A two-hour drive east from Rome, Abruzzo is an unspoiled gem of natural beauty. The land is defined by the Apennine Mountains, particularly the Majella and Gran Sasso massifs, in the west, which pose a grand backdrop to the gently rolling hills that cascade into the Adriatic Sea to the east.
The region is home to three national parks and numerous reserves full of old-wood forests that preserve ecological diversity. It also has a provincial side, where small farms grow tomatoes, olives, heritage grains and figs.
Beyond these appeals, however, are bottled beauties that, for the most part, have yet to be discovered abroad. Abruzzo’s winemaking traditions date back centuries, and quality has improved significantly over the last few decades.
Montepulciano and Trebbiano are the star grapes here, while long-lost varieties are also in the midst of a resurgence. There’s plenty to discover from this majestic region, and there’s no better time to explore.
Once regarded a simple, workhorse red grape, Montepulciano has proven it’s a thoroughbred in Abruzzo, thanks to its high-quality wines of distinction. The variety thrives in a range of microclimates, from the cooler, high-altitude foothills of the Apennine mountain range in the west and north, to the warmer hills along the central coast and in the south.
It can produce everything from soft, approachable reds that are typically well-priced to more complex, bold, structured offerings, often from specific sites or subappellations.
The widespread Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) touches all of the area’s four provinces, and is the largest appellation for Montepulciano production. In the northern province of Teramo, Montepulciano grown in limestone- and clay-rich soils produces exemplary selections from the region’s only Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane.
“Our soils are predominantly clayey,” says Stefano Illuminati, general manager and owner of Azienda Agricola Illuminati. “This is important, because the winter and spring rains are held by clay. Later, the water will be made available during the summer when the vineyards will need it.”
Illuminati’s Zanna bottling is sourced from a single vineyard in the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane appellation. Coupling the richness from the clay soils with two years in Slavonian oak, it’s a powerful wine when young, so it’s only released after an additional two-and-a-half years in bottle.
Also based in the Teramo province is iconic producer Emidio Pepe, who’s championed Montepulciano since founding the winery in 1964. A traditionalist at heart, Pepe planted his vines using pergola Abruzzese, a trellis system where the vines are trained to grow on latticework about six feet above the ground, which covers and shades the vineyard below. The system is still used by many producers in the area, especially those with older vines.
“[Emidio] has always thought of a vineyard as a solar panel: The more the leaves are exposed to the sun, the more photosynthesis you will have and more energy captured,” says Chiara De Iulis Pepe, Emidio’s granddaughter and the winery’s export manager. “While all this happens, the grapes are covered and protected, developing high levels of acidity and higher quality of tannins.”
Emidio Pepe 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo; $175, 95 points. Made from biodynamic estate-grown grapes, this is a powerful, intense offering from an Abruzzo icon. A heady mix of Thai basil, anise seed and purple flowers meld within a dense wild berry core. The palate is broad and gripping in youthful tannins, yet plush with a thick-skinned dark berry tone, and speckled notes of herbs and game that linger on the extended finish. Drink 2022–2030. Polaner Selection. Cellar Selection.
Illuminati 2013 Zanna Riserva (Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane); $40, 91 points. Well-honed aromas of spiced black currant and dark cherry meld with bits of anise, clove and wild mint on the nose of this single-vineyard wine. The medium-bodied palate is taut in feel, broadened out by some dark fruit weight and supported by finely meshed tannins. Montcalm Wine Importers.
Pasetti 2014 Fonte Romana (Montepulciano d’Abruzzo); $13, 88 points. Aromas of fresh red berries, Mediterranean herbs and a bit of peppery spice show nice intensity on the nose. While light in body and soft in tannins, the palate offers a great sense of vibrancy and persistence in its brisk red-currant and broader red-cherry flavors that end on a lingering cranberry skin note. Angelini Wine. Best Buy.
Montepulciano is by no means a one-trick pony. Beyond the ability to produce a range of stylized reds, it’s also the star grape for the cherry-red rosatos of Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. Established as a DOC in 2010, this was among the first Italian denominations to champion the style, and it’s long been considered one of the country’s top appellations for rosato.
Bold and structured, yet immensely refreshing, the wines drink more like light-bodied reds. As the rosé craze shows no signs of slowing, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is coming into the light for American consumers that are beginning to explore the darker side of the category.
“I think that there’s still a strong market for pale pink rosé, but people are definitely experimenting more across all types of wine,” says Joe Campanale, owner and beverage director of Fausto in Brooklyn, New York.
Campanale is also the founder of Annona, which produces a Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo from Loreto Aprutino in the central province of Pescara. The wine benefits from the vineyards’ prime location between the cooling slopes of Gran Sasso and the gentle coastal breeze of the Adriatic.
The color of Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is the wine’s defining element. With a vibrant cherry-red hue, it may seem like the skins must be in contact with the juice for an extended time. But that’s not the case.
“The anthocyanin [pigment] potential is very high in Montepulciano.” says Valentina Di Camillo, who, with her brother, Luigi, makes the wine for Tenuta I Fauri. “This fact can easily explain the reason why the result of a short maceration is the naturally rich color.”
The grape’s inherent structure makes it a strong contender to produce robust, ageworthy rosatos. The best examples offer plenty of juicy red fruit up front, with a delicate grip of tannins and a tangy, mineral-laden finish. They’re versatile offerings that can be enjoyed beyond the year mark. According to Campanale, his 2015 Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is currently drinking wonderfully.
Cantinarte 2016 Gaia (Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo); $25, 91 points. Aromas of strawberry and Mediterranean herbs carry a tangy element on the nose. The palate is simultaneously creamy, lush and vibrant in acidity, dazzling in flavors of ripe cherry, strawberry and thyme, with a sour cherry note ringing on the finish. This wine is a clear case for drinking rosato all year long. Grand Cru Selections.
Annona 2016 Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo; $30, 90 points. This concrete-fermented and -aged Cerasuolo is not your typical fruity offering. A slightly funky nose carries plenty of red-cherry, tarragon and earthy floral tones. The palate is rounded in feel yet persistently juicy, ending on lingering saline and cranberry skin sensations. Third Leaf Wines.
Tenuta I Fauri 2017 Baldovino (Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo); $14, 90 points. Broad tones of Bing cherry and wild strawberry carry an undercurrent of lemongrass on the nose. This is rounded and structured on the palate, boasting thick-skinned red-berry flavors that turn taut and grippy toward the white-pepper and cherry-skin finish. This is a rosato for cool-weather enjoyment. Wineberry America LLC. Best Buy.
The second-most planted variety in Abruzzo, Trebbiano also has a less-than-noble past. Often considered an innocuous white wine, many producers now focus on site, yield and cellar production methods to bolster the grape’s reputation.
Producers like Valentini, Emidio Pepe and Masciarelli are the forerunners of this quality-driven approach. Each employs its own methodology—some use oak, while others look for the purest fruit expression—but all are devoted to the production of ageworthy Trebbiano.
“It is essential to respect and understand the nature of the Trebbiano grape, which is extremely delicate and what [Gianni] Masciarelli deemed a ‘noble grape,’” says Miriam Lee Masciarelli, the daughter of Marina Cvetic and the late Gianni Masciarelli, as well as the international brand manager for her family’s namesake winery.
Gianni Masciarelli worked harvest in France and eventually returned to Abruzzo to start his own winery in 1981. With French methods fresh on the mind, he chose to forgo traditional pergola trellising in favor of planting vines using the guyot system. Masciarelli was one of the first in the region to do so, as well as one of the first to age Montepulciano and Trebbiano in French barrels, which gives the wines added structure and aging potential.
Well-made Trebbianos don’t have to come at an exorbitant price. Producers that focus on site and quality in the vineyard can produce bottlings that marry rich stone-fruit and floral flavors, all balanced by racy acidity.
The estate-grown Trebbiano of Valle Reale sits in the shadow of the Apennine mountain range. Around 1,000 feet in elevation, the grapes undergo slower development than those grown closer to the coast.
“The large Gran Sasso and Majella mountains surround our vines, creating wide temperature ranges,” says Leonardo Pizzolo, owner of Valle Reale. “Sunny days and cold nights are the perfect combination for a slow maturation, resulting in nice acidity and a perfumed bouquet.”
Masciarelli 2015 Marina Cvetić Riserva (Trebbiano d’Abruzzo); $50, 91 points. A mix of grilled pineapple, citrus oil and sea spray starts off this rich white. Time in oak is apparent yet integrated, offering a delicate brûléed edge to the citrus, pineapple and apricot flavors. Persistent acidity balances it all, leading to a lingering cured lemon finish. Vintus LLC.
Valle Reale 2016 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo; $15, 90 points. A broad nose of yellow apple, golden pear and white flowers mark the nose of this wine made from organic grapes. The medium-bodied palate offers a concentration of crisp orchard fruit, dusted with a chamomile tone and shot through with a bright lemon-lime twang. A salty mineral note lingers on the finish. Leonardo LoCascio Selections–The Winebow Group. Best Buy.
Cataldi Madonna 2017 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo; $18, 89 points. Bright aromas of lemon peel, fleshy yellow apple and powdered minerals carry to the well-balanced palate. This is lively and mouthwatering in feel, broadened out by plenty of crisp orchard-fruit tones. Vias Imports.
Up-and-Coming White Grapes
As with many regions in Italy, there are countless grapes indigenous to Abruzzo that fell by the wayside as others were championed. Most notable of this forgotten fruit are the white grapes of Pecorino, Passerina and Cococciola.
Pecorino has gained notoriety in the last decade, thanks to the revitalization efforts of producers. Its name references a supposed historical tie to shepherds (pecora means “sheep” in Italian) who snacked on the sweet grapes as they watched their flock.
Wines made from Pecorino are typically medium in body and offer nuances of dried herbs and flowers against a fresh orchard-fruit backdrop. While most are fermented and aged in stainless steel, producers like De Fermo are experimenting with aging the wine in medium to large-format barrels to offer more textural roundness.
It’s not just small producers, however, that seek to revive these grapes of the past. The largest cooperative in Abruzzo, Codice Citra, recently launched the Ferzo line, which focuses solely on single-variety bottlings of indigenous grapes, including Pecorino, Passerina and Cococciola.
The Pecorino is the most compelling, with a mineral-driven, zesty nature. However, the Passerina and Cococciola provide interesting glimpses into the nature of the grapes. The former is enjoyable for its soft melon and yellow apple tones, while the latter offers a mix of herbal and citrus notes. That a producer of this magnitude focuses resources on smaller players in the region shows promise for increased quality in the years to come.
De Fermo 2016 Don Carlino Pecorino (Abruzzo); $30, 92 points. Immensely fresh and intense on the nose, aromas of apple, dried chamomile, sea spray and lime zest kick off this wine. Fermented and aged in tonneaux, this has some textural roundness on the palate yet searing acidity keeping it fresh and persistent. There’s plenty of ripe fruit flavors to maintain balance, but give this another few years in bottle to help soften the acidity and this will find its sweet spot. Drink from 2020. Grand Cru Selections. Editors’ Choice.
Ferzo 2017 Pecorino (Terre di Chieti); $26, 89 points. An intensely focused nose of crushed stone, white blossoms, citrus and pear gives a vibrant, fresh start to this wine. While the palate is broad in rounded pear and apple flavors, there’s a tangy undercurrent of lime zest and wet stone keeping focus. Leonardo LoCascio Selections–The Winebow Group.
Cantina Valle Tritana 2017 Passerina (Terre di Chieti); $14, 88 points. A fresh, vibrant nose of yellow apple, pineapple rind and crushed stone translates to the light- to medium-bodied palate. Bright acidity carries these flavors to a crisp, clean finish. Vias Imports.