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.
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.