The political divisions along the Adriatic are merely arbitrary human delineations and bear only cursory resemblance to the landforms, so I think I should take a moment here to set the topography in the reader’s mind. Behind Molise, the mountains rise to about 3,000 feet, and the arable land is spread out on a creased alluvial fan. Behind Abruzzo and Marche to the north, the highest peaks rise to 8,500 feet. Deep valleys are cut by rivers that run their 12 to 20 miles from the mountains to the Adriatic, the land diminishing rapidly in height from the mountains to the seaside.
Most wine here is made at cooperatives, such as the 7,000-member Roxan cooperative winery near Pescara. But the greatest progress toward recognition as an area capable of producing world-class wines, has been made by only about a dozen independent cellars in all of Abruzzo. Two of the most important winemakers of the past 30 years have been Gianni Masciarelli and Edoardo Valentini, both of whom passed away recently, and who represented opposite ends of the winemaking spectrum, one traditional, one innovative. The reputation of the area still rests heavily on these two family owned wineries.
When Gianni Masciarelli passed away suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2008, he was only 52 years old, but in his short life he had a great impact on the region’s wines. He was an innovator from San Martino sulla Maruccina, a tiny village 1,400 feet above sea level, with a population of just over 1,000. Gianni grew up the son of a truck driver, but his maternal grandfather grew 10 hectares (25 acres) of grapes. At the end of 1978, when he was finishing a business degree, Gianni had a fight with an Economics professor, who tore up his exam and gave him an “F.” So Gianni switched careers and began making Montepulciano from a vineyard he leased from his maternal grandfather. His first commercial vintage was 1981. He later inherited 2 hectares (5 acres) of Trebbiano from his paternal grandfather. One thing led to another, and eventually he found himself with 13 vineyards totaling 675 acres, and a 100,000 case winery.
He worked traditional grapes in a modern manner, using controlled fermentations and small French oak barrels, which resulted in wines that appeal to the international palate. I usually disparage the “International style” as being too ripe, too alcoholic, and too oaky, and I stand by that statement. Nevertheless, there are winemakers who can push the limits and manage to achieve intense, layered wines that are modern yet elegant, showing plenty of oak, but balanced by a like amount of fruit. Such are the wines of Gianni Masciarelli and his Serbian wife Marina Cvetic. I mention both husband and wife not to be polite, but because Marina caught the winemaking bug and began making her own line in 1990, and carries on his legacy today. The wines range in price in the U.S. from $8 to nearly $100.
If you’re visiting the area, you might stay in Guardiagrele, a town of 10,000 a few miles from San Martino sulla Maruccina, at the base of the Majella massif national park. Villa Maiella is a 14 room hotel in Guardiagrele, with small but pleasant rooms overlooking the mountain range, an outdoor terrace with splendid panoramic views, and a terrific restaurant run by the Tinari family, serving elegant seafood, duck, rabbit, and brilliant desserts.
A little further north, Loreto Aprutino (population 7,600) is 1,000 feet above sea level, in the rolling hills above the coastal city of Pescara (population 122,000). The town has many attractions, including a terrific national museum of 16th century ceramics. It’s an area of olive groves and bucolic vistas, but for wine lovers it’s famous as the home of Valentini wines. The Valentini family has been making wine here since 1635, but it’s not their longevity in the business that makes people take notice; it’s the astounding complexity of their wines. The estate once comprised 2500 hectares (more than 6,000 acres).
A generation ago, the estate was split up between family members. Edoardo Valentini inherited 200 hectares, and over the course of more than 55 vintages he made the wine world famous. Edoardo, who passed away in 2006, shunned media attention and marketing, putting all of his energy into his vines and raising the simple craft of winegrowing (by which I mean growing grapes specifically to achieve the best results in the bottle) to an art form. I had the rare opportunity to interview him, and found him cordial and engaging. He was a great believer in the adage that wine is made in the vineyard and not in the cellar. To that end, he dry farmed his vineyards, and after 50 years of working with the vines he had come to understand how to balance his particular vineyards by decreasing the vine density from 1700 to 1200 per hectare, and training his vines higher and higher (“because the fruit is ripening from the heat of the soil”). “I have done many experiments,” he told me. “Each area has its own needs. What might work in Piedmont might not work here.” In the cellar he was rigorously traditional, using no barriques (225 liter French oak barrels), and no stainless steel. Instead, he fermented and aged his wine in large neutral oak barrels, the youngest of which was 70-years-old when I visited (the oldest barrel was from 1818).
He was first and foremost a farmer, with 70 hectares (173 acres) of vineyards planted two thirds to Montepulciano and one third to Trebbiano, as well as 60 hectares (166 acres) of olive trees. He told me (I assume this is an old saying) that, “We can live without wine, but poorly. But we cannot live without oil. Wine is wine, but oil is divine.”
Today his son Francesco Paolo carries on the tradition, crafting exquisite Montepulciano and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo wines. The latter is particularly notable, because despite the vast ocean of innocuous Trebbiano grown on this planet, no one else comes close to this perfection. The family has been making Trebbiano d’Abruzzo since at least 1821. Jancis Robinson suggests that much of what is called Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is really Bombino Bianco, or a mix of the two varieties. Whatever the true derivation of Valentini’s vines, no one knows exactly what makes these wines superior to the competition, and Francesco Paolo, like his famous father, isn’t talking.
As a wine tourist you’re not likely to be able to secure an appointment with Valentini, but the wine is definitely worth searching out, and there is no better place to start than the town where the wine is born, particularly as it’s not inexpensive. One of the joys of touring foreign winegrowing areas is that the wine is comparatively cheap where it’s made. Some wineries, like Valentini which produces less than 4,000 cases a year, are hard to find in the U.S., and they aren’t cheap. The costs of shipping, storing, marketing and distribution don’t figure into the wine’s price when you drink it locally. A typical Trebbiano may cost $10 to $15 in the U.S., while the Valentini will cost between $50 and $70. The same wine in Italy will likely be two thirds less expensive. So come and indulge.
Just a few miles from Loreto Aprutino, the town of Collecorvino is the site of Tenuta di Testarossa, one of the Pasetti family’s two wineries. The Testarosa Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, with its unusual leather label, is a modern, reserve style wine aged partly in a combination of large and small oak. The Testarosa Bianco is a blend of Trebbiano and the local Pecorino grape fermented in barriques. The Pasetti line is less expensive. Rocco Pasetti is also the consulting oenologist to the aforementioned Roxan cooperative winery.
Moving northward and descending to the coast by Scerne di Pineto, Fratelli Barba’s 68 hectares (168 acres) of vineyards are on the last low hills and on the flat floodplain of the Vomano river, just a stone’s throw from the sea. The 25,000-case Barba winery is indicative of many producers in the area who turn out solid, dependable and affordable wines that are getting better with each vintage. The DOC Montepulciano d’Abbruzo and Trebbiano d’Abbruzo are the most important wines here.
What makes Barba notable from the epicurean traveler’s viewpoint is the agriturismo on the estate. The Barba family has renovated a few old farmhouses in the middle of the vineyards, turning them into apartments. Local beaches are a minute or two away. On the Barba estate you can visit the winery, their olive groves with about 5,000 trees, the fruit orchards (peach, nectarine, plum and cherry), and the dairy farm with nearly 300 head of cattle. In a perfect ecological circle, the Barbas grow all of the food their cattle eat, and use the manure to fertilize their vineyards and orchards.
On the other side of the Vomano river, about six miles upstream and 500 feet up into the foothills near Notaresco, the Nicodemi winery sits atop a hill with east facing vineyards and olive trees sloping down to a small man-made lake. Founded by the late Bruno Nicodemi, the 38 hectare (93 acre) estate is now run by his son and daughter, Alessandro and Elena. Eight hectares (20 acres) are devoted to the cultivation of olive trees, which annually yield 80 tons of olives for oil production in their own olive press. The remaining 30 hectares (73 acres) is planted 50% to Montepulciano d’Abbruzo, and 50% to white varieties (mostly Trebbiano, with a small amount of Chardonnay, Malvasia, and Passerina), all certified as organically grown. The vineyards are planted to an unusual combination of modern cordon trellising and traditional pergola style trellising systems. The winery uses the usual temperature controlled stainless steel fermenters, and a combination of large and small oak for ageing, to produce an average of 16,000 cases annually. A newly completed visitor’s center has two glass walls, one with a view of the vineyards below, the other with a view of the small barrel room.
Nicodemi produces a classic line of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, and Cerasuolo (a rosé from Montepulciano grapes) in the $10 range; the Notari line, made from a selection of the oldest vines, in the $18 range; and ariserva produced only in the best vintages, called neromoro (blackest black). A thoroughly modern style of Montepulciano aged a year and a half in new French oak, the neromoro is available in the U.S. for about $50. On my last visit, I was particularly beguiled by the classic Cerasuolo, a complex, dry rosé with raspberry, earth and subtle herbal notes; the Notari Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, showing complex earthy overtones and subtle oak tones to lemon and yellow apple fruit; and the Neromoro, a concentrated, aromatic wine of exceptional elegance, showing blackberry fruit with dark chocolate and spice overtones, and just a hint of earthiness that surfaces in the finish. Only 25% of these wines stay in Italy. The rest is exported across Europe, to the U.S., Japan and Brazil.
Just 12 miles north of Nicodemi, you come to the end of the Abruzzo on the banks of the Tronto river. In the rolling hills a mile south of the river you’ll find the Illuminati winery, one of the largest family owned properties in the Abruzzo, with about 300 acres of vineyards. The winery’s address is listed as Controguerra, the splendidly named nearest town, though the winery itself sits on a hill with a view of the Adriatic to the east and the imposing Appennine mountains to the west. The most ambitious of Abruzzo’s wineries, Illuminati makes a full range of wine from classical method sparkling wine to Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramano. Dino Illuminati, now over 70, can be credited for modernizing the winery that was founded by his grandfather, Nico. His children have increasingly taken part in the business in recent years.
If I have one complaint, it is that the winery makes a long line of very different wines from the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape, each vinified in a different way and given the names of family members or associates, which makes the brand difficult to comprehend for the consumer. On the other hand, a diversity of styles gives the consumer more choices, and the experimentation necessary to this approach is beneficial to all of the producers in the region. For example, a barrel fermented blend of 60% Trebbiano, 15% Passarina, and 25% Chardonnay, is named Daniele, after Illuminati’s late winemaker. Not all of their wines are to my taste, but I applaud the effort.
WHERE TO EAT IN ABRUZZO
Ristorante Villa Maiella
Località Villa Maiella
30 66016 Guardiagrele CH
Tel: 39 0871 809319
Fax: 39 0871 809319
WHERE TO STAY IN ABRUZZO
Via Sette Dolori, 30
Tel: 39 0871-809319
Strada Rotabile per Casoli I-64020 Scerne di Pineto (Te)
Tel: 39 085 9461020
Fax: 39 085 9463559
WINERIES TO VISIT IN ABRUZZO
Strada Rotabile per Casoli I-64020 Scerne di Pineto (Te)
Tel: 39 085 9461020
Fax: 39 085 9463559
Monday-Friday 8:00 AM – 1:00 PM, 3:00 PM – 7:00 PM.
Retail shop: Monday-Saturday 8:00 AM – 1:00 PM. Visits and guided tastings with advanced request.
Azienda Agricola Dino Illuminati
64010 Controguerra (TE)
Fattoria Bruno Nicodemi
Contrada Veniglio s.n. 64024
Tel: 39 085-895493
Fax: 39 085-8958887
Azienda Agricola Masciarelli
66010 San Martino sulla Marrucina (CH)
Tel: 39 087-185241
Fax: 39 087-185330
Azienda Agricola Pasetti
via San Paolo, 21 – e.da Pretaro
66023 Francavilla al Mare (CH)
Tel & Fax: 39 085-61875
Casa Vinicola Roxan
1-65020 Rosciano (PE)
Tel: 39 085 850-5767
Continuing north to Marché