Not many people think of the south of Italy as a skiing destination, but Abruzzo, one of the most mountainous of Italy’s twenty-one regions, is just that. Not far from its lofty capital city, L’Aquila, is the Corno Grande, the highest peak in the Apennines. On the other side of this mountain wall lies Lazio and its capital, Roma, but Rome might as well be another world. Abruzzo is the country, with much of its rugged, sparsely inhabited uplands devoted to pasture.
Things get greener as the Apennine foothills spill down toward the Adriatic coast, and the river valleys of Abruzzo’s southern reaches, near the city of Chieti, include some of the most prolific vineyards in Italy. This isn’t necessarily a good thing: although Abruzzo ranks tenth in Italy in terms of total vineyard area, it ranks fifth in total production, since much of this production is inexpensive jug wine for supermarkets. But in recent years, humble Abruzzo has made great strides — led by well-established estates such as Illuminati, Valentini, Masciarelli, Cataldi Madonna, and the region’s cult classic, Emidio Pepe, where grapes are still crushed by foot at harvest time (Pepe offers vintages of his Montepulciano d’Abruzzo dating all the way back to 1964). The perseverance of these and other Abruzzese producers has led to a great influx of new money and winemaking talent. Abruzzo is one of Italy’s many “new frontiers,” a place where each vintage brings greater expectations of the region’s potential.
Italian wine drinkers will find Abruzzo amazingly easy to understand, at least in comparison to the tangle of grapes and appellations in other regions. Abruzzo is dominated by two grapes — the white trebbiano and the red montepulciano — and two main appellations, or DOCs — Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Generally speaking, the best of both wines are made toward the northern end of the region, where the mountain foothills reach closer to the sea, but the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo appellations effectively cover the whole region.
At the moment, the delicately aromatic trebbiano grape remains underappreciated. Most Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is light and flinty, good to sip cold with zuppa di pesce or fritto misto, but it’s not an especially bold or memorable wine. Montepulciano, however, with its deep color, soft tannins and deeply fruity taste, is a grape on the rise. Always plump and pleasant, montepulciano grows into something much deeper, darker, and more profound when treated with care in the vineyard.
Don’t confuse Montepulciano d’Abruzzo with the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano made in nearby Tuscany. The latter is made from sangiovese in the town of Montepulciano. The former is made with the montepulciano grape throughout the region of Abruzzo (the grape is also used heavily in the neighboring Marche region). This montepulciano mayhem causes great confusion among consumers, but then it wouldn’t be Italian if there weren’t a little chaos.
Although there are some excellent trebbianos out there (the boutique producer Edoardo Valentini is considered the master of the grape), let’s focus on the big, soft reds of Abruzzo. Their easygoing personalities make them great accompaniments for spicy dishes like Mario’s Bucatini all’Amatriciana. Not a lot of tannin to clash with the chili flake.
Cataldi Madonna Montepulciano D’Abruzzo “Tonì”
From one of the few wineries located in the uplands near L’Aquila, this is a dense, concentrated, inky Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that always delivers. A sexy wine, always a crowd-pleaser.
Il Feuduccio Montepulciano d’Abruzzo “Ursonia”
An estate with three slick montepulcianos to choose from. This one is the “middle child” in the line, and spends some time in small oak barriques to lend it a chocolatey richness.