Reinventing Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo: the grower revolution and the trends to watch

Going back to Abruzzo is never less than a blissful experience. Producers are always ready to welcome you in the most heartfelt manner – either by serving bread baked in their own oven with homemade ventricina salami alongside their wines or by simply spending hours discussing wine, agriculture, philosophy, politics, and every other topic you could possibly think of. 

Their enthusiasm is such that it makes you forget they still face the enormous challenges associated with being based in a region that has long suffered a miserable reputation as a source of poor-quality wine – for too many years, Abruzzo has only been known as a reservoir of cheap grapes and musts, often used to reinforce wines made in other regions or simply giving truckloads of inexpensive bulk wine.

“Something is changing” is the motto Consorzio vini d’Abruzzo, the body that rules wine production in the region, adopted a few years back, and what has changed the most is the attitude of the producers – many of them aren’t afraid of challenging the status quo and pushing the boundaries of regional viticulture. 

(Re)discovering Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo 

The focus of our recent visit was Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, so we are going to stick to this topic and save a broader discussion on the other wines made in the region for later in the year. But please keep in mind that Abruzzo has plenty to offer even beyond red wine – including some of the best Italian whites, a few good sparkling wines, solid Passito and vino cotto, and Cerasuolo d’ Abruzzo, the missing link between a dark rosè and a light red.

Montepulciano, however, continues to account for the biggest share of the total production. Widely grown across the entire surface of this heterogeneous region, and thriving anywhere from the foothills of the Appennine to hills overlooking sandy coastlines, eclecticism is one of its calling cards: it produces dozens of different wines suiting disparate – if not downright opposite – palates.  

For sure it isn’t the easiest grape to handle: vigorous and late-ripening, it gives rustic and diluted wine if yields aren’t properly limited but can also be extremely concentrated if they are too low. In an effort to drift away from the simple and unpretentious styles of the past, some producers did everything they could to craft massively structured, glass-staining versions with aggressive tannins, high alcohol, and heavy oak imprinting, often mimicking successful international styles but rarely achieving the same heights. 

In recent years, a larger number of producers has found a happy medium between the two extremes. That doesn’t mean the problems of the past have been fully overcome: the fact a significant proportion of the overall production continues being processed outside regional boundaries means you will still find loads of underwhelming bottles selling for cheap across the globe. But the overall improvements in the average quality are substantial enough to spark excitement. 

The indie revolution

In Abruzzo, you will find a very strong dichotomy between vignerons with tiny holdings and big cooperatives or private producers managing hundreds of hectares. The latter continue to account for the lion’s share of the total output, but the former plays a key role in reshaping the perception of the region, attracting wine geeks’ attention with their characterful, artisanally-made wines. 

Many of these producers are the children of winemakers who used to supply grapes to cooperatives. They went to study in northern Italy or abroad and often worked in different sectors before taking the reins of the family business and leading the transition from selling grapes to taking care of production and marketing. Having a better understanding of trends in the wine industry globally than the previous generation, they are progressively modernizing Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo.

Andrea Quaglia and Natalino Colantonio, the founders of the up-and-coming Bossanova winery.

Key trends shaping new wave Montepulciano

  • Emphasis on sustainability: While Montepulciano may be the easiest variety to cultivate in a low-intervention fashion due to compact bunches exposing it to all sorts of diseases, growers in Abruzzo don’t seem afraid of losing a portion of the crop to go green. Recent statistics show that at least 70% of the over forty wineries producing Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo Colline Teramane currently hold a sustainability certification, and the other provinces also house an ever-higher number of producers who have adopted a drastically low-intervention approach to farming – often following biodynamic principles or experimenting with regenerative viticulture. 
  • The quest for lightness: Montepulciano is naturally inky and bold, and the high tannin content means that producers often have to postpone harvest until mid-October to ensure the tannins are fully ripe, therefore obtaining high alcohol. But it is also an extremely versatile variety, and it allows you to achieve a certain delicacy when you embrace a “less is more” approach to winemaking. Shorter skin contact and whole-bunch fermentation are just some of the techniques that small growers experiment with to craft lighter and more refined expressions of the grape, including unoaked, Beaujolais-style ones that owe their irresistible fruitiness to semi-carbonic maceration or almost “infusive” extraction.
  • Experimenting with different containers: Long before stainless tanks and barrels started filling up cellars, concrete vats were the most widespread aging containers in Abruzzo. Following the example of a few pioneers – most notably Emidio Pepe – new wave producers revived the tradition of either aging Montepulciano solely in concrete or in a mix of concrete and large oak casks. These processes allow the minimum oxygenation required to ensure the polymerization of tannins but don’t deprive the wine of its fruity exuberance. Amphorae are also becoming increasingly common in Abruzzo, and the best Montepulciano aged in such vessels are especially intriguing – perhaps a bit more oxidative than those matured in concrete or large oak but still retaining lovely freshness and clarity. 
  • The resurgence of the pergola system: Throughout the 1990s, guyot-trained vineyards started replacing the traditional pergola: producers seeking superior quality adopted this method to drastically reduce yields. In times of global warming, though, the shading effect of the pergola is proving especially helpful, as it slows down the ripening process, protecting the bunches from sunburnt and favoring the retention of higher acidity. 
  • Rediscovering continental Abruzzo: While the vast majority of the vineyards planted to Montepulciano lie within 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the coast, global warming has promoted new plantings in internal areas, where depopulation and challenging growing conditions have caused viticulture to decline. To the west of the region, and bound between the Central Apennines, the province of L’ Aquila is on the qualitative rise – even though it still yields a minuscule proportion of the overall production. An extreme environment with high elevations, rockier soils, and a continental climate characterized by strong diurnal swings during summer makes for wines that are naturally racier and more subdued, and local producers’ keenness on the above-mentioned winemaking techniques allows them to often achieve terrific finesse and drinkability.

Up-and-coming and natural producers from Abruzzo: four to watch

  • Bossanova: Natalino Colantonio and Andrea Quaglia left a 9 to 5 job in the banking industry to pursue their daydream of becoming indie wines producer in Controguerra, the cradle of Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo Colline Teramane. Farming nine hectares biodynamically and solely relying on concrete and large oak for aging, they make some of the plumpest and purest Montepulciano, boasting terrific drinkability while still showing the extra palate depth I associate with Colline Teramane.
  • Inalto: the scion of a world-famous pasta-making dynasty, Adolfo De Cecco resorted to the Tirino river valley in search of cooler-climate sites that would allow him to pursue a different style of Montepulciano. With the aid of Thomas Duroux, the head winemaker at Chateau Palmer, he has conceived cutting-edge wines that combine the punch of mountain Montepulciano with uncommon finesse and precision.
  • Podere San Biagio: Another talented grower based in Controguerra, Jacopo Fiore dresses like an indie rock singer and talks like a philosopher. He might embody the stereotype of the “hipster grower” who makes natural wines in the family garage but his work eschews fashions. A pharmaceutical chemist by training, he makes uncompromising yet slick and focused wines, drawing inspiration from regenerative viticulture, and also runs a cozy agriturismo.
  • Tenuta I Fauri: Valentina and Luigi di Camillo are rising stars in the province of Chieti, where large private wineries and cooperatives still dominate the scene. They make straightforward, sincere wines, including a Riserva, Santa Cecilia, that combines the complexity expected from an ambitious bottling with the ease of enjoyment of an entry-level Montepulciano.

Cooperatives getting back on track

Abruzzo’s large cooperatives need more time than private producers to undertake radical change but they are following the same path – if at a slower pace. 

Most of these big players have started working closely with their members to convert a healthy share of their holdings to organic viticulture, and their portfolios usually include organic wines. One cooperative, Orsogna Winery, has even earned the Demeter biodynamic certification for most of its production.

We are also beginning to see the first signs of a stylistic shift:  for instance, Cantina Tollo has started commercializing amphora-aged wines with the Feudo Antico brand. In general, however, the wines are more conservative, and the mid-range ones are the most reliable, often standing out for their good quality-to-price ratio.

The tasting report

Among our recommendations, you will find a mix of small treats from skillful artisans, solid wines by classic producers, and an excellent value wine from one of the regional cooperatives.

Some of these wines belong to the Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo Colline Teramane DOCG. For more information about this appellation, please check our Abruzzo page at this link

Check out the best Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo from recent vintages