FOR my grandchildren, a regular birthday treat is a visit to an Italian restaurant for a pizza and a Diet Coke, while I will settle for a plate of pasta and a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. I must admit that I do not know a great deal about Italian wine, and this always seems a safe bet. As Jancis Robinson says, “It is rarely overpriced,” although she goes on, “even if it is highly variable.” This is something I discovered when I was recently invited on a two-day visit to the region.
The Abruzzo is squeezed between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic, giving an ideal climate for wine production: the mountains give shelter from prevailing rain-bearing westerly winds, and the sea provides cooling breezes to temper the fierce summer daytime heat. The best vineyards lie on the slopes of the valleys: bigger yields come from those planted on the floor of such wider ones as the Valle d’Oro.
Producers range from huge co-operative cellars to small estates now trying to sell under their own label for the first time. This means that there is a vast range in prices and styles. The situation is further complicated because much of the wine is being shipped out of the region in bulk and bottled by merchants elsewhere in Italy, or particularly in Germany and Holland.
Our first visit was to the former Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria di Propezzano, which had been dissolved under Napoleon and was now beautifully restored. Here, we tasted the wines of seven young growers, the majority of whom came from Teramo, the most northerly of the four districts that make up the region. In an effort to raise their image, they have created a DOCG, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane, which guarantees that the wine has been bottled in the area of production. Later in the day, we visited the 15-hectare estate of Emidio Pepe, a traditionalist who keeps stocks of all his vintages in his cellars. For his red wines, the grapes are still pressed by foot; and the whites are “massaged” by hand through a large sieve.
About 20 per cent of the local production is in white wine, and here things become complicated. Most of the wines are sold as Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, which is distinct from the more neutral Trebbiano Toscano. Legislation permits the use of the latter in Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOC. Other whites to look for come from the rarer Passerina, Cococciola, and Pecorino grapes. Of this last, I can recommend the Fenaroli Pecorino Superiore 2017 (Waitrose, £9.99).
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is widely available at prices ranging upwards from £4.29 (Lidl). Morrisons has Citra Vini Organic (£6); and, for those seeking fine barrel-aged wine, I would suggest Roxan Noi Cento (Tanners, £10.20), Fantini 2017 (Laithwaites, £10.99), or the Wine Society’s Gran Sasso La Bella Addormentata 2017 (£8.50). As Jancis has suggested, whatever you pay, you are unlikely to be disappointed.