Abruzzo vineyards & wine
Abruzzo produces some 22 million cases of wine annually from 30,000 hectares of vineyards, roughly half devoted to DOC production, making it the seventh most productive region in Italy.
At their best these wines can be a revelation, but what we get in the UK is too often seen as cheap and cheerful, with too many estates content to make decent but not particularly interesting wines. The Montepulciano grape always delivers something decent, but its wines can be so much more than just that; and Pecorino, provided you choose the right examples, can give one of Italy’s five or six best white wines. Happily, a new generation of younger more adventurous owners are now taking over at many family wineries, and the wind of change is breathing new life into wines that are no longer merely inexpensive and simple, but deep and complex.
In Camillo Montori, Emidio Pepe and Valentini, Abruzzo has long boasted three of Italy’s best wine estates, but Cataldi Madonna, Nicodemi, Tiberio, Torre dei Beati and Valle Reale are five more Italian wine superstars in the making.
Abruzzo is best known for four wines: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Pecorino.
The only Abruzzo red wine of note is Montepulciano produced with the Montepulciano grape: distinct from the Sangiovese grape behind the Tuscan wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
While the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo grape has no known relationship to the Tuscan wine village of Montepulciano or the Sangiovese grape behind the wines of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, it was believed at one time that the Montepulciano grape and Sangiovese may be related. While this relationship has proven false, it is still not known how the dominant grape of Abruzzo took the name of the Tuscan town. The wine is known for hearty, inexpensive everyday reds crammed with bright fruit, and while it is thought that the variety does not have the nobility of Nebbiolo or Sangiovese, it can offer more than it is commonly given credit for. Montepulciano presents two main problems. Like Sangiovese, it’s a very reductive variety; hence off odours in poorly made wines are common. And while the grapes ripen and accumulate sugar easily, the seed tannins rarely reach full maturity. For this to happen, a long, slow growing season (a rarity in recent times) is an absolute necessity. Otherwise, wines with an underlying green astringency are common.
From the mountainous province of L'Aquila, a rosé made from Montepulciano called Cerasuolo is a specialty of the region. These deep cherry pink wines get their colour from the highly pigmented Montepulciano grape that requires only a very brief period (sometimes less than a day) of maceration time prior to pressing. According to wine experts Bastianich and Lynch, these wines tend to be "heartier" than typical rosés with exotic spice aromas along with dried cherry, orange peel, strawberry and cinnamon notes. Matt Kramer describes Cerasuolo as "one of the world's great rosé"
White wine is produced in all four of Abruzzo's provinces, but the bulk of the production takes place in the province of Chieti (the fifth largest producing province in all of Italy) whilst some of the most highly rated wine from Abruzzo comes from the hillside vineyards in the northern provinces of Pescara and Teramo, much closer to Casa del Colle
Abruzzo’s white wines have improved enormously, with some outstanding Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Pecorino wines now available. Trebbiano is the lighter-bodied of the two, characterized by delicate aromas and flavours of orchard fruits, white flowers and chamomile. Poor examples are remarkably thin and neutral, and that’s why the grape and the wine had previously earned a reputation for being nothing special. But the grape clearly holds significant potential, given that Valentini’s Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is considered by many to be Italy’s greatest white wine, and that Emidio Pepe, Camillo Montori and Tiberio have made wines as good as Valentini’s.
Pecorino is currently Italy’s hottest white wine. An early-ripening variety that accumulates sugar easily, Pecorino wines are bigger and higher in alcohol than Trebbiano. All but forgotten until the 1980s, when the variety was rediscovered in Le Marche, Pecorino wines can be very reminiscent of those made with Sauvignon Blanc, offering aromas and flavours of sage, green fig and winter melon. Due to the category’s surge in popularity, everyone is producing Pecorino wine these days but this is a grape that likes higher slopes, and with its rise in popularity it is being cultivated in flatlands that will never do the grape justice. I suspect that you will not be disappointed if you choose the wines recommended in this article.
Passerina is another little-known grape that is growing in popularity and quality. Unfortunately, much like with Trebbiano, Passerina has long been confused with other similar-looking but different varieties; with “Passerina” grapes also grown in Marche and Lazio which are unlikely to be the same grape as the one grown in Abruzzo (for example, one “Passerina” variety in Lazio is actually an aromatic grape much like Moscato Bianco, and so it has nothing in common with the Abruzzo variety, which is non-aromatic). Abruzzo’s Passerina wines are characterised by a delicate lemony florality with an aroma closer to that of Trebbiano, while their flavours and weight are more similar to those of fuller-bodied Pecorino wines.
The 2011 vintage was one of the hottest in memory, with all phases of the growth cycle occurring earlier than usual. The harvest was the earliest in a decade and the wines often show a warm-weather personality (some pruney aromas and flavours in many reds, for example). The 2012 vintage was significantly better, especially for the white wines, the best of which are layered and complex. It too was a warm vintage, but the grapes were harvested only slightly earlier than usual. Wines from the 2013 growing season show characteristics of a much cooler vintage, which in fact was marred by rainfall in September: those producers who didn’t wait out the bad weather and allow their grapes to dry on the vines made diluted wines—in fact, most 2013s, white and red, lack real intensity. The worst vintage of the last four is 2014, as autumn weather was atrocious, with almost non-stop September rain. The whites (especially Pecorino, since it’s an early-ripening variety) and the Cerasuolos have turned out better than expected, while the jury is out on the reds. Unfortunately, most of the 2014 wines present obvious traces of dilution in conjunction with unripe tannins. The best recent vintage for both Abruzzo and Molise is 2010; it was outstanding for both white and red wines.