Italy in a glass

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

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.

This may well be one of those wines that is at its best when it doesn’t try too hard. It excels as a medium-priced soft, generous quaffing wine, of the sort you would love to drink, possibly lightly chilled, with a relaxed Italian meal. The really cheap versions can be pretty nasty, herbaceous, earthy and lacking in fruit, but these days the overall standard is pretty good.

My own tasting revealed plenty of really enjoyable fresh, fruit-filled wines with real character, including wines from Tesco and Marks Spencer, both made by the same woman, Gaetane Carron. There were one or two also-rans but very few actively nasty wines. At the upper end, there were some ambitious wines, obviously intended for ageing.

In addition to the red wine, montepulciano is also used to make cerasuolo, a rosé highly rated by some, although I have never really seen the point. There is also Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, otherwise known as ugni blanc, which is, at best, crisp and refreshing. The more ambitious producers have been experimenting with chardonnay and other white grapes. However, it is the red wine that gets the deserved attention.

It is a go-to wine in Italian restaurants as it usually offers decent value and goes with a wide variety of foods, pizza and lighter pasta dishes in particular. The Abruzzo is also known for its pork charcuterie and mountain lamb, both often laced often with chilli- perfect with the low tannin montepulciano.

BOTTLES OF THE WEEK

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2010, Vigneto Vigne Nuove, Valle Reale 13% €11.99A nicely aromatic wine with lovely refreshing, bright, brambly, dark cherry fruits, and an attractive tannic nip on the finish. Stockists: Wines on the Green, Dawson Street; McCabe’s Blackrock; Baggot Street Wines; The Gables, Foxrock.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2010, Il Bucco 12.5% €11.70Delicious, fragrant wine with medium-bodied fresh, dark cherry fruits and decent length. Lovely purity of fruit and lowish acidity give it instant glugability. Stockists: 1601, Kinsale; No 21, Cork; JJ O’Driscoll, Cork; Matson’s, Bandon; O’Driscoll’s, Cahirciveen; Green’s, Cork; Next Door Off Licences nationwide; Swans on the Green, Naas; Mill Wine Centre, Maynooth; Nolan’s, Clontarf; Callan’s, Dundalk; Ballinteer Off-Licence; Ardkeen, Waterford; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; McHugh’s, Kilbarrack; Mac’s, Limerick; Paul’s, Donegal; Gibney’s, Malahide.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Le Salare 13% €10.95-€11.50Another quite delicious fresh, bouncy wine, with a cocktail of dark fruits, just the right amount of acidity, and a seamless finish. Stockists: Sheridans Cheesemongers (Galway, Dublin, Carnaross, Co Meath); Liston’s, Camden Street; Lettercollum Kitchen Project, Clonakilty; John R’s, Listowel.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2010, Valori 14% €14.50-€14.95This is a bit more substantial; a lovely perfumed nose again, but this time with a bit more body, more alcohol, and a greater concentration of dark fruits on the palate. A very good wine at the price, best served with food. Stockists: Corkscrew, Chatham Street; the Hole in the Wall, Dublin 7; Red Island Wines, Skerries; Sweeney’s, Glasnevin; Fallon Byrne, Exchequer Street.

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