Montepulciano d’Abruzzo: A Wonderful Red Wine from the Region of Abruzzo

Heading due east from Rome lays the region of Abruzzo. This is a historically poor region whose people inhabit the hills and mountains so prevalent in the province. The people are proud and independent. They resemble the peoples of Italy’s southern regions in attitude and aptitude. Likewise the food and wine cultures reflect that lack of affluence centered on a hard working community. The hillsides are excellent for viticulture. The most popular red grape is the Montepulciano although many other grapes are grown here most notably Sangiovese. As an aside, there is no relation between the grape and the village of the same name in Tuscany, which is famous for its wine, Vin Nobile di Montepulciano (made from Sangiovese grapes.) White wine (not the subject of this article) is also made here. The Trebbiano grape is the most well known of the white varietals. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo are two of my favorite wines from Italy and wines and deserve more recognition.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo was designated as a DOC in 1968. It covers most of Abruzzo ranging from Molise in the south, the Marche in the north and inland against the Apennines Mountains. The wines are at least 85% Montepulciano with Sangiovese permitted, but not required, at up to 15%. The Riservas need to be aged a minimum of two years before release, with at least 6 months of that in wood. In 1995 another DOC was created called Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane. This was a carved out subset of the larger zone. The chief differences are that the wines must be at least 90% Montepulciano and the Riservas are aged a minimum of 3 years before release. Unlike other areas of Italy where smaller zones of quality wines were carved from larger ones, this DOC’s wines are not appreciably better (or worse) than the larger zone.

The Montepulciano grape is quite prolific. The Montepulciano grape grows easily in Abruzzo. It is plump with high amounts of juice. In an area this poor, this has been a boon to farmers wishing to take advantage of high yields. Unlike most other varietals, this grape makes nice wine even when produced in large quantities. The grape has a deep purple and ruby color to its juice. It has lower acidity (especially for an Italian varietal) and mild sweeter tannins. The resulting wines tend to be softer and more accessible than Chianti or Nebbiolo for example. Accordingly, the young wines are nice pleasurable reds that go as well with food as without it. Almost all of the wines at the low end of the price spectrum (and many can be found for under $8) are enjoyable. At the same time, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo can age brilliantly especially in the hands of the right producers.

At the top of the list of quality producers is Emidio Pepe. He has been making wines in this area since 1964. His grapes are produced organically and fermented in glass tanks for 18 to 24 months. His wines see no wood and no sulfur dioxide (a chemical treatment often used to prevent spoilage.) The wines are aged for a long time in glass bottles. When he is ready to sell his wines, they are rebottled in new bottles and released. They are some of the few Montepulciano d’Abruzzo’s which do not drink as well young. Pepe’s wines are fresh and powerful, yet rustic. They often have a raw barnyard quality to them, treasured by some and disliked by others. But they improve with age. In fact, his wines can easily last 20 to 30 years. His wines from the 1970’s and 1980’s are still available at retail (for over $200 per bottle) and are well worth the tariff. They are not easy wines to find, but they are some of the greatest red wines from Italy. Pepe’s wines are not for everyone, but for those who appreciate them (count me as one) they are astounding.