Italy in a glass
DRINK:We are not adventurous in our choice of Italian wines, but Montepulciano d’Abruzzo has become a favourite
WE CAN BE a very conservative lot in this country. Despite being among the first to flock to New World wines, we still head straight for a few familiar names when it comes to Italy. Chianti, Valpolicella, Soave and a few others remain the biggest sellers for most retailers. The exceptions to the classic names are pinot grigio and prosecco, which have become highly fashionable. Our loyalty to these wines is despite, or maybe because of, the huge selection of grape varieties and wines that Italy offers.
However, one red wine has quietly come from the back of the pack to become one of Italy’s most popular. Just about every importer in the country now offers several Montepulcianos d’Abruzzo. Despite having a long name that is difficult to pronounce, this has become one of our favourite Italian wines in restaurants and at home.
Although relatively close to Rome, the Abruzzo was, until recently, something of a backwater as far as wine was concerned. The region is cut off from the more developed western areas by the Apennines and, as with much of southern Italy, struggled for many years to gain recognition. Quantity has never been a problem. Annual output there is nearly twice that of Tuscany. Nor does the region lack tradition, as the Etruscans first brought the vine here in the fourth century BC.
The past 20 years has seen a revival in fortunes, as the focus has moved from large-scale producers (four co-operatives once dominated production) to smaller, artisanal estates. The increased popularity has been helped by Abruzzo’s dominant grape variety, montepulciano. This is not to be confused with the Tuscan Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is made from sangiovese.
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo comes in a variety of styles, but has shown itself capable of making wines with character and, occasionally, real quality. The only other areas using the grape are Molise to the immediate south, and Rosso Conero to the north, where it tends to be blended with sangiovese.
In the northern part of the Abruzzo, the Apennines are closer to the sea, and the soils tend to be poorer, the vineyards higher and cooler. This sub-region generally produces the finest wines. Not surprisingly, it is here that most of the smaller estates can be found. The warmer south produces more, though arguably less impressive, wine.
Montepulciano is typically brightly coloured, perfumed and fruity, with lowish acidity and light, grippy tannins (if any). Sometimes it has a peppery spice, but the best versions have very moreish vibrant dark fruits, that make it a great bistro-style wine. It has been criticised as being a little too earthy and rustic at times, but that is often down to the wine-making. A couple of producers, Illuminati and Masciarelli in particular, have shown that montepulciano is capable of making serious wine, too.