- Tuesday 1 January 2002
Always drinkable, Abruzzo's wines are now becoming more distinctive, says TOM MARESCA
Italians call the region Abruzzo, in the singular, while English-speakers refer to it as Abruzzi, in the plural – this simultaneous identity can serve as a handy symbol of the region's uniqueness and rich potential. Long known as a source of fairly priced and enjoyable but simple quaffing wines, in the last decade Abruzzo has awakened to its own capacity for fine wine and the world market's readiness to absorb it, and now is an opportune time for consumers outside Italy to catch up with its remarkable progress. Not that it's an abstruse subject, as Abruzzo makes things easy to learn and keep straight. The region has two principal varietal DOCs: the white Trebbiano d'Abruzzo and the red Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, which can be grown throughout the whole region.
It has two subsidiary geographical DOCs in what are regarded as its best growing areas, Controguerra, in the far north, bordering the region of the Marche; and Colline Teramane, the hills around Teramo, a little further south and inland of the Controguerra DOC zone. Other important wine zones lie around Pescara and Chieti, about midway down the length of Abruzzo, in the hills that run west from these cities into the Apennine mountains. To the south of Abruzzo, Molise's region of Campobasso has separate DOCs, but is geographically and climatically a continuation of Abruzzo's wine country and its produce is rightly considered alongside Abruzzo's, which it parallels in quality and potential.
The only real capacity for confusion comes from the name of the region's principal red grape, which makes it obligatory in any discussion of Abruzzo wine to state that Montepulciano d'Abruzzo has nothing to do with the Tuscan town Montepulciano or the Sangiovese grape: it is a wholly distinct variety, and a noble one at that. It's also versatile, and that is one of the keys to Abruzzo's tremendous potential. Not only does Montepulciano d'Abruzzo yield a wine of substance and keeping ability, but it can also produce very sensibly priced, thoroughly enjoyable, everyday reds, as well as a lovely rosé called Cerasuolo which, for many palates, constitutes the perfect light luncheon wine.
That everyday quaff is, of course, the wine that has loomed largest in the minds of consumers outside Italy. For many years, wine production in Abruzzo was dominated by cooperatives, the upper level of whose production was necessarily limited by the quantity of middling-to-poor material they received from their least ambitious or knowledgeable members. That situation changed rapidly in the 1990s, when many of the better growers began vinifying and bottling their own wines. Make no mistake, most of the coops have kept pace with the times and wine technology, and there are still some excellent ones – Tollo and Roxan spring to mind – that turn out a large amount of fine, fairly-priced wine, as well as a smaller production of far-better-than- average, usually differently labelled wines, such as Tollo's Colle Secco bottlings and Roxan's Galelle.
However, the real boost in overall quality of Abruzzo wine has come from independent producers, whose numbers have increased significantly in the past 10 to 12 years. Their role model is the zone's pioneer, Edoardo Valentini, a revered loner and quality fanatic who cultivates his eccentricities almost as carefully as he does his vines. His Trebbiano, in particular, has for decades set a standard that no one else has matched: 'Burgundian' is the adjective most often used to describe it. Rivals, and some critics, have claimed that his white wine is so good that it can't be made from Trebbiano grapes, but Valentini insists that he has planted only the true Trebbiano d'Abruzzo clone and nothing else (Trebbiano Toscano, a different clone, is also allowed by the DOC). His real secret may well be his strict quality control, as he uses only 10% of his Trebbiano grapes himself, selling the rest to a local coop.
The younger generation of Abruzzo winemakers has had more notable success so far with Montepulciano than with Trebbiano. Masciarelli and Cataldi Madonna both vinify splendid, basic Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, as well as more powerful and refined, specially designated versions. The Montepulciano DOC doesn't permit the use of the term riserva, but Cataldi Madonna's Tonì and Masciarelli's Villa Gemma would both qualify for the designation if it were available. Both are high-altitude wines, Masciarelli's grown within sight of Monte Maiella, and Cataldi Madonna's in the shadow of the Gran Sasso, the two highest peaks in the Apennines. And both growers – strong-minded individuals from established families – are experimenting with international varieties such as Cabernet and Chardonnay (surprise!) and almost-forgotten indigenous grapes such as Coccocciola and Pecorino.
Such two-pronged experimentation is quite common in Abruzzo. On the Orlando Contucci Ponno estate, for instance, French-educated owner Marina Orlando Contucci and oenologist Donato Lanati are producing excellent Montepulciano, Cerasuolo and Trebbiano, plus provocative and award-winning wines named Liburnio (Cabernet and 20% Malbec, Merlot and Sangiovese combined) and Colle Funaro (Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon).
Lepore, in the Contraguerra DOC zone, makes the three traditional Abruzzo wines and has devoted itself to resurrecting the Passerina grape. From the latter it makes a relatively light and pleasant wine called Passera delle Vigne and a more substantial and complex, barrique-aged wine called, simply, DO. Many houses are also using the 15% of 'other white varieties' allowed for DOC Trebbiano, experimenting with, among others, Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Riesling.
In Molise, Di Majo Norante's motto is 'new wines from ancient vines', and to that end the family-owned firm produces blends of, for instance, Montepulciano and Aglianico (Ramitello) and Falanghina and Greco (Biblos). Nearby, the ultra-modern Borgo di Colloredo estate produces varietal Montepulciano, Trebbiano and Sangiovese, plus intriguing blends like Gironia Rosso (Montepulciano and Aglianico) and Bianco (Trebbiano, Bombino and Malvasia).
What makes this experimentation possible – and what makes it almost easy for Abruzzo to produce quality and quantity – is its extraordinary situation and climate. It can be visualised as a tilted province, sloping steadily from the highest Apennine peaks down to the bathtub-tepid Adriatic, which makes up its entire eastern border. The solid rampart of those Apennines forms the western border and for many centuries kept Abruzzo isolated from the rest of Italy, although Rome is now only two hours away by autostrada. Between the mountains and the sea, Abruzzo enjoys a splendid climate that keeps large portions of the region lush and green. Residents like to joke that you can ski the peaks in the morning and swim in the sea in the afternoon but, for our purposes, those sloping hills provide wonderful exposures and well-drained sites for vines. Stand in almost any vineyard in Abruzzo and you will see the weather barrier of the Apennines at your back and feel the cool breath of the Adriatic from in front of you. This is the central fact that underlies Abruzzo's enormous potential for fine wine and also explains why it has been so easy for the region to turn out enormous quantities of simple, drinkable everyday reds and whites for so long.
For all its mountain ruggedness, Abruzzo is a soft land, blessed with a lovely climate, genial and newly prosperous people, and an abundance of fine food from soil, pasture and sea, as well as the wines to enjoy with all of them. Even though agriculture has declined, Abruzzo could still be a vegan's paradise, especially for those typically Mediterranean species such as aubergine and courgette, onions and peppers (the variety of pepper dishes is bewildering, rivalling even those of Naples). Lamb in all its forms and in all styles of preparation is the favourite meat, and tastes wonderful with Montepulciano.
Montepulciano can be paired just as happily with the huge variety of cheeses made from the sheep's milk produced throughout the region. Locally made mozzarella and scamorza are also excellent and often find their way into the stuffing of such seasonal delicacies as fried courgette flowers – equally wonderful with Trebbiano or Cerasuolo.
Abruzzo menus have lately taken a turn towards the sea, too. Seafood has always been expensive so perhaps recent prosperity accounts for this, but in any event, the Adriatic obliges with fish and shellfish of such variety and delicacy of flavour that they give Italy's better known seafood destinations a real run for their money. Few pleasures can surpass a huge bowl of Abruzzo brodetto, consumed on a shaded, breezy, seaside terrace in the middle of a bright Italian summer day. The classic brodetto requires three whole fish and three whole shellfish, all unknown in northern waters, in a spicy broth of white wine, fish stock, tomato and chillies, enriched with bits of squid and cuttlefish. Each mouthful demands a following sip or swallow of a well-chilled Cerasuolo. The flavours of food and wine alike are fresh, direct, lively and thoroughly enjoyable at every level – aesthetically, intellectually and on the palate.
Tom Maresca is a freelance wine writer.