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The Lord of the Vines
By Ed McCarthy
Jun 22, 2010
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Four years ago, one of the world’s great winemakers passed away at the age of 72, but few wine drinkers except a handful of Italian wine aficionados had ever heard of him.  His name was Edoardo Valentini, and he made wine in Italy’s most mountainous region, Abruzzo, on the eastern, Adriatic coast.  And oh, what wine!  Valentini was revered locally, where he was known as “The Lord of the Vines.”  Valentini’s son, Francesco, now carries on the winemaking.

The shocking aspect of Valentini’s greatness is that one of the three wines he made, and the one for which he is most renowned, is Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, a wine from Italy’s most maligned grape variety.  Trebbiano is a white variety, known in southwest France as Ugni Blanc, where it’s used as a basic wine in making Cognac and Armagnac.  Trebbiano, Italy’s most planted variety, France’s most-planted white variety, and in fact the world’s second-most planted variety (after Airen, a white variety in Spain used to make brandy), is a prolific grape that is typically over-produced, and makes inexpensive, insipid wine--think Est! Est! Est! and Frascati--with no aging ability.

And yet Valentini made an incredible white wine from his Trebbiano--intense, complex, and extremely age-worthy, clearly the best Trebbiano wine in the world, and, in my opinion, Italy’s greatest white wine.  It’s so good that some have suggested that it couldn’t be Trebbiano that he was growing, but Valentini always insisted that it was indeed Trebbiano.

One point about Trebbiano:  a few clones seem to generally perform better than others.  For example, the ubiquitous Trebbiano di Romagna (from Emilia-Romagna) and Trebbiano di Toscana usually are disappointing.  But Trebbiano di Soave clearly has a better reputation; (in Umbria, where the variety is known as Procanico, Trebbiano is a notable ingredient in white Orvieto wines;) and in my tasting of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo wines throughout the Abruzzo region, I thought that the wines were definitely better than most of the other Trebbiano wines I had tasted in other regions of Italy.  Having said that, Valentini’s Trebbiano stood out like a beacon among Abruzzo Trebbianos. 

Azienda Agricola Valentini is a small winery, making less than 4,000 cases of wine in an average-production year.  About two-thirds of this amount is Trebbiano d’Abruzzo; the remainder is Valentini’s equally great red wine, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and his deep-colored rosé, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, also made from the Montepulciano variety.  Generally, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is regarded as an inexpensive, everyday red--nothing special.  But just as with his Trebbiano, Valentini has raised this pedestrian variety to another level.

Equally, Valentini’s Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, salmon-colored and completely dry, might be the the most serious rosé wine I’ve ever consumed.  Forget about the word “inexpensive” when it comes to Valentini’s wine gems.  Just trying to find them is the challenge.  Valentino’s Trebbiano retails in the $95 to $100 per-bottle range; the Cerasuolo slightly less.  Valentino’s Montepulciano, currently unavailable (some older vintages exist in a few stores), will probably be around $150 or more.

I was fortunate enough to visit Edoardo Valentini and his son, Francesco,  one summer ten years ago at their winery outside the little town of Loreto Aprutino.  I say “fortunate” because Valentini rarely saw anyone from the wine media or wine trade, and practically never talked about his wines or winemaking practices.  That warm summer day, Valentini regarded me and a few of my colleagues with suspicion, and wasn’t saying anything, nor offering any wine. He was a crusty, secretive man, and we were not making any progress until one of us mentioned that we were friends of the late Sheldon Wasserman--one of the first American wine journalists who wrote about Italian wines in the 1970s and ‘80s, and who was fanatically passionate about Italian wines.  Sheldon’s name lifted the curtain from Valentini; Wasserman had been effusive in his praise of Valentini’s wines.  I then was able to obtain some information about Valentini and his wines, and even better, was given some wines to taste. 

Valentini’s family has been making wine in Abruzzo since the mid-1600s, and records indicate that the family has been producing wines from Trebbiano at least from the early 1800s.  Interestingly, Edoardo Valentini considered law as his first career choice, but luckily for us wine lovers, he gave up that idea and returned to his farm to take over the winemaking.  Valentini’s first vintage for sale was his 1956; his last, the 2005, before passing away in early 2006.  During that half-century, the Lord of the Vines quietly built the reputation of being Abruzzo’s greatest winemaker and, along with Friuli’s Silvio Jermann and Alto Adige’s Georgio Grai, Italy’s top white winemaker.

What was Valentini’s secret?  As you might imagine, he was a perfectionist.  He normally would choose only 5% of his best Trebbiano grapes and sell the rest to a nearby cooperative (no wonder his wines are expensive!).  Also, after making his wines, any that did not live up to his standards would also be sold off anonymously.

Valentini’s winemaking practices were completely traditional.  He used no barriques, or even stainless steel, to age his wines.  Valentini fermented his wines in glass-lined concrete tanks, and aged them in large, very old Slavonian barrels, completely neutral, imparting no oaky elements to the wine.  He dry-farmed his vineyards so that the tiny, stressed grapes would be concentrated in flavor.  He trained his vines along an overhead “pergola” trellis to avoid the heat from the soil that would accelerate ripening.  I learned, really, that Valentini just practiced traditional winemaking, but insisted on making only the very best wines that he could produce, with his severe grape-selection process.

I tasted both Valentini’s Trebbiano and Cerasuolo that afternoon (he didn’t have enough Montepulciano to offer), and was able to buy a few bottles of the white and rosé.  I’ve been a fan ever since, even though it always has been difficult to find his wines.  At present Domenico Valentino in New York is importing Valentini’s wines.  It has a limited supply of the 2008  Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, plus the 2008 and 2007 Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo.  This importer is hoping to obtain some of the rare Valentini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo this fall.  The problem is that Domenico Valentino obtains only about 100 cases total for the entire country, and much of that is sold in New York.  Most of Valentini’s wines go to Italy’s best restaurants.  In New York City, you can find them at a few top restaurants such as Marea, Del Posto and I Trulli, and a few wine shops.

Last month, along with a few other journalists, I had private tastings of Valentini’s wines with Nicola Marzovilla, owner of Domenico Valentino.  I tasted four Trebbianos, two Cerasuolos, and three Montepulcianos.  Here are some notes from that tasting:

Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2008:  Golden yellow; rich, ripe, and firm, with aromas and flavors of melon and peach; exceptional minerality and firm acidity balancing the fruit.  The wine is still quite closed, and needs several more years to mature.

Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2005:  Bright lemon yellow; lean and earthy, with greater depth of flavor than the 2008; firm, with lively acidity; very fresh and minerally; long finish. Needs ten years to fully develop.

Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 1998:  Deep gold color; earthy, mushroomy flavors; not quite as fresh as the other three Trebbiano wines; this bottle, at least, not aging as well as the others.

Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 1990:  Old gold coin color; round and full; flavor notes of honey and marmalade; amazingly fresh for a 20-year-old Trebbiano; rich and concentrated; excellent acidity; incredibly long finish.

(I also tasted a 1995 Valentini Trebbiano from my cellar, purchased on my visit; at its peak; what the ’05 will be in ten years; outstanding wine).

Valentini Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo 2008:  Light ruby in color; aromas and flavors of berries, cherries, and spices with floral notes; totally dry, with the richness and crisp acidity of Valentini’s Trebbiano wines; vibrant and tart, with a long finish. Outstanding rosé!

Valentini Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo 2007:  Medium salmon color; earthier and a bit less concentrated than the ’08; a good rosé, but less depth than the ’08, and will not have as long a life.

(A word about the longevity of Valentini’s Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo wines.  On other occasions, I’ve recently tasted the ’00 and ’98 Cerasuolos; I found both in excellent condition, and completely delicious.  Unlike most other rosé wines, Valentini’s Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo wines age well, and improve).

Valentini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2002:  Deep ruby color; fully dry and lean with herbal and spicy notes along with red cherry flavors; energetic and fresh, with excellent concentration; if I had not known it was an ’02, I would have guessed it was much younger; needs another five to eight years to fully mature.

Valentini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2000:  Darker and fleshier than the ’02; more ample flavors, easier to drink now. A wine to enjoy over the next few years; doesn’t have the longevity of the ’02, but still fine.

Valentini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 1985:  I wasn’t expecting much from a 25-year-old Montepulciano, but I was pleasantly surprised; cranberry in color, with a garnet rim. Fully developed, stunning, completely delicious.  Clearly the finest Montepulciano wine that I have tasted.  Complex and concentrated, with a very long finish.  

Both Valentini’s younger (10 years or less) Trebbiano and Montepulciano wines should be decanted before tasting; they need aeration to develop.

As for the future, Francesco Valentini seems to be continuing along his father’s lines.  He also is very secretive, and is apparently making the wines in the same traditional way his father made them.  And like his father, he is not big on communication. The Valentini winery continues to have no website, nor an e-mail address.  The Lord of the Vines lives on.