Christine Austin looks the changing face of grape-growing in the Italian region of Abruzzo

There is something deeply satisfying about standing knee deep in the warm waters of the Adriatic, glass of wine in one hand and a piece of local fish, straight from the grill in the other. Having spent much of the previous days of my trip to Abruzzo on steep hillsides, where vines cling to the slopes, grapes ripening in breezy sunshine, this sunset excursion to the seaside brought home to me the diversity of this wine region.

Abruzzo is on the eastern side of Italy, just below the ‘calf’’ of Italy’s ‘boot’ and what makes this region distinctive is that it is bordered by the sea in the east and by mountains in the west. Gran Sasso looms over the region, the highest mountain in the Apennines at 3000 metres, dominating the landscape and creating its own climatic zone. Between this peak and the sea is the grape growing region of Abruzzo.

The main red grape is called Montepulciano – which translates as beautiful mountain, but here is a point of confusion. This Montepulciano is nothing to do with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano from Tuscany.   When you have as many beautiful mountains as Italy has, it is hardly surprising that the name is used generously, if somewhat confusingly.

Montepulciano is a vigorous, flavourful grape that can produce ripe, juicy, cherry and chocolate style wines in large quantities. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a great-value, fail-safe choice in a supermarket when you are planning rich, tomato and pasta dishes for your supper. But there is so much more to this region than just good value wines. The whole region is pulling quality up from its roots, looking at clones, sites, pruning, and yields. There is even a new designation for the region, which is gradually working its way from source to shelf.

Montepulciano grape produces juicy, cherry and chocolate flavours

Colline Teramane is a new DOCG designation for the top wines of this region. The wines must come from a specific area in the north of the region, mainly taking in the breeziest slopes and the steepest hills, and it is centred on limestone and clay soils that were left by glaciers millennia ago.

To qualify for this new DOCG the vineyards must be more closely planted than in the past, the yields must be cut and there is a move away from the traditional tendone system of training where grapes hang down under an umbrella of leaves, shading the fruit towards the more usual training system of planting vines in rows. Minimum aging of the wines is also defined in the new regulations.

Changing a region’s grape-growing methods is a long process and each step forward can take years to put in place, but they represent an attitude to improve the reputation and quality of Abruzzi wines. Colline Teramane is clearly a region that has made up its mind to move up the quality scale.

This is particularly evident at properties such as Cerulli Spinozzi which occupies 33 hectares of gloriously steep hillside halfway between sea and mountain, in the heart of the new DOCG area. Owner Enrico Cerulli Irelli explained ‘the old system of tendone is very good in some years because the leaves shade the grapes and prevent over-ripening, but in other years there is a danger than the breeze cannot reach the grapes and so they could suffer from disease.’ He is gradually moving away from the old system, but also developing a slightly different form of pruning which will allow shading and access to the breeze. Yield is the most important point for Enrico. ‘As the production level goes down, the flavours in the wine increase, showing the sheer quality that this region can produce.’

At present Cerulli Spinozzi wines are not available in the UK, but having tasted through the range they show layers of cherry and forest fruits, herbal notes and a silky, supple structure. Perhaps supplies of these wines will gradually make their way to Yorkshire.

The training system for Montepulciano is gradually changing

There is tremendous progress at Fattoria Nicodemi too. The dramatically modern winery sits snugly into a hillside surrounded by 38 hectares of carefully manicured vineyards. Most have been planted in rows but even here there is support for the old-style tendone style of viticulture. ‘We get very good quality from vines grown in the tendone system’, said Elena Nicodemi, who runs the estate with her brother Alessandro. ‘Because the Montepulciano grape ripens late and must hang on the vine for the whole of September it is easier to keep alcohol levels under control if the grapes are shaded.’

Alessandro and Elena Nicodemi, the brother and sister owners of Fattoria Nicodemi

These wines have a brightness of fruit, a gentle, elegance in structure and complexity that builds in the glass. Supplies of these wines have managed to escape to the UK and so far are available from Gauntleys in Nottingham (Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2014, £15.16) and Bowland Forest Vintners.

One producer who has decided to stick with his traditional ways of vine training and winemaking is Emidio Pepe. Walking into this 15 hectare estate is like taking a step back in time. The vineyards are worked biodynamically and they have been certified biodynamic since 2006 – although Emidio regards his natural way of working as ‘just the same way my grandfather worked’. He also loves his overhead tendone way of training his vines. ‘Montepulciano needs to be ripe but it doesn’t need so much sun’, he declares. Fermentation proceeds with natural yeasts and the wines are cellared in bottle for ‘as long as they need’. This is what separates Emidio Pepe’s wine from the new regulations of Colline Teramane, since those new rules require wood aging – which Emidio doesn’t like. However his attention to detail, his clear winemaking skills and the sheer quality of his wines support the region’s drive to quality.

Emilio Pepe, a traditionalist winemaker in Abruzzo

I tasted back through the years to 2000, each vintage showing increased suppleness, complexity and savoury flavours as the wines aged. This are wines for the long haul. They are gems in region that is looking to establish a new level of quality across all its wines. Find Emidio Pepe’s wines at Buon Vino in Settle at around £50 a bottle.

Only a few Colline Teramane wines have arrived in Yorkshire, try Yume 2011 (Field and Fawcett £15.75). Meanwhile investigate the better end of simple Montepulciano d’Abruzzo such as La Piuma 2015 at Waitrose £7.99.

Ageing cellars at Emilio Pepe

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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