The Italian Job

Julie Sheppard

Julie Sheppard

31 July 2017

There’s more to Abruzzo than good value Montepulciano… Julie Sheppard joins a group of sommeliers as they explore the vineyards beside the Adriatic Sea

Sandwiched between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic coast in Central Italy, the region of Abruzzo could have been designed specifically for growing grapes. Plenty of sunshine? Tick. Dry climate? Tick. Cool coastal breezes? Hilly vineyards? Tick, tick.

The scenic landscape of Cascina del Colle
The scenic landscape of Cascina del Colle

It’s no surprise that this region of some 32,000 hectares (ha) is one of Italy’s most productive wine areas, making over three million bottles annually. A source of good-value bottles for UK wine lists, it’s traditionally been dominated by cooperative wineries producing large volumes of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, an easy-drinking red to pair with pasta and pizza, and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo a quaffable white.

These good workhorse wines don’t really set pulses racing, but the winds of change have been blowing through Abruzzo. Led by Edoardo Valentini, a growing number of artisan winemakers are focusing on high quality and low yields; while a new generation is bringing fresh ideas to the region.

Young blood

The sommeliers on tour in Abruzzo
The sommeliers on tour in Abruzzo

Nic Tartaglia is the fifth generation to farm his family estate at Alanno in Pescara, but only the second generation to make wine. He’s taken over the winemaking from his father, producing his first commercial vintage in 2015 – and likes to do things his own way. ‘I did a sommelier course to learn more about other wines and get wider tasting experience,’ he explains.

His 2ha of traditionally pergola-trellised Montepulciano vines sit 300m above sea level and produce a complex, savoury red, with notes of smoky bacon on the nose, deep black fruit and an ash character on the finish. In contrast his Trebbiano is a pure, mineral style. ‘Right now it’s hard to sell Trebbiano,’ he sighs. ‘People would rather have Pecorino or other white grapes.’ As a result he’s planted Chardonnay, producing the Reserve Mirvana 2015, a classy cool-climate version of the international grape.

‘A lot of other wineries here plant Chardonnay but they try to imitate Chardonnays from other parts of the world. I try to express the land of Abruzzo,’ he explains. If these wines from his inaugural vintages are anything to go by, Tartaglia is a winemaker to watch…

Also following in the footsteps of his father is Emilio Rapino. His tiny winery in Francavilla al Mare in Chieti province is squeezed behind his family home, among rows of tomatoes, with dogs, cats and children running around. He’s a shy rebel, breaking Abruzzo’s traditional winemaking rules to make interesting, characterful wines that sing of their place. His Trebbiano is unfiltered – ‘Not filtering preserves the integrity of the Trebbiano grapes,’ he says – with a touch of pétillance and an intensely mineral, herbaceous character. His Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo (the local rosé style; ‘cersasuolo’ means ‘cherries’) isn’t typical either, offering more food-friendly tannic grip than other local examples. But perhaps the wine that best shows his flair is Calyce, a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot, with 20% Montepulicano, adding a clever Abruzzo twist.

Organic and natural

Rapino farms organically, a growing trend throughout Abruzzo. Zappacosta has 3ha of organic vineyard, all planted with native grapes: Montepulciano, Trebbiano and Pecorino. ‘We prefer working in the old traditional way, with no pesticides and with natural winemaking processes,’ says Adamo Zappacosta, the fourth generation to run his family estate perched on vertiginous slopes in Chieti.

He produces just five wines: a Montepulciano, Trebbiano and Cerasuolo in his Biologico range and the pricier SudEst range, which features a Montepulciano aged in stainless steel and a textured Pecorino Terre di Chieti IGT. At around €7 ex-cellar, the latter offers tremendous value for money with its notes of Russet apple, struck match, peach, grapefruit. Richness on the palate is clipped by a clean, crisp finish that cries out for food.

Nearby at family-owned Cascina del Colle, the 16ha of vines are also grown organically, with white wines certified organic since 2016 and reds due to receive organic certification in 2018. Again, the range includes a few surprises, such as the fresh rosé Cuvee 71, a Rosato Terre di Chieti IGT, which is a blend of Pecorino and Montepulciano.

International grapes

Further north, in Teramo Massimiliano Cori of Tenuta Torretta is another organic grower. He says the location of his vineyard on the northern edge of Abruzzo gives his wines a ‘noticeable savoury, mineral character’. Like Tartaglia in Pescara, he produces Chardonnay – but from grapes that were planted in the 1970s. ‘My father had a very open mind at the time,’ he explains.

‘He thought Chardonnay was the mother of all white grapes.’ These old vines have deep roots and produce a complex wine. ‘This is a Chardonnay with local character,’ says Torretta. ‘This finish is bitter; there’s a mineral quality that comes from the clay soils here.’

Nearby the always-smiling Luigi Valori grows melons and tomatoes alongside his vines, on his organic estate at the foot of the Gran Sasso Massif. Trained in theology, he has a philosophical approach to winemaking. ‘I question everything!’ he laughs. Passionate about native Abruzzo varieties, he also fell in love with Merlot while working in France, so has planted that too. ‘Merlot needs poor soils and here our soil is very sandy,’ he explains. His Inkiostro is a 100% Merlot, with typically silky tannins, but a nice crunch of pomegranate and red apple, plus fresh acidity.

The big guys

Alongside these small artisan producers, Abruzzo’s cooperative wineries are also innovating and driving change. Eredi Legonziano was the first winery in the region to start producing traditional method DOC sparkling wines and was also the first to use the Charmat method to produce fizz. Today its sparklers range from the prosecco-alike Eredi Extra Dry Bianco to top-of-the-range Abruzzo DOC Spumante Bianco Millesimato Metodo Classico, aged in bottle for 48 months.

Cantina Miglianico is one of the oldest co-ops in Abruzzo, founded in the 1960s. It now works with 300 growers and 500ha of vineyards. Like Eredi Legonziano, it has developed its range to include sparkling wines – in this case made from the local Passerina grape.

It seems that wherever you look in Abruzzo you’ll find something unexpected…

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