by Domenico Cellucci
Southern Italy in ancient times was referred to as oenotria or “land of the vines” by the ancient Greeks. In modern times, the regions of Toscana, Piemonte and Veneto have traditionally had the entire spotlight when it came to winemaking in Italy. However in the last 10 years, southern Italy has experienced a wonderful renaissance in winemaking. Modern winemaking technology in combination with new investments has brought this ancient region to the world’s attention.
Markets in the US, Canada, and Britain have turned their attention to these “new” wines. Today, I would like to profile a red wine that is made in Abruzzo: Montepulciano D’Abruzzo. This wine should not be confused with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano from Toscana, which is made mostly with the Sangiovese grape. While the wine from Abruzzo is made with the grape of the same name.
It can be argued that Montepulciano D’Abruzzo wine, unlike some of its southern cousins, has been known by wine drinkers outside of Italy for decades. Many restaurants in the US and Canada have used it as a house wine given its food matching flexibility and attractive price. It therefore was, and continues to be one of Italy’s most exported wines in terms of sheer volume. However, this wine has undergone a transformation from a rustic, overproduced wine, to one that can compete with the best reds of Italy. It comes in both red and rosé known locally as cerasuolo) It is produced in all 4 provinces in Abruzzo, with the province of Chieti producing 2/3 of all wine made.
The existing rules do allow the addition of Sangiovese as a blending variety, but no more than 15%. It has since 1968, been classified as a DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) wine. While those wines produced in the province of Teramo, were elevated to DOCG (Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita) status in 2003. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is one of Italy’s most planted indigenous varieties. It can also be found in most of central Italy, including the Marche, Molise, Lazio, Puglia, and Umbria. When a wine is described as reflecting its terroir, Abruzzo certainly comes to mind. The region is dominated by the mountain chain known as the Appenines, covering most of its terrain. Many of the best vineyards are situated on the hills facing the Adriatic. The terrain is composed mostly of clay soils forcing the vines to push its roots deeper leading to wines with more complex flavours. The province of Teramo is especially blessed as its clay soil also contains iron. It is a grape which tends to ripen late which means that I don’t expect to ever come across a “Niagara” version with its shorter growing season. In ripening late, production per hectare tended to be high in Abruzzo. This has been adjusted downward substantially in the last 10 years improving quality. Other quality steps taken have been the aging of the wine for 2-3 years before release. Many of the top producers are using wooden French barriques (225 litre barrels) to age the wine, adding additional complexity to the finished product.
Unfortunately many producers, in my opinion, have overexposed this wine to wood resulting in a wine that tastes more “new world” than Italian.
Anyone that has every had a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, will know that it is a grape which produces a wine of deep colour. This can be explained by the small deep purple-coloured berry. On the nose, pepper and berry notes dominate. The acidity is moderate compared to let’s say a Sangiovese. On the palate raspberry and cherry flavours dominate. It is a medium to full-bodied wine with moderate alcohol, velvety tannins and a long lingering finish.
In terms of food pairing, the “classic” match in Abruzzo is with roasted lamb dishes. Perfect for Easter! For those who do not like lamb, my favourite match with this wine, is pasta with a meat based ragu’ sauce. Given its moderate acidity and smooth tannins it is a very food friendly wine.
I have visited many producers of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine. Masciarelli, (available in Quebec and Ontario) produces world class wines. Its Villa Gemma Riserva Montepulciano is a blockbuster. Black cherry dominates on the nose while on the palate, plum and blackberry are the dominate features. The finish is quite lingering. A new producer Azienda Tilli, a small family run winery is producing wonderful wines using organic methods. Its Lupus Montepulciano has a persistent bouquet of cherry fruit while on the palate raspberry dominates. As of yet, their wines are not available outside of Italy.
These two wines can be aged for at least 3 years. Both producers are situated in the province of Chieti. Salute e Buona Pasqua.
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Domenico Cellucci is a wine consultant and educator and is a graduate of Algonquin College’s Sommelier Program. He puts on food and wine matching events in the national capital area. He has visited wineries and vineyards in Italy, France, British Columbia, Ontario and the United States