Going back to Abruzzo after almost 10 years is a real eye opener
[Pictured: Cristiana Tiberio, winemaker at Agricola Tiberio]
When I first visited Abruzzo in September of 2007, it was still warm enough for a sundress and harvest had just begun. I couldn’t wait to get into the vineyard. To my dismay, though, it wasn’t in the cards. I had to sneak away from the group in order to walk among the vines; wineries were more keen to present their barrels and state-of-the-art facilities.
I understand the desire to show off new oak and modern equipment; investment in the cellar is a perceptible sign that producers are taking their wine seriously. Abruzzo had a well-entrenched reputation for producing low-quality bulk wine. 40 years ago, there were only a couple of estates — namely Valentini and Emidio Pepe — that were bottling their own wine. While these numbers have grown, 70 percent of the production of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC is still shipped outside the region to be bottled, taking quality control out of the hands of the growers.
But I wanted to start at the beginning. At one of the wineries, I spotted a bin of white grapes. I picked up two bunches lying side by side. One was long and conical with green berries while the other was pyramid shaped with grapes that had a deep pink hue. When I asked what grape varieties they were, I received a one-word answer: Trebbiano. “Different clones?” I pressed. This time a monosyllabic no was the only reply. But, even to my untrained eye, they simply couldn’t be the same.
I left Abruzzo somewhat disappointed. The region was beautiful, blessed and bountiful, with a charming rusticity and welcoming and generous people. Yet the wines lost something in translation. Overall, the Trebbiano were lackluster and the only true beacon of hope amongst the whites was a glass of fresh and vibrant Pecorino that I greedily gulped by the seaside. (Until that moment, I didn’t even know that there was a grape called Pecorino.) As for the Montepulciano wines, they largely occupied two extremes: cheap and generic on the one hand, and over-oaked and over-extracted on the other.
I finally returned to Abruzzo exactly nine years later. To my delight, this time, producers were genuinely eager to take my colleagues and I into the vineyard. However, the irony is that on this visit, it was pouring rain. Nevertheless, I had the distinct impression that the focus had shifted — or is shifting — to the vineyard.
Undeterred by the soggy weather, winemaker Cristiana Tiberio greeted us at the Tiberio estate with a collection of rubber boots. She led us directly into her Fonte Canale vineyard to the original plot of old-vine Trebbiano Abruzzese that her father discovered. Herein lies the explanation of those two dissimilar bunches of Trebbiano I’d observed on my previous trip to Abruzzo: “Trebbiano” refers to a group of unrelated grapes rather than to one single variety. While Trebbiano Abruzzese is native to Abruzzo, the much lesser quality Trebbiano Toscano has taken over plantings. To add insult to injury, another grape called Bombino bianco is commonly mistaken for Trebbiano Abruzzese. And the icing on the cake is that a wine labelled Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC can be made with any or all of these grapes. Furthermore, the rules do not allow producers to state which grape is actually used. Confusing, right? Some producers aren’t even entirely certain what they have growing in their vineyard.
Tiberio knows for sure, though. She is the epitome of what Abruzzo needs in order to move forward. Equipped with a chemistry degree and an exacting nature, she tested the DNA of every single vine and pulled out those that weren’t Trebbiano Abruzzese. “My colleagues thought I was crazy, wasting time and money to research such a lowly wine,” she recalled. “Now the same producers are asking me for cuttings.” Tasting her Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC made from 100 percent Abruzzese, I understand why. Delicate yet concentrated, with finesse and length, it’s a complete departure from the sea of unremarkable wines with the same label.
Until Tiberio came along, the legendary Valentini estate was really the only benchmark for Trebbiano Abruzzese. Produced in tiny amounts and sold for much more than any other bottles from Abruzzo, Valentini’s wines are shrouded in mystery. Visitors aren’t allowed into the cellar in order to avoid contamination of the ambient yeast. The lousy weather means we can’t check out the vineyard either. Instead, we spend a captivating morning chatting with Francesco Paolo Valentini and his family in their living room. Valentini’s discourse is more philosophical and romantic than scientific. For him, Trebbiano Abruzzese is an expression of the Abruzzo identity: “When I crush the grapes, it’s the same perfume and flavours of the Dritta di Loreto olives that have been growing in our area for 2000 years. It’s the smell of time and our land.” The 1978 vintage he opens for us is a pure translation of this expression.
But in order for a wine to translate the land, balance must be achieved in the vineyard. A focus on quantity has long held Abruzzo back. Tendone, or pergola, trellising is considered traditional in the region and commonly associated with high yields. In this system, a thick roof of leaves covers the grapes, a roof that can hinder ripeness and trap humidity, leading to rot. In the ’80s, the dynamic Gianni Masciarelli introduced the French system of guyot, and other producers adopted it in an effort to increase quality. However, today people are rethinking the pergola due to the warmer temperatures and earlier ripening attributed to climate change. Shade provided by the pergola is now considered helpful in slowing down ripening and protecting sensitive grapes like Trebbiano Abruzzese from sunburn. In terms of quality, it’s all about how the pergola is managed.
The deluge has reached an apex when we arrive at Nicodemi. Elena Nicodemi was demonstrably upset that she could not take us into the Montepulciano vineyard her father had planted in the 1970s. In lieu of a tour, she had prepared a handout explaining the changes they had made to their pergola. Besides reducing fruiting canes to two from the traditional four, they thin and position shoots in order to balance the canopy and let sunlight in. This has cut yields by half and increased labour costs by 50 percent but the resulting wines are ripe, balanced and focused.
Elena Nicodemi likens Montepulciano to the Abruzzese people: “It has a strong, tough character. You have to work very well in the vineyard otherwise you have problems in in cellar.” Montepulciano can be very tannic and if it isn’t ripe, it gives green flavours and an exaggerated bitterness. Getting the grape to ripen properly is a challenge. Within the same bunch, you can find berries at different stages of ripeness. In order to be absolutely certain, Fausto Albanesi at the up-and-coming Torre dei Beati estate makes several painstaking passes through the vineyard, picking bunch by bunch rather than parcel by parcel.
Even with all of the efforts in the vineyard, the work in the cellar is just as important. Montepulciano, for example, can be a very reductive grape, giving off-aromas. Various vinification techniques, including aging in wood, can help counter this trait. An unfortunate trend, however, has been the over-enthusiastic use of new oak to try to cover up bitter, unripe flavours. But the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way, at least among rising stars like Praesidium and Cataldi Madonna. Both wineries have moved away from barriques because they impart too much of their own personality. The most intriguing Montepulciano in my books are those that have freshness and highlight the bright red fruit and sweet herb nuances of the grape.
And what of that beacon of hope I tried on my first trip? Pecorino is shining even brighter today. Originally from the neighbouring region of Marche, it was virtually abandoned because it is naturally low yielding. While Marche producer Cocci Grifoni is responsible for its “rebirth,” Luigi Cataldi Madonna reintroduced it to Abruzzo. He is also credited with baptizing Pecorino since he was the first producer in Italy to reference it on the label. Cataldi Madonna admits to struggling with the grape at first, trying to tame its intrinsically high acid and initially failing to capture its distinctive aromas of Mediterranean herbs. A combination of changes in the vineyard (less de-leafing) and in the winery (reductive winemaking) eventually allowed Pecorino’s true character to shine. After an apoplectic rant against natural wine (his are NOT), Cataldi Madonna treated us to a vertical of his Frontone Pecorino going back to 2004. Earlier examples are serious over-oaked but by 2008 the change to stainless steel made for a vastly improved wine. With 2010, he’d clearly hit his stride. Cristiana Tiberio who, along with Cataldi Madonna, makes one of Abruzzo’s best Pecorino calls it “a nervous wine, not elegant but dynamic.”
Dynamic is an equally fitting descriptor for the new generation in Abruzzo. They are proud of their land and aspire to share it through their wines. What they’ve also managed to capture in the same bottles is their thoughtful, genuine and charismatic personalities.
Colline Pescaresi Tiberio Pecorino 2015, IGT, ($28)
Precise aromas of sage flower, chamomile and even some pine. Fantastic concentration and richness but carries weight and alcohol so well. Must be all that minerality and juicy acidity.
Colline Pescaresi La Valentina Pecorino 2014, IGT ($28)
Explodes with honeydew melon, apple and lemon balm. Assertively dry and incredibly salty on the palate, supported by lime and white grapefruit, this captures Pecorino’s dynamic nature.
Fonte Canale Tiberio Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2014, DOC ($43)
Unequivocally 100% Trebbiano Abruzzese. Apricot, almond blossom and cream, with citrus and flinty undertones leading to a long subtly nuttiness finish. Think Chablis from a warmer clime.
Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2012, DOC ($134)
If you want to try one of Italy’s greatest white wines, here it is. I recommend putting it away for a few years to allow that complex tangle of green olive, butter, smoke, mountain honey and anise to develop.
Casa Montori Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2013, DOC ($16.35)
A solid producer that deserves some attention. While their Fonte Cupa line offers greater complexity and concentration, the Casa Montori is clean, honest and good value for the money. Liquorice and red berries with a firm grip of tannin and rustic charm.
Torre dei Beati Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2014, DOC ($23)
I love the freshness here and the purity of the Montepulciano grape. There’s a rare fragrant floral element and minerality besides the juicy red currant and raspberry flavours. The more oak driven Cocciapazza ($34–44) is well managed and also worth discovering.
La Valentina Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2013, DOC ($25)
A captivating blend of bay leaf, blood orange, clove and cherry. The bright acidity and underlying tannin make it ultimately hunger-inducing.
Cataldi Madonna Malandrino Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2014, DOC ($26)
Refreshingly unoaked and deliciously fruit-driven, with red plum and wild strawberries supported by supple tannin. If you ever come across their Frontone Pecorino, don’t hesitate.
Masciarelli Marina Cvetic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2013, DOC ($34)
Gianni Masciarelli was one of the first to introduce French barriques to Abruzzo and the oak is very much in evidence here. Tar and chocolate balanced by blackberry, pepper and coffee notes, it’s a full and fleshy style with teeth-coating tannin.