Indigenous grapes of Abruzzo
Distinctive and historic local heroes
Photo: Nocciano, Pescara by Mimmo Sigismondi
Wednesday 03 January 2024
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The green and gorgeous land of Abruzzo, just on the other side of the Apennine mountains from Rome, is home to a wealth of indigenous grapes that have helped turn this relatively small region into a wine lover’s treasure trove. What is a trove, just out of interest? A grotto? A haul? We all say it but have any of us ever seen one? Is it possible to have a junk trove?
Existential questions aside, a trove is indeed what Abruzzo is. Dotted with seams of top vineyards crafting fine wines atop their own individual soils and encased within their unique micro-terroirs, there are two DOGCs, seven DOCs, and eight IGPs. If you don’t know what these acronyms mean, don’t worry too much about it—they simply denote regions within the region where higher, and the highest quality wines are produced. Buying an Abruzzo wine with DOGC denomination means, in official terms, that you are bagging yourself a bottle of one of the finest wines known to humanity.
It would be extremely remiss to begin a run-down of Abruzzo’s indigenous grapes and not begin with Montepulciano. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is probably the wine you’re most acquainted with from this particular region—a deep, dark wine full of rich plummy-red fruit flavours, spice, and with enough tannic structure to raise a barn. The whole of Abruzzo is a DOC for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo—meaning it can be made anywhere within the region.
The most interesting Montepulciano d’Abruzzos are spiked with aromatics bordering on incense, and this is down to both the black-skinned grape itself and the Slavonic oak used to make the barrels it is aged in. Over time, these complex wines reveal perfumes of violets and freesia, star anise, clove, and mace. Easy-drinking Montepulciano d’Abruzzos are also available (and for a fraction of the price).
Unlike its name-twin Trebbiano, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is most definitely not a bulk-wine staple. Used only within Abruzzo, this variety of white grape is prized for its delicate flavour and crisp acidity, and there are actually denominations for Superiore and Riserva Trebbiano d’Abruzzo for the finest quality versions. As well as lemon and lime, good quality examples can show off a bright pineapple-like flavour, and even portray some of the salty minerals from within the clay soil their vines grow in.
Within Abruzzo, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo can be blended with up to 15% of juice or wine made with other white grapes grown within the region, if needed to add acidity or juicy citrus flavours. Aromatic grapes like Sauvignon Blanc wouldn’t be used as they’d overpower the lacy aromas of the Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, but locally-grown Malvasia, Pinot Grigio or Passerina might be used. These white wines, although delicate, can be aged in wood to give them even more complexity and a little richness in texture.
A grape that’s steadily growing in popularity in Abruzzo is Pecorino, whose name has a lot of cute connections to sheep and shepherds—pecora means sheep in Italian. To some, the name comes from the shape of the bunches, which do actually sort-of look like a woolly sheep’s tail. To others, the name comes from the shepherds themselves, who ate the grapes straight off the vine as they passed through the region from mountains to lower ground, driving their sheep from higher pastures before harsher weather returned for the winter.
However the name came about, the grape itself has been a main character in Abruzzo for a little while now, gaining fans because of its lush body and deep, autumnal flavours of apples, pears, and even floral, dainty quince. The flavour of quinces always makes me smile. On the outside, these ungainly, hairy fruits look chunky and crab-apple-like in their wonkiness. When eaten, they are the freshness of a breeze through a cherry blossom grove. A burst of blousy cottage rambling roses. Anyway. Pecorino. Grown throughout the Abruzzo region, its best can be found in the north of the region where winds from the Adriatic coast make their way upriver into the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOGC, and in the Terre Tollesi DOGC, which also has excellent sea breezes.
Black-skinned Dolcetto isn’t sweet at all, despite its name meaning “little sweet one”. This classic Italian grape is actually mostly found in Piemonte in the north west of the country, but Abruzzo has made a comfortable home for it among the mountains and rolling green hills. Dolcetto makes dry red wines, with strong acidity and tannins that can take many years to mellow and become balanced. There is a bitterness about Dolcetto wines that marks them out as characteristically Italian, and they go perfectly with tomato sauces and pizza too. What’s more Italian than that?
At its very best, Dolcetto gives off wonderful aromas of flowers in bloom, and flavours of ripe red fruits with a dash of elderberry cordial. It creates a rich and complex wine, that while all too often overlooked in favour of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, is perhaps just as worthy of its moment in front of the woodburner.
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