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Regional profile: Abruzzo

The workhorse reputation of the Montepulciano grape and the confusion of Trebbiano d'Abruzzo with its boring Tuscan cousin have done this region no favours, says Stephen Brook. But seek out the best producers of these and other indigenous varieties and you’ll be pleasantly surprised...

Area under vine 32,725ha
Principal varieties Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Trebbiano Toscano
Annual production 3,225,499 hectolitres
DOC production 80% is red wine
DOCG production The sole wine is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane with about 120ha

The rugged Adriatic region of Abruzzo has become synonymous with Montepulciano, a splendid and long-underrated grape variety that delivers rich and often complex red wines.

If Abruzzo still struggles to acquire a reputation as one of Italy’s serious wine regions, that is not because of any intrinsic defects in its indigenous varieties, nor because of any lack of high-quality producers: it’s because Montepulciano has a mysterious habit of leaving Abruzzo in large tankers and ending up in bottles of chianti or other italian reds on the shelves of the less illustrious northern european supermarkets. Its reputation as a workhorse variety does it no favours.

On my last visit to the region, almost six years ago, Montepulciano was ubiquitous, and the only other variety of any importance was Trebbiano. This variety carries a hereditary flaw, in that most consumers associate Trebbiano with the vapid Tuscan white wine. But Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is not the same thing as its Tuscan cousin, and its wines can be of real interest, capable of ageing surprisingly well. The high priest of the variety was Edoardo Valentini, and since his death the property has been run along traditional lines by his son Francesco. Edoardo always made Trebbiano with real texture, personality and ageing potential, and today more producers are modelling their wines on his methods. Even so, most Trebbiano d’Abruzzo remains a simple wine, untouched by oak, for early drinking.

Other varieties on the rise include Pecorino, a high-acid grape also found to the north in the Marche that thrives at higher elevations when shaded from direct sunlight. Cristiana Tiberio, who has gained a reputation for Pecorino, likes the way it seems to gain glycerol and texture during fermentation, and its aromas suggest to her sage, thyme and peach. With its freshness and attack, Pecorino is becoming increasingly popular.

Other whites are making an appearance too. Passerina and Montonico are indigenous grapes previously used mainly to make sparkling wine, but today they are vinified as dry table wines. Passerina gives abundant crops, so needs to be reduced in yield to deliver floral wines of personality and freshness. One of the most notable Montonico dry wines is from Villa Medoro.

Old faithful

Although the rediscovery of ancient varieties is always welcome, the focus in Abruzzo remains firmly on Montepulciano. It’s a versatile grape, in the sense that it can give pleasure in numerous guises. It can be vinified and aged in stainless steel to give a simple, attractive wine with freshness and transparency of fruit. If cropped low, it can be aged in casks or barriques – even new barriques – to create wines of altogether greater depth, concentration and complexity.

The oaked Montepulcianos are not really wines for everyday drinking, being too dense and powerful, but are superb winter warmers. Some can develop gamey aromas with age; others remain on a plateau, displaying primary fruit for years. Montepulciano does evolve with age, but it’s not a variety that demands bottle age to show complexity.

Another manifestation of Montepulciano is Cerasuolo, a rosé wine that is usually made by giving the juice a maceration of eight to 18 hours on the skins before fermentation. The result is a light red rather than a rosé, a wine with body and succulence. It’s very popular in the region, but exports have been growing. Even in a good pizzeria in the regional capital of Pescara, you don’t necessarily want to drink a rich red. Cerasuolo, with its vinosity and weight – ideally drunk lightly chilled – is just the ticket. Most producers agree that you mustn’t think of Cerasuolo as a way to use up your least interesting grapes; it should be made from grapes of high quality, and treated seriously.

Being a very large and dispersed region, with vineyards separated by 100km from north to south, Abruzzo is divided into many sub-regions, and there are also DOCs such as Controguerra that permit the use of non-Italian varieties such as Chardonnay or Merlot. Only someone steeped in the detail of Abruzzo terroir would be able to identify the many sub-zones for Montepulciano in the glass. Only one is of real importance: Colline Teramane, Abruzzo’s only DOCG. Located around the town of Teramo on clay and limestone soils in the region’s north, the wines from here have noticeable concentration and depth – but so can regular Montepulciano made elsewhere from low-yielding vines.

Vine training is an issue here. The traditional trellising, known as tendone, is similar to the pergola system found in many other parts of Italy. Designed to shade the bunches and make harvest less arduous, it can produce very good wines, as long as yields are kept low. Because new plantings have moved to French-style rows, the remaining tendone vineyards are old, which can also contribute to quality. Both systems of training have their advocates and merits.

Co-op country

Abruzzo is dominated by cooperatives. It’s thought that about 80% of all wine from Abruzzo is made by coops, most of which are located in hotter areas like Chieti. The best, such as Tollo and Citra, make very good wine at the top of the range – Tollo even dabbles in organic wines. But most of their products fall into the cheap and cheerful category.

So in Abruzzo, as elsewhere, it’s important to identify the best producers. The big beasts are Masciarelli, still on fine form despite the untimely death of its dynamic founder Gianni Masciarelli, and the patchier if more zany Zaccagnini. As well as the estates below, look out for the rich, polished reds from Nicodemi; the whites from Il Feuduccio; a good range of sensibly priced wines from Talamonti; the top wines (especially Montepulciano ‘Bellovedere’) of La Valentina, an estate advised by the renowned Luca D’Attoma; and the remarkable but very expensive Trebbiano from Valentini.

Written by Stephen Brook

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