Abruzzo: Still Untravelled
Goodness, how I love Italy. It doesn’t matter where you go – from the most touristed spots to the completely untravelled corners – there is always a surprise, good food, and wonderful people.
Speaking of untravelled corners, I was recently in Abruzzo. It was my first time there, in fact – a refrain that many regular visitors to Italy would be able to sing. Incredibly, Abruzzo is not normally on the list of “must-see” destinations. Why not? That’s hard to say, but it probably has a lot to do with its proximity to more famous neighbours (Rome, anyone?) and the fact that it hasn’t reached tourism critical mass for its beaches and villages as, say, the Amalfi coast. But what a pity.
A lack of fame and tourism is a good thing for those who want to travel off the beaten path. Abruzzo, together with its even less well-known neighbours Marche and Molise, is very, very much off the beaten path. This fact was on my mind when the best connection I could get to my hotel in San Vito, south of Pescara, the region’s most populous city (population 123,000), meant flying to Rome (on the opposite side of the peninsula) and taking a taxi for three hours clear through the Apennine mountains to the Adriatic coast. At least the highway was good – and the scenery was truly breathtaking.
I had always heard that it was a land of rugged charms, but I was thoroughly unprepared for just how beautiful it could be. The weather was dramatic and variable on my trip, but that spoiled nothing; quite the opposite, in fact. The rain and brooding clouds made the coast incredibly dynamic, the mountains: mysterious and secretive. And when the sun came out? Holiday postcard material.
The alternating steep slopes and rolling terrain of the Apennines is punctuated by crags crowned with medieval towns. Waterfalls plunge from the rocks into a carpet of forest between steep valley walls. The beautiful sandy beaches of the north give way to the stony beaches of the south, with their characteristic fishing piers called trabocchi. Ancient abbeys and crumbling ruins dot the countryside. Yes, Abruzzo belongs on every traveler’s “Must See” list! And that is before we even get to the wine and the food.
What has Abruzzo Got?
There is no region of Italy as wild as Abruzzo, nearly half of which is given over to natural parks and preserves. It is a land of mountains, forests and a thin strip of Adriatic coastline – with some fabulous beaches, too. The Apennines run along the entire western side of Abruzzo – and the mountain range’s highest peak is found here: Gran Sasso, coming in at 2920 metres. They have a serious influence on the climate of the region, which has all the joys of the Mediterranean at the coast, but is cooler and wonderful for vines in the hills. Rain falls more on the western slopes than on the eastern ones.
When I say “wild”, I mean it – at least insofar as the word can be applied to a major European country. Nearly half of the region is protected by natural parks and reserves – and it is home to 75% of Europe’s natural species.
To be honest, I was also caught off-guard by the food. I’m used to eating well in Italy no matter where I am, and Abruzzo was certainly no exception to that. But there is a seafood culture here that I was surprised by, given the thinness of the coastal strip. As it turns out, not only was the seafood fantastic, there is also an historic way of fishing here on platforms called trabocchi that are either anchored to the rocky coastline or supported on stilts in the water. I had one of the finest seafood meals of my life while on this trip to Abruzzo; it was in a restaurant called Trabocco Punta Cavalluccio that was on just such a platform.
Beyond the seafood pleasures, there are sheep cheeses and cured meats as befits such a pastoral landscape. There are native grains and, of course, pasta shapes and dishes particular to the area. The lasagna-like timballo abruzzese was sumptuous, decadent, delicious, and stick-to-your-ribs fare that not only Italian Nonnas would approve of, but any grandma from anywhere.
As you can imagine in a region famous for its sheepherding culture, there is plenty of lamb as well. One particular delight are the arrosticini, which are skewers of lamb that will be brought to you by our host until you pass out. No, you will not go hungry in Abruzzo, if the Abruzzese can help it.
Ah, but Abruzzo also has so much vinous joy to offer! In particular, besides a couple of Italy’s better-known indigenous grapes such as Sangiovese, there are a number of important grapes native to the region, including Pecorino, Passerina and even a high-quality Trebbiano, as well as Montepulciano. Indeed, one of Italy’s most famous and ubiquitous vinous exports comes from Abruzzo: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The wine is found in bistros and wine shops, supermarkets and wine bars around the world. This single DOC wine is easily Abruzzo’s most internationally visible product – the adorable Abruzzo sheepdog notwithstanding.
But I digress. Most of the grapes I just mentioned are white varieties.
The Most Important Grapes
There is Pecorino, previously found anonymously in blends but now, as a monovarietal, the sommelier’s darling. And it is a variety about which I wrote recently, with powerful acidity and a salty-herby character that makes it predestined for food – particularly seafood.
And there is Trebbiano Abruzzese, one of the few truly good varieties to bear the Trebbiano name – but please do take note: Trebbiano Abruzzese is the native grape from the region, and it has little to do with other Trebbianos, of which there are many. What’s more, there are many more thousands of bottles of white wine sold as Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC than there are vines of Trebbiano Abruzzese to fill them. Draw your own conclusions. Sometimes, when something becomes popular suddenly everybody seems to have it. There is a great deal of the inferior Trebbiano Toscano to be found in Abruzzo, too…
Trebbiano Abruzzese is a little more floral, a little less salty than Pecorino. The mouthfeel is just a hint smoother and creamier, but it is also very fresh and a delightful, citrussy alternative.
But the king of grapes from this part of Italy is unquestionably Montepulciano.
The grape is not uncommon in central Italy, and it is one of the country’s most versatile varietals, responsible for reds of all styles as well as a singular, deeply coloured rosato called Cerasuolo – and even sparkling wines. Unfortunately, I feel I must mention that the grape Montepulciano has next to NOTHING to do with the splendid little town of Montepulciano in Tuscany. The oft-lovely wine from there, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, is made mostly or even completely with Sangiovese. The wines never have even a drop of Montepulciano in them, and it would be nice if more wine “professionals” realised this.
Montepulciano is a darkly-coloured, reductive variety that offers deep fruit, but also strong tannin and good acidity. It can be troublesome in the vineyard, but the rewards can be great. Even when crop yields are higher it can provide red wines of substance, colour, fruit and structure – making it the darling of the 40 or so cooperatives operating in Abruzzo and who are responsible for 75% of the wine produced here.
It can make dense, impenetrable wines with marked oak influence. And it can make taut, near-ethereal wines of almost Burgundian texture. Over in Tuscany, it was long supposed that Pugnitello was actually Montepulciano. Happily, this is not the case, and we – and the wine world – are the richer for it.
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC is the main appellation for wines made with Montepulciano, and the one found everywhere. In 2003 a subzone of the DOC was elevated to DOCG: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane. And, of course, it is the grape responsible for Abruzzo’s trademark rosé wine: Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo.
No, not a grape, but a style. Rosé (rosato in Italian) is a trend that is showing no signs of going away soon. And why should it? The wines are usually fruity, fun and fresh. Uncomplicated drinking is always easier to sell. But this trend also tends to emphasise a lighter colour of rosé, with the model used normally being the Provençal version. Not so the colour of Abruzzo’s historic rosato: Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, which is a DOC wine.
These wines are always made with dark-skinned Montepulciano. Even with a gentle pressing and without maceration the colour of these wines is fleshier. Darker. Much more “cherry” like, as the name implies. That the trend may not look favourably on these wonderful rosatos is truly a pity, since the wines are just as fresh and fruity as any other rosé you might wish to drink – and they can also offer real substance, length and complexity, for the diehard wine drinker who wants more than just fun in the glass.
Since this is Italy, there is also some confusion regarding the word “cerasuolo”. First of all, it is a village in Molise. But, more importantly for our purposes, there is another wine: Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, which is Siciliy’s only DOCG red wine. Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is only ever rosato.
Some Other Interesting Grapes
Unknown Passerina, with its vigour and somewhat neutral character, is often encountered in blends (often with the other two white grapes mentioned above), but increasingly, interesting, citrussy wines and especially sparkling wines are being made with this taut, fresh variety. The fact that it has very good acidity even when it reaches full ripeness makes this grape an ideal candidate for sparklers.
I hesitate to even include this grape here, since very, very few estates are bottling it as a monovarietal. But I had the opportunity to try a bottle of the steel tank-fermented Santa Pupa Montonico Superiore from Vini la Quercia, and it was so lovely that I need to put it in the roundup – if only to encourage others to look for it and believe in it, instead of it disappearing into blends or, worse, vanishing altogether.
The grape has lime juice freshness and a salty edge, with some actual tannin if made on the skin. Very toothy and with excellent character. I tasted it in a setting with dozens of Pecorinos, Trebbianos and other wines, and it was a standout. Look for it.
Seven Small Producers to Look For
Emidio Pepe – biodynamic producer making excellent Pecorino and Trebbiano, with simply incomparable Montepulciano. The wines of Emidio Pepe have been honoured more times than I care to list, and with good reason. But the best, in my opinion, is the Montepulciano, which embodies tautness, fresh fruit and age-worthiness without over-extraction, wood or overt density. Emidio is in his 80s, now, and his family is completely involved in all aspects of the estate – as they always have been. Superb wines. Visit them online here.
Nicodemi – a standard-bearer for the entire zone for each of the three most important grapes, with some of the best Trebbiano that I’ve come across. The Cerasuolo is also a benchmark. Prices are very reasonable; distribution is very good. There are several bottlings for each of the main grapes. Excellent work is being done here by the sister and brother team of Elena and Alessandro, working on the vineyards that first came into the family as part of their grandmother’s dowry. Visit them online here.
La Valentina – a bit too large to be called “small”, the quality here is excellent across the board. The basic bottlings offer great purity and straightforwardness, their mid-range “Spelt” wines are very fine. The estate also makes two exceptional Riserva bottlings of Montepulciano: Bellovedere and Binomio. Binomio is more “modern” in style, and uses a smaller-berried, ancient biotype of Montepulciano – both wines are very much worth seeking out. Visit them online here.
Abbazia di Propezzano (Paolo de Strasser) – a fantastic undertaking with an ambitious winemaker, producing several lines of monovarietal wines of excellent quality from the estate of an ancient abbey. Very impressive and pure entry-level bottlings of all the main grapes, as well as Passerina, and with fine, ageworthy Riserva bottlings of Montepulciano as well. There is even a lovely amphora-aged Trebbiano. Visit them online here.
Torre Zambra – an estate making very good wines from the three main grapes, as well as Passerina. Their Cerasuolo is excellent, and they make fine Montepulciano, in particular with the small Villamagna DOC. Visit them online here.
Cantina Wilma – a very small organic producer making stunning Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Pecorino, as well as Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo (neither of which I have been able to try). Visit them online here.
Tiberio – an extraordinary estate run by an extraordinary woman, making wines that are exceptional in every way – taut, steely, salty and expressive. Trebbiano is Cristiana’s favourite grape, as well as the reason for the founding of the estate by her father. The cru bottling of Trebbiano is called Fonte Canale, and it will blow your mind. Visit them online here.