Abruzzo, between sea and mountains

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The Abruzzo region is a wine granary for pizzerias and trattorias. In this land of diversity, located between the high mountains and the sea, the wine companies are leading the way in terms of quality, environmental initiatives and marketing. In addition, the region offers an exhilarating gastronomic experience. Italy in all its splendour, between charm and joie de vivre.

The Majella and the Gran Sasso. How many times have I heard these words! But who are they? Two gurus who watch over the vineyard? In a way. Pointing to the sky with their snowy peaks, the two mountains of almost three thousand meters are the pride of the Abruzzo people. They ski there while admiring the sea and assure that there is more snow than in the Alps. These two peaks of the Apennines, the thousand-kilometre-long chain that slices the Italian peninsula in two, give the region its climate and agricultural wealth. Situated just below the Marche, at the latitude of Rome, Abruzzo forms the popliteal hollow of the boot and plunges into the Adriatic, offering the eye undulating hills of pergola vines and olive trees forming fields of pompons, blond and green squares of varied crops, landscapes that announce generous meals and dolce vita. I leave L’Aquila, the regional capital, with Nuncio, who speaks Italian very well – I don’t – and who explains to me, with jerky brake strokes, the perception of the powerful earthquake that shook the city on April 6, 2009 for fifty long seconds. The earth often shakes here, the city centre is still licking its wounds, the streets and alleys look like Christo’s works of art because there are so many construction sites. Yet this is not art, it is survival. In the valley that leads to Chieti, the villages clinging to the heights and slopes are topped by cranes that seem to be covered in rust. Italy! Its industrial ugliness along the roads, at the bottom of the valleys, contrasts with the beauty of its age-old stones, its historical monuments, its luxuriant and varied vegetation, magnolias, umbrella pines, laurels, cactus, reeds, fig trees, deciduous and coniferous trees. Italy and its frizzling language and its endless zigzagging roads. When you think you’ve arrived, there are still a hundred miles to go. Here we are in the most planted province of Abruzzo, Chieti. “Here, wine is life, everyone makes wine,” says Italian journalist Francesco d’Agostino.  Pergola vines flood the view. The beautiful ones are two metres high and two and a half metres wide, sometimes three when they are planted in pairs to be more resistant. The pergola has a bad reputation. It is accused of working too well. It can produce up to 40 tons per hectare of Montepulciano, the dominant red grape variety. But this is also its strength. Perfectly adapted to the local climate, at altitude, between the sea and the mountains, it gives dark juices, pleasant in the glass, and nourishes the person who prunes the vine and harvests it. Essential. Not so long ago, these anthocyanin-packed red wines fed the vats of the renowned appellations of northern Italy, Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto. It seems that this is over, we trust them: the European rules have tightened the screw. But the wines still largely leave the region in bulk to end up in bottles and decanters in local pizzerias, in Rome and Milan, and even further afield.

Cerasuolo, a historical value. Do you know Montepulciano d’Abruzzo? At the airport, you can find it at low prices. A bottle from Masciarelli, the historic producer is at a far cry from the prices for a bottle of Amarone, Barbaresco, Frescobaldi’s 2014 Brunello de Montalcino or Luce della Vite 2014. A few other greats (Valentini, Zaccagnini, Pepe…), Gianni Masciarelli has been part of Abruzzo’s gentle revolution in reducing yields, hoisting quality and raising awareness of the potential of native grapes. For whites, Pecorino – from the neighbouring Marche – is beginning to make its mark with its pleasing aromatic note; Trebbiano Abruzzese (a close relative of our Ugni Blanc) is becoming increasingly well known in London and elsewhere for its roundness and fullness. These two are included in the Pecorino and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC appellations. There are also Cococciola (the glera of Prosecco), Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. In red, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the best-known wine of Abruzzo, not to be confused with Tuscany’s “vino nobile de Montepulciano”, made from Sangiovese. The confusion is “rather beneficial”, according to Stefano Tombesi, director of the Cantine Tollo, because at least “the name makes the customer react” and too bad if he mixes the pipettes. Montepulciano is a productive grape variety, rich in anthocyanins, which produces the beautiful Italian wines we love, smooth, round and dominated by red fruit aromas. It is this wine that is sought after in blends, for its tinted side. It is usually vinified in stainless steel tanks and in casks or in barrels for the Riserva (nine months in casks minimum and two years in total before being marketed). Finally, Cera-Suolo d’Abruzzo is the local specialty. This is not the name of a grape variety, but of a type of winemaking: the Montepulciano goes through a direct pressing and gives a dark, cherry-tinged rosé, the origin of the word Cerasuolo. It could be a Clairet, but no, its colour is unique, close to that of redcurrant jelly. This typical rosé is historic. Drunk in Rome and Milan, it has never been a fashion, it has always existed. “It’s the red wines that are new,” says Luigi Cataldi, a producer in Ofena and a fervent defender of this typical and ancient wine. The Abruzzo people are proud of it but are still trying to define its style and colour. “Bright red,” another winemaker tells his American importers to describe it. The overall market trend is toward very pale Provençal-style rosé, so this wine is struggling to find its place despite its rare deliciousness.

The contributors’ strength. Abruzzo is Italy’s largest wine-producing region behind Sicily. Here, not a single vineyard is abandoned, a sign of a healthy economy. Over the last twenty years, everyone has been trying to do better and better, including the cooperatives. There are forty of them, representing 75% of the producers, and thirty-two in the province of Chieti alone. The one in the village of Tollo (province of Pescara), with its array of vats reminiscent of Australian wineries, has decided to move upmarket by selecting a hundred or so hectares out of the 2,500 hectares it receives via 700 grape suppliers. In this case, it pays them more: 10,500 instead of 9,500 euros per hectare, with guaranteed payment in case of climatic hazards. It has also created a cellar for maturing. Tuns and barrels of different sizes are used to make Montepulciano Riserva. It is also at the origin of the latest appellation Tullum DOCG, thirty hectares located near the Adriatic Sea. The holding company has created a brand, Feudo Antico, and is in the process of building a winery for its seven-hectare mini estate to put it right at the top of the marketing pyramid. But what’s most impressive here is the prominence of organic. If Abruzzo is a metro behind in terms of its external image, the vineyards here have been organic for a long time. For example 1995 for the cooperative cellar of Orsogna which will even turn to biodynamics in 2002 (Demeter in 2005). To meet the needs of such a culture, there is the strength of the grape suppliers, farmers who live close to their land and their animals, breeders, beekeepers, arborists, olive growers and wine growers all at the same time like Mirella and Luciano Pompilio whose farm is close to the winery, in Filetto. This couple lives totally self-sufficiently. They seem to be delighted by our visit and I open my eyes wide in front of the hut where they plan to have us have lunch: it is made of stone and earth and the roof is made of cannizzera. We are escorted by the smells of humus, grass and manure that lull our nostrils. This azienda agricola is a real small business that cultivates vines, prepares composts and raises sheep and geese to enrich the soil with organic substances. Experiments are carried out under the pergola to identify the best contributions between the round balls of the woolly animals and the viscous droppings of the mipeds. Twelve weather stations have been set up on all 1,200 hectares, which has made it possible to reduce copper treatment by 30%. Camillo Zuli, the director of the cooperative, tells me about the initiatives he still has in his pocket, which are impressive: work with Bioswiss on diversity, with Greenpeace, with microbiology labs to prepare the vat feet, etc. But he still feels a great reluctance to take action. But he still feels a great reluctance from the universities: “The course on biodynamics in Naples was withdrawn, we are not given the means to set up this trend”.

A strong link between the earth and the plate. In her cellar perched on top of a hill with an unbeatable view of the Gran Sasso and the Majella, Stefania Pepe has also chosen biodynamics. A state of mind that is not reserved to the wine world. Terra di l’Ea is an agricultural cooperative which, like that of Mirella and Luciano, cultivates everything that can be grown in Abruzzo, with the addition of flowers. Walter d’Ambrosio specializes in antique seeds and various wheats and has made his expertise available, as have the other members of the group. Founded in 2016, this azienda agricola employs seven people full time and offers tourists, as well as schoolchildren, a discovery of the regional riches. Here they make honey, balsamic vinegar, bread, salumi (cold cuts), etc. The farm raises black Abruzzo pigs, goats, sheep and chickens and has aromatic herbs, Mediterranean plants, fruit trees, flowers of all kinds where insects swarm and ten hectares of vines. A winery (“undergoing restructuration”) is planned. They offer Spumante and the classic grape varieties to the restaurant’s customers and to the short circuit. Here, everything is linked, wine and crops. “Our aim is to revive the local chain, with restaurants on the coast having a direct link with local producers,” explains Valerio di Mattia, owner of Il Palmizio (Alba Adriatica), who is working with the Aria Food association to recreate a strong link between the land and the plate. “We can’t revolutionize the world, but we can make future generations want to encourage short circuits.” On all the dishes – bolito del mare con salsa verde e salicorne (a green sauce made from parsley and chard, olive oil and seaweed), paccheri con sogliola e pannocchie or this melting monkfish sprinkled with truffle, another Abruzzo speciality – Cerasuolo, refreshing as a white, fruity as a red, bridges the gap between the mountains and the Adriatic. With these gustatory emotions, Abruzzo’s people tell the world about their identity. Four provinces, four visionary producers.

CATALDI MADONNA, OFENA (L’AQUILA) With his volcanic character and strong ideas, Luigi Cataldi is one of Abruzzo’s most important figures. At a conference on rosés organised by the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles held in L’Aquila in June 2021, here he is at the microphone ranting against the fashion for pale rosés. “He’s a visionary,” I’m told. In 1996, he was the first to believe in the Pecorino grape variety and put it on the label. The 30-hectare estate lies on the “forno de Abruzzo”, a plateau at an altitude of 400 metres where it is extremely hot in summer. We are in Ofena, right between L’Aquila in the mountains and Pescara on the waterfront. At the age of 85 and still “enamorato”, he says, happy as a lark, he has handed over the keys to the cellar to his daughter Giulia, 28. “My grandfather was an architect, my father was a university philosophy professor, and the winery was a hobby. I took over to make a living from it.” She has been organic since 2016. My trabocco: The Cerasuolo was the first one I drank on the spot, accompanied by typical arrosticini during a friendly, country lunch, and probably the one I preferred. Was it for its crunchiness? Or for its pronounced cherry color? In this 2018 Piè delle Vigne, the cherry stays in the mouth, there is a persistence like a red wine, but without the tannins. The Giulia Pecorino Terre Aquilane 2020 showed a nice acidity. An easy drinking wine with lemon notes.

VERTUOUS LUNARIA, ORSOGNA (CHIETI) Lunaria is a brand of the Orsogna cantina. Born of grape speculation in 1964, it is one of those monsters with huge vats that make the bulk of the bulk in Italy. They were initially about thirty revolting associates. Today, the 450 members have followed the director, Camillo Zulli, and his ideas of a cultural revolution. By 2022, 90% of the land will be organic and half will be biodynamic. The team does a conscientious job from the soil to the bottle with original labels and amazing concepts. The wines follow in a modern style, light, technological and pleasant to drink. This is not the place to find the great Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The cooperative produces two thirds in bulk, one third in bottles (2 million in all), most of which goes for export. Its wine can be found at Grands Chais de France and in organic stores throughout Europe. My trabocco: Here, we taste a lot of technological wines, modelled for the Anglo-Saxon taste. However, there is an authentic and touching side to the general approach. The Lunaria Ancestrale range includes Malvasia, Pecorino and Pinot Grigio. The bottle is of great simplicity, a strip on which one can find “the total”: biodinamico; vivo; fermentazione spontanea; senza solfiti, etc. Pleasant, sparkling, the 2020 Malvasia resembles a cider with notes of crisp apple.

ARTIST CHIUSA GRANDE, NOCCIANO (PESCARA) Franco d’Eusano, 62, feels on his land as if he were on a grand stage. With a touch of extravagance, his lemon-yellow trousers and grey mane combed to the back, he proudly presents his “important project set up with the university”: vinification not in amphorae (they are found everywhere now), but in local stone vats from Pietranico, a neighbouring village about 15 kilometres away. “These are basins like they were in the Middle Ages,” he says. They are open and contain between seven and ten hectolitres. For now, the winemaker is experimenting with a red, Montepulciano of course, and a white Trebbiano. Under the name of In Petra (3,000 bottles), they complete a colourful and inspired range of wines. The 65 hectares spread across the land are organic. Franco’s children, his son Rocco in the vineyard and cellar and his daughter Ilaria in sales and administration, represent the fifth generation. My trabocco: The range is wide here as Franco makes both bag-in-box and 300,000 bottles a year which he exports everywhere. The level is good, even in the first prices like this fruity and pleasant Karma 2020, vinified in stainless steel. The wines macerated in limestone are interesting: the Trebbiano In Petra offers notes of orange peel, peach, quite complex and the Montepulciano presents a good original material.

STEFANIA PEPE, TORANO NUOVO (TERAMO) With her broken voice and red hair, Stefania Pepe is a standout in her atypical fiefdom between sky and sea. The daughter of Abruzzo tycoon Emidio Pepe, she worked with her father for thirty years before leaving him to try her luck. She lives a stone’s throw from her genitori and invites me to stop and say hello to them as we set off on a tour of the vineyards. In the family winery, located in the heart of an idyllic hilly landscape, there is not a single millimeter of wood. Nothing but concrete tanks and bottles piled up like in a Champagne cellar. Emidio releases them on the market after years of rest, sparingly. He always has. Stefania started making wine with her father at the age of four. In 1992, she studied at the OIV (Office international de la vigne et du vin). And a harvest in Margaux, where she whispered to Paul Pontallier to change the press. When she suggested to her father that he put a wooden tun in his cellar, it was a clash. Passionate about what she does, she doesn’t fit into any box, except perhaps that of biodynamic viticulture, in which she is totally involved. Like all passionate people, she gives her all, exhausts herself, but believes fundamentally in a better world. My trabocco: In a very different style, Emidio and Stefania’s wines show the aging potential of Montepulciano in the Teramo region. Made from organic and biodynamic grapes, Stefania’s wines bear the imprint of this style of cultivation and winemaking: fragile, swollen wines, bordering on the impossible, on lace. The ControLaGuerra is 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot. Cuore del Vino is a pure Montepulciano, vinified without sulphur and unfiltered. It has mature fruit, dry plum, black pepper, almond, light tannins and finesse.

 

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