severe weather, she explained, “I’m still young, and I’d like to be making wine here for a very long time. I think it's very easy to say that we’re not going to be able to make wine here in twenty years. To me, that means that you’re not fully using your intelligence. We are a part of nature, and our intelligence should be in service of nature. If you’re surrendering, then you are externalizing yourself from nature.” Within the new vineyards at Emidio Pepe, vines are interplanted with olive trees or surrounded by willows and fruit-bearing trees, all with the idea of creating even more shade for the fruit.

Another essential feature is that pergolas cannot be harvested by machine, meaning they must be farmed by hand to thrive. Vines that receive individual care, excellent shading, over water-retaining soils, in well-ventilated areas sound like the perfect recipe for success. This is not always easy because wind, which generally benefits the region, is also affecting the thickness of skins as vintages get warmer year after year. This combination results in grapes with very little juice and thick skins, an issue primarily for Montepulciano. This fruit can create big, burly Montepulcianos of power and aggressive tannins. Finding balance is easier for producers who mature their wines in stainless steel or cement and steer clear of oak. However, the results can be painful for those who choose oak aging. 

A large number of vineyards located in choice locations are still used to fuel large cooperative wineries. A good example is Cugnoli, situated between two valleys formed by Gran Sasso and Maiella, where patches of vines can be seen in all directions, many of which are old vineyards and most of which are planted with a classic pergola system. When speaking with Fabio Di Donato of Cingilia, he explained that many residents are farmers with animals, produce and vines, but maybe only a single hectare to work with. To them, vineyard land is just one piece of their income, and it is easier to sell the fruit. In the end, this means that the potential for future growth is very high yet currently unrecognized. Hopefully, the changes in the DOC regulations I reported above will incite these growers to look to more profitable outlets for their fruit.

In the Torre dei Beati vineyards.

The Dualing Drought Years

Both 2021 and 2022 were drought years with excessive heat, yet I find more balance in the latter. 

Looking back on 2021, the reds are concentrated yet often lack depth, while many whites struggle to balance fruit and acidity. That said, overall, white varieties fared much better than the reds. Winter months were moderate. Springtime temperatures were unseasonably low yet very dry through May. June warmed up, but temperatures remained cool through the evenings. In July, intense heat arrived and lasted through August. Small, sporadic rain showers provided little relief. At the end of summer, much-needed precipitation rolled in. Temperatures stayed warm throughout September and into the Montepulciano harvest in October. 

Elegant and seductive with sapid fruit and just enough acidity to balance, the 2022s are quite appealing. While broadly similar to 2021, climatically speaking, the 2022 vintage benefitted from springtime precipitation that helped to build up water reserves in the soils. The winter and spring were warmer than average, which resulted in early yet healthy flowering, starting at the end of April to the beginning of May. The region was blessed with more rain immediately after, yet arid conditions prevailed through most of the summer, resulting in drought. This, coupled with the accumulated heat, forced vines to shut down through parts of July and August. Rain in September helped to provide balance, along with cooler temperatures that lasted through an anticipated harvest, on average, a week early. Many producers reported that they had very healthy grapes. Some struggled with Montepulciano, while nearly all agreed that the whites suffered less. Ultimately, the big challenge was achieving phenolic maturation without producing much higher alcohol percentages.

I tasted the wines from this article during visits and organized tastings in Abruzzo in July 2023.

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Abruzzo: The Great Divide, Eric Guido, October 2022