It's time to rethink Italy's reputation for fine wineby Barry Smith / August 21, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in September issue of Prospect Magazine
Trebbiano and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo have a reputation as simple wines, readily available on the supermarket shelf—the latter inky and purple, soft black fruit with hints of spice; rich in alcohol and highly suitable for tomato-based fare like pizza. In the case of the whites, Trebbiano produces thin, floral and slightly acidic wines. The French use it for making Cognac. For years this has been my view of the wines of Abruzzo. They served to popularise Italian wines in the mass market but did nothing to enhance Italy’s reputation for fine wine. However, it is possible, now and then, to stumble across a wine so exceptional that one’s prejudices are banished and one’s view of a region transformed. That’s more likely to happen in the New World, or at the limits of extreme winemaking; less expected is to find one of these hidden gems lurking off the well-trodden paths of the Old World. But that is just what I found and it has changed my view of Trebbiano forever. No longer will I claim that this grape is used only to produce thousands of hectolitres of dull wine, or serve as the base wine in Cognac. This unexpected bottle was offered to me by the sommelier as a bin-end wine at a smart London restaurant. Originally, I had been looking for a Chassagne Montrachet to accompany the sushi-fusion dishes. The rich and steely style of Chassagne works well with the oily fish, as the sommelier agreed, but she persuaded me to try something different—a wine she declared to be one of the best white wines she had tasted. She had my attention. Until his death in 2006, the pre-eminent winemaker of Abruzzo was Edoardo Valentini, whose wines, for those lucky few in the know, are sought after and prized as among the finest wines of Italy. A lawyer from Loreto Aprutino, near Pescara, Valentini gave up his career to tend the vines in his ancestral home, continuing the family’s long tradition of making the region’s most exceptional wines. Valentini tended each of his vines with consumate patience, and at the end of each season he would select the plots from which the grapes for his wines would come. The rest were sold to other winemakers or the cooperative. Only the best made the cut and this ruthlessly low-yield selection drove up the quality of the grapes from which he produced white and red wines. After vinification, the Trebbiano would spend months if not years in oak barrels, and at the end of that process only some of it was selected for bottling. “I have a bottle of the 2003,” said the sommelier, “the last one.” I had to taste it. The bottle came with a pale ochre label the colour of parchment, with a roughly drawn figure and a crest; it could have passed for bottle of rustic country wine. The wine was decanted to allow it to breathe; it shone with a rich golden hue. Not a hint of oxidation on the nose. Very fresh and steely. Long and complex on the palette, unfolding from fruit to honey and to peach stone. A rare thing of delicacy and power. Quite rich and ripe, it could be chilled without harm, and it kept its poise through out the meal, only struggling to hold its own against a crab and coriander dish. The lush silky texture was a great part of its pleasure and I learned at that moment what Trebbiano could become in the right hands. I had to know what his Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Rossos were like. No simple pizza wines, I’d bet. The sommelier beamed. “I recently tasted the 1992,” she said, “It was so young and full of life.” Valentini’s son, Francisco Paolo, has now taken up the mantle, and what a legacy it is. Seek it out; you may never think of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo the same way again.