The wines of Abruzzo then and now: A conversation with Ian D’Agata

Jacopo Mazzeo

Jacopo Mazzeo

10 April 2019

Southern Italy is going through a real wine revolution. But while Sicily and its Etna wines are making the headlines, Abruzzo seem to be struggling to capture an international audience's attention. We caught up with leading Italian wine expert Ian D’Agata to discover Abruzzo’s journey from bulk to quality wine producer, and what’s yet to be done to promote its products to the world


‘There’s good and bad, but overall the trend is positive,’ states Ian D’Agata, confidently.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on Italian wine outside of Italy and knows a thing or two about Abruzzo. His love affair with the region originated early on in life when, as a young schoolboy in Milan, he was tasked to pick a region for a project: ‘I wanted to do Lombardy but that was already taken by a schoolmate, so I went for Abruzzo.’

Since he developed a passion for the region, he has kept a close watch on its developing wine scene. ‘The renaissance has happened over the last 20 years, since 2000. There were good producers out there before, of course, but it was mainly because of their talent, like Valentini for instance, but he was kind of preaching in the desert. Then Masciarelli came along, and Emidio Pepe.’

What he calls ‘renaissance’ was a real revolution fuelled by the youngest generation of winemakers who often trained at university and, most importantly, travelled the world. ‘They became immediately aware that the wine they had back home wasn’t that great. Unless you go through that experience you have no reference, no way of judging.

‘Now the new generation is applying a cleaner cellar hygiene and being more careful in the vineyards.’

'Indigenous' is the word

D’Agata is convinced that investing on indigenous grapes has been and will be crucial to the region’s success, despite the challenges that these might present. ‘Montepulciano, [the main red grape in Abruzzo], is a very difficult grape variety to grow because the pips ripen very slowly.’

Montepulciano is a very difficult grape variety to grow because the pips ripen very slowly' Ian D

Agata

Not an ideal characteristic for a grape that accumulates sugar very fast if planted in very warm areas: ‘You end up with a potential alcohol of 15% but with polyphenols that are nowhere near ready.’

The resulting wine was often a full-bodied fruit bomb with lots of aggressive, green tannins. Old school winemakers tried to get around it by using excessive new oak, which simply meant adding more tannins. ‘Some were good at first,’ says D’Agata, ‘but didn’t age well at all.’

The main issue, however, was in the vineyard. They thought that the guyot had to be the best vine training method. But what might be ideal in Burgundy’s cool climate isn’t necessarily the best way forward in the much warmer Abruzzo.

‘In fact,’ claims D’Agata, ‘the traditional “tendone”, which helps shading the grapes, is the ideal training method for Montepulciano. It helps the grapes accumulate sugars more slowly [by shading them], while giving time to the pips to ripen well. It’s not surprising that Valentini uses it.’

That said, the tendone system isn’t sufficient to grow the best possible fruit. D’Agata is convinced that Montepulciano needs to be planted in cooler areas (plentiful in Abruzzo, whose climate gets typically continental as one moves further inland) and once vinified, shouldn’t see much oak ‘because of the high tannins. In fact, you see that many now are getting rid of it, and using cement or even amphora’.

The white revolution

Just like Montepulciano, Trebbiano was, and from many still is, seen as a simple quaffer too. ‘We realised at the beginning of the 2000s that the Trebbiano Abruzzese (used by Valentini), is the best Trebbiano varietal.’

We realised at the beginning of the 2000s that the Trebbiano Abruzzese is the best Trebbiano varietal' Ian D

Agata

Trebbiano Abruzzese is actually not that common across the region, where Trebbiano Toscano and Bombino Bianco (both allowed to make Trebbiano D’Abruzzo DOC) dominate plantings, but D’Agata believes it’s going back into fashion. ‘It’s very easy to tell them apart in the vineyard. Trebbiano Toscano has large berries that turn red when ripe, while Trebbiano Abruzzese is smaller-berried, lower-yielding, ripens very late and never turns red.’

The region now yields a rising number of outstanding wines, both reds (see our selection of Montepucliano d’Abruzzo here) and whites, thanks to the rediscovery of high quality local grapes such as Pecorino, Passerina and Cococciola.

Abruzzo’s wine revolution, however, is still ongoing and far from being complete. ‘They still allow out-of-the-region bottling there’s great pressure to do it and Abruzzo is dominated by the social coops. It’s not a bad thing, per se, since they can make great wines, but we need to get them to improve the average quality.’

Despite these issues, D’Agata remains positive. ‘Certainly this is the best time for Abruzzo wines. What Abruzzo has to do now is to get people to understand not just the grape varieties (which unfortunately are not Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay that everybody knows), they also have to bring people there. One of the things that make Tuscan wine great is not just how good it is, it’s also that when a visitor goes back home and open that bottle of Chianti which might not even be a great Chianti  they’re not just opening a bottle of wine, they’re opening a series of memories. They have to show how uniquely beautiful Abruzzo is and all the wonders that the region has to offer.’

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