Today we journey to a place which has been making wine for an estimated 3000 years, to a region located on the mountainous west coast of central Italy, the ancestral home of some of Italy’s most widely-travelled and versatile varieties, a region with ideal growing conditions that make it the 7th-most productive state in Italy. Despite these natural environmental advantages however as a region in general it is very poorly understood and therefore often overlooked. Right at the top of the alphabet, today we’ll learn about the Italian state of Abruzzo, and what makes it a notable production region, as well as some thoughts on its future.
So of course the first thing we need to do if we want to make predictions of the future is to look to the past, and delve a little deeper into the story of a region so rich in viticultural history. It was the pre-Roman Etruscans who were the first commercial vignerons in Abruzzo. This group, who would go on to settle and make famous Tuscany, recognised the great natural advantages this region has when growing grapes. Vines flourish thanks to the abundance of sunshine, the generous rainfall and a good amount of limestone in the soils. The region has a variable climate: warm and dry on the coast and more continental inland, meaning a wide variation of styles can be produced. Furthermore, the high altitudes further inland see dramatic diurnal temperature variations. When combined with cool mountain air currents, they moderate the temperatures in the vineyards situated on the slopes, providing a perfect mesoclimate for the vines. But as we all know, it’s not just terroir that determines the success of a region…
After the Second World War, Italy suffered greatly from a shortage in manpower, as many of those that survived took their families and emigrated away from the war-ravaged landscape and an economy that would take decades to recover. The in the 60’s and 70’s, Italy attempted to re-style itself away from its historical role as a primary farming country and more as a luxury goods producer with the success of brands like Alfa Romeo and Gucci. This resulted in a rapid decline in the population of rural regions like Abruzzo as the youth sought jobs in the larger cities. This lack of labour turned Abruzzo into a mass-production region- mechanically farmed, high yield vineyards pumped out huge volumes of unexciting dry red and white. For a time this worked, and was therefore encouraged by regional legislation, which focussed on quantity over quality, allowing yields of over 100 hectolitres/hectare (near double the EU average), a drop in minimum percent of varietal to 80% (so 20% of each bottle could come from a different variety, region and vintage!) and one umbrella regional appellation, meaning most wines were blended and there was no focus on individual sub-regions.
Cracks started to show in this setup in the ‘90’s when wines that were cheaper and better were imported into the EU from the New World, meaning regions like Abruzzo fell out of fashion and sales plummeted. In the last 20 years however, a renaissance has taken place, with younger winemakers realising the potential the Etruscans saw millennia ago, and focussing on producing wine from the best sites, and using nothing but the high quality native varieties. So what are these regions and varieties then?
Whilst the majority of the wine produced in the state of Abruzzo is table wine, it has 3 DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and 1 DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) sub-regions which are recognised as making good (for DOC) or exceptional (for DOCG), stylistically correct wines and adhering to strict viticultural legislation;
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC can be made anywhere along the coastline of Abruzzo, and must consist of 95% Montepulciano grapes, which grow best in these fairly flat, sandy, dry vineyards. Here it makes a deeply ruby/purple coloured, often plump reds with soft tannins and warming alcohol. Better sites can label their wines Riserva, and these must be aged 3 years before release, 6 months of which must be in oak. These are particularly age-worthy and develop a distinct savoury edge.
Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC is usually a blend of the 2 clones of Trebbiano; the local Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and the lighter and less exciting Trebbiano Toscano from Tuscany. Wines using this label must consist of minimum 85% of these two, but better producers use only the local hero. Best sites are low on the limestone slopes of the central spine of Italy, catching the morning rays, but avoiding the harsh afternoon sun. The wines are golden in colour, typically dry but fruit-forward, with a delicate bouquet and refreshing, crisp acidity.
Controguerra DOC is a tiny sub-region based around the province of Teramo, right up in the north-west of Abruzzo overlooking the Adriatic Sea. It can make wines from a unique mix of international varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling, alongside local varieties. It does well making modern, stylish wines with a delicious saline, mineral finish.
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane DOCG is the one and only highest-quality regional appellation in Abruzzo, awarded in 2003. The wines must be minimum 90% Montepulciano and maximum 10% Sangiovese. At least two years of ageing is required, with at least one year in oak barrels and at least six months in bottle before release. Those under the Riserva label must have spent a minimum of three years maturing. The resulting wines are muscular and earthy, with fresh dark cherries and black plums and hints of spice and smoke from the time in oak. The wines are robust but at the same time elegant and velvet-smooth in texture and come into their element when paired with food.
In addition to these higher-quality zones, there are also 3 IGT (Indificazione Geographica Typica; an indication of a typical geographical style) regions Colline Pescaresi, Terre di Chieti and Colli Aprutini. These were introduced in the mid-90’s and are a reflection of the growing adaptability of the region. They allow a wide range of grape varieties and styles (such as Syrah rose and sparkling Chardonnay) to test the limitations of the strict appellational system and potentially break new ground and introduce new customers to this ancient region.
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