Many American wine lovers are only vaguely familiar with the wines of Italy's Abruzzo region, but that is sure to change before long. Abruzzo is poised to make dramatic inroads in export markets on the dual strengths of quantity and quality.
In quantitative terms, Abruzzo is now Italy's fifth most productive wine region, having surpassed both Piedmont and Tuscany and trailing only Veneto, Sicily, Puglia and Emilia Romagna. In terms of quality, the region now has a district making high quality wines under the DOCG designation (the loftiest category in the Italian classification system), and the reds now being released from Colline Teramane show that Abruzzo can make wines of undeniable excellence.
Abruzzo (also called Abruzzi) is a mountainous region on the central section of Italy's Adriatic coast. Like Sicily and Puglia, it produces a lot of ordinary wines but also a really few excellent ones. The best are whites made from Trebbiano d'Abruzzo and reds from Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, and the reds from the Colline Teramane are clearly the best of the best.
These reds have suffered from confusion with Tuscany's Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, to which they are totally unrelated. The Tuscan wines are based on Sangiovese and named after a town, whereas Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is a grape identified in the context of its region.
The Montepulciano grape is also grown in the Marches region to the north of Abruzzo (where it makes the reasonably well-known Rosso Conero and Rosso Piceno), to the south in Puglia, and in several other spots in central and southern Italy. It ripens too late to make fine wines reliably in Italy's north, but is very well attuned to growing conditions in Abruzzo, which are warm in general but only moderately so in the best sites thanks to altitudes of over 1,000 feet.
When cropped at reasonably low levels in a prime site and treated to high-quality wood in reasonable doses, a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane can show a delightful combination of serious concentration and intensity with fresh, pure fruit notes recalling dark cherries and black plums. Generously fruity and openly expressive in both aroma and flavor, they can be enjoyed very easily even when young if paired with food, but more structured versions can also develop very nicely when cellared.
The excellence of Montepulciano d'Abruzzos crafted in the Colline Teramane district was recognized with the granting of DOCG status in 2003, and the first wines bearing this designation appeared on our shores last year. They aren't yet particularly easy to find, and some fine estates are still seeking U.S. importers, but the best wines are certainly worth a search. All of the wines reviewed below (in order of preference) were shown by their producers at recent tastings in Washington, D.C. and New York, so even those that aren't currently imported are likely to become available soon in the USA. Most are priced in the range between $25 and $35, with just a few (like the Stefania Pepe, at $52 for 500ml of this very limited production wine) priced higher. I have friends in Italy trying to track down pricing for all wines, and I'll plug them into this column as they become available:
Illuminati, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane (Abruzzo, Italy) Zanna Vineyard Riserva 2003 ($35, imported by Tri-Cana): This very complete and complex wine won't be released until next spring, but it is showing beautifully right now. Aged for four years in Slovenian oak, it shows the very ripe, sweet fruit signature of the 2003 vintage, but also lots of structure from tannin and a touch of spicy, smoky oak that is interesting but also surprisingly restrained given the duration of exposure. Texture is impressively balanced between rounded fruit elements and structure from acidity and tannin, and the wine has excellent symmetry overall. 92
Stefania Pepe, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane (Abruzzo, Italy) "Pepe Nero" 2003 ($52, 500ml): Stefania Pepe is the very talented daughter of one of the region's most famous winemakers, and this first release suggests that she may indeed be capable of eclipsing the older generation. The very unusual bottle size and shape suggest from the first impression that this will be something out of the ordinary, and that impression is confirmed by the very soft, rounded, ultra-ripe fruit that nevertheless shows no raisiny or roasted qualities. A little wood framing shows on the edges of the delicious fruit, along with some very alluring smoke and spice notes; superb. 91
Monti, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane (Abruzzo, Italy) "Pignotto" 2003 ($36, Winebow): A very impressive wine, this shows dark fruit that is expressive but also restrained in terms of grapiness (not something that everyone achieved in the super ripe 2003 vintage) and is also rendered more serious by a healthy dose of spicy, smoky oak. Wood notes are well balanced against the fruit, which shows deep flavors of dark cherries and ripe berries. This is a wine that really will benefit from a couple years of ageing to let it unwind and soften, but it could surely be enjoyed now with some lightly fatty food to buffer the tannins. 90
Castellum Vetus, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane (Abruzzo, Italy) 2003: This is a bit chunky and sweet on first impression as a result of very ripe fruit, but a second look shows interesting spicy wood notes and a mushroomy, earthy undertone that lends a lot of interest and complexity. It features very ripe and rounded fruit recalling the textbook notes of dark plums and black cherries, with tannins that are abundant but so ripe and fine grained-and so well covered by ripe fruit-that one must almost search for them in the finish. 90
Montori, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane (Abruzzo, Italy) "Fonte Cupa" 2003 (Pois Corp.; Sussex Wine Merchant): A very strong performer, this shows impressively concentrated fruit with notes of blackcurrants and bing cherries. There's lots of tannin in the finish, but it is not unwelcome, as there's such an abundance of fruit that it really needs some framing. Oak contributes still more structure as well as some aromatic complexity, and the overall impression is of a muscular, masculine wine that really requires food for current consumption. It would optimally be given three or four years of age to soften and gain still more complexity. 89
Villa Medoro, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane (Abruzzo, Italy) "Adrano" 2003 ($25, Padania Wines): This wine is likely to prove controversial or even polarizing in any group of tasters, as it is quite earthy but also very muscular and deeply flavored, with excellent dark fruit notes that keep the bretty, funky notes on the sidelines. Lots of firm tannins make this a wine requiring food, and it is a candidate for ageing for those who think that the earthiness (which is sure to become more prominent still) is something that they can live with. 89
Cantina Colonnella, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane (Abruzzo, Italy) "Barocco" 2003: Intense scents of oak make this both complex and interesting aromatically, but the wood also makes the finish a little dry and tight. Nevertheless, this is still a complex wine with lots of character and complexity, and with time for the wood to integrate with the deeply flavored, chunky fruit, this could well become an outstanding wine. 89
Lepore, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane (Abruzzo, Italy) "Re" 2003 (imported by Classic Wines, Boston): This is quite sweet and chunky on entry, but there's a seriously earthy undertone both aromatically and also in terms of flavor that offers some interesting sidelights to the fruit notes. Funky animal and mushroom notes and a little volatile acidity will raise eyebrows on some tasters, but these stayed just below my threshold for assessing the wine as dirty, as lots of ripe, sweet fruit provides an effective counterweight to the earthy components. 88
San Lorenzo, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane (Abruzzo, Italy) "Oinos" 2003: This is currently dominated by new oak on both the nose and palate, and though the fruit may emerge from this with time to show improved quality, it is now really more an expression of the cooper's art than an expression of this grape or region. Intensely spicy and smoky, with good ripe fruit underneath, there's no reason to think that this won't come into balance, but it hasn't done so yet. 86
Nicodemi Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Colline Teramane (Abruzzo, Italy) 2003 ($20): Funky almost to a fault, but just short of that, this shows no downright dirty notes, but does show a gamy, earthy edge. There's plenty of wood also, and lots of tannin in the finish, but there's enough fruit to support these components. This may unwind and become softer and more generous, but one wonders whether the earthy side won't become dominant once that has happened. 86