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Abruzzo Uncovered – Montepulciano and More:
Feeling a little like an overgrown Alice in Wonderland, I sat on the stone floor, facing outward into the main cellar and shuffled awkwardly backwards through a porthole sized entrance into the tiled wine tank. Empty of course, this tank, one of a pair, was built in 1893, fourteen metres below street level to protect the wines of Pierantonj from variations in temperature that could spoil the fermentation process and was one of several antique wine artifacts in the cellar that seemed just a little larger than life.
Concrete vats are still widely used throughout the wine industry but generally lined with rather less prosaic material; wax, steel, epoxy or polycarbon-polycarbonate. Inside, the space is like something from an ancient sci-fi film. Beautiful Venetian glass tiles in shades of blues and grey line the egg shaped cavernous space, large enough for three of us to move around freely with perhaps ten metres of head height above us.
It is testament to the tradition of wine making in Abruzzo that this and some of the original oak and walnut barrels still exist and until recently were still used at Pierantonja, the oldest winery in the region dating back some two hundred years to before 1830 when parts of the current production centre were built. The cellars are full of antique wine making equipment, a fascinating insight into the traditions of the region. And, according to the President of the Abruzzo Wine Makers and owner of the Pierantonj winery, his wines are deliberately a direct reflection of the field; the high altitude, four hundred metres above sea level with a climate that means harvest is just a little later than elsewhere in Abruzzo.
Wine has been produced in Abruzzo since the mid 700s, originally focussed around Aquila. Not all of Abruzzo is about ancient tradition, though, it’s only really in the last fifty years that viticulture has developed to encompass over 30,000 hectares of land. And, wine making has become an important part of the local economy. For many of the wineries the emphasis is on volume production of wines for local consumption or export but there is growing trend toward quality and respect for the environment. At Fattoria La Valentina, founded in 1990 by Sabatino, Roberto and Andrea Di Properzio, the aim is to produce high-quality D.O.C wines at an affordable price. They use organic and biodynamic production methods and have started the process towards organic certification.
A quarter of the vines use the rose training technique while the rest uses a traditional tendone system, creating a dense overhead canopy of leaves in the summer to protect the vines from the sun. We tasted Spelt Trebbiano d’Abruzzo (so named because in the past, German farmers had planted the slopes with spelt) – an unfiltered and unstabilised Trebbiano white wine with a production of around 3,500 bottles a year, Spelt Montepulciano d’Abruzzo with a production of around 30,000 bottles and a 2006 Bellovedere Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, with a production of around 8,000 bottles. All very pleasant wines priced between 7 and 18 euros ex-cellar, the spelt is available through Wines Direct for between £11 and £20 depending on vintage.
Down in the cellars I got a taste of what a ‘much too young wine’ tastes like, drinking wine taken directly from the oak barrels. It’s not the best experience – the experience of the infant tannin-rich montepulciano grape was of even more tannins and rather a lot of fruity acid leaving my tongue stained and a bitter aftertaste. But hey, it’s a learning experience and I’m sure if I was a wine expert it would give an insight into the future product. For me, at least there was the platter of food – pig liver salami, pecorino cheese, bread with estate olive oil and hams, a variation of which was offered in every cellar we visited, to counter the taste!
At Orlandi Contucci Pono we met the proprietor, Guilia Ragguinti, who told us that although the land had belonged to her family since the end of the 18th century, originally it was tenanted. In the 60s the majority of the wine produced was sold wholesale to the US to use in blends. But, after spending much of her youth in France with her family, when they returned to Abruzzo, their aim was to create a more elegant wine by using a very controlled maceration and fermentation and harvesting late – as she put it
looking for softness and rounder wines without the foxiness of the typical Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
60% of the wines of Orlando Contucci Pono are sold in Italy, 40% exported. Guilia was brought up in Paris and the family background in France encouraged them to introduce French vines to the area that they believe suit the terroir, producing Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Cabernet Franc in addition to a range of local grapes.
As we tasted the 2008 Riserva, Guilia explained a little of the rules of the DOCG – that for the Riserva, the wine had to be aged for at least three years in barrels before bottling and then kept in cellar for a minimum of 6 months and that the exact vineyards for the DOCG appellation had to be identified in August, although harvest of the bottle that we were drinking wasn’t until 13th November. Wine is produced to respect the environment rather than in an aim to gain organic certification both because of the complexity of producing a DOCG wine and because Guilia doesn’t agree with some of the guidelines for organic wine production.
For the most part the wines that worked best throughout this brief but intense tour of the region were those with a real sense of passion. No matter what the size of the winery was, nor whether it was traditional or modern. We feasted on local specialities and tasted more variations of the wines of Abruzzo than I thought was possible. And, I learnt that Pecorino is not JUST a cheese but a rather pleasant white wine grape that was rediscovered recently. Apparently, the pecorino grape got its name from being a favourite of the sheep being driven through vineyards to pasture. I’m with the sheep, the Pecorino grape makes a well structure, full white wine with depth. It can be produced from early harvested grapes to create a lighter more acidic wine or harvested later for a spicier and more aromatic result.
The essence of the winemaking here is of an area in transition where farmers are learning to produce a more sophisticated product, where there are still teething problems, but where the passion and intent has already started to deliver fine wines. We sampled a thirty year old Trebianno from Valentini that was all at once aromatic, smooth and delicious. Founded in the 1950s, and probably the best regarded wine maker in the region, Valentini (now in the hands of Paolo the son of the founder Edoardo) demonstrates unequivocally that the wines from Abruzzo’s indigenous grapes and terroir are capable of excellence if treated with care and respect.
Of course there’s much more to Abruzzo than wine. But, a visit to the traditional cellars of Pierantonj and to one or two of the newer vineyards will give you a fascinating insight into the culture and lifestyle of this largely unknown area of Italy.
I was invited to Abruzzo by the Consortium of the Wine Makers of Abruzzo.