The irresistible rise of Trebbiano
Joel Hart discovers how Trebbiano d’Abruzzo became one of the world’s great white wines.
Photography: Alberto Blasetti for Emidio Pepe
Wednesday 03 January 2024
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In August 2021, I ordered my first glass of Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. Given the reputation of this iconic biodynamic estate, my expectations were high, but most of my experience with Trebbiano prior to this was with perfectly quaffable but not exactly groundbreaking skin-contact versions. Trebbiano did not, at that point, excite me. The glass arrived at the table, and the first striking thing was its shimmery golden hue, matched equally by a characterful nose offering mandarin orange, chamomile, and hay. On the palate it was elegant, finessed, complex, lively, constantly evolving, and in stark contrast to my previous encounters with the grape, stunningly balanced.
Emidio Pepe is not the only producer doing wonders with Trebbiano in Abruzzo. Most significantly, there is Valentini—perhaps Italy’s most legendary white wine, with its unforgettable black and yellow label depicting the family’s winemaking origins in 1650—brought to fame by Edoardo Valentini, who passed away in 2006 but was known locally as “lord of the vines”. These wines are often sold for above £250 on release, and upwards of £450 with some bottle age. There is also Cristiana Tiberio, whose 90+ old vine Fonte Canale Trebbiano d’Abruzzo DOP was described by Decanter in 2015 as proof that Valentini was no fluke. Between the three of them, Trebbiano Abruzzese has developed a reputation for nurturing iconic white wines. All three are known for their intensity, length, complex texture, and savoury depth.
According to Chiara Pepe, the granddaughter of Emidio who is today responsible for managing the estate’s export markets, what unites them is “their authenticity and precise stylistical identity. The three are very different wines coming from different terroirs,” she says, “but each one has a singular personality reflecting the characteristic of the place but also stylistically reflecting each maker’s ideology”. Cristiana Tiberio agrees, adding “each estate manages to translate their terroirs in the glass very well, mostly because of excellent winemaking,” but also due to the respect given to the “identity of this grape variety and the specific adaptation to its specific terroir parameters”. It is worth noting the distinction in the vessels used for aging, with Valentini using barrels that impart some oaky flavours, Emidio Pepe using cement tanks to achieve a supple texture but without toasty notes, and Tiberio using stainless steel to ensure optimum terroir expression.
As a white wine making region, Abruzzo is also home to Pecorino, an ancient, low-yielding variety also grown in the Marche. Nearly extinct in the 1970s, it has had a revival in the region. Emidio Pepe’s IGT Pecorino has garnered an excellent reputation, but Tiberio still feels that overall, Pecorino is unlikely to reach the same heights as Trebbiano because “it is a victim of its own success,” she says, having been “planted everywhere”. This, Tiberio says, is “a mistake, because Pecorino is a mountain grape that wants long, cool growing seasons”.
“Both Trebbiano Abruzzese and Pecorino need long hang times to deliver complex layered wines,” Tiberio clarifies, but “Trebbiano Abruzzese has more noble aspects compared to Pecorino,” with its “longer growing season” usually showing “more balance in the berries between skin and juice.” Pepe agrees, citing the soils’ active limestone balanced by the ability of clay to retain water, which allows “a prolongment of the ripening cycles yet preserving acidity and tension”. For Tiberio, the double Pergola system she uses creates a unique micro-environment and specific biodiversity, which help the grapes to ripen at a cooler temperature, while the sandy subsoil is responsible for the flinty notes and waves of minerality on the palate.
Abruzzo’s soils, one could argue, are destined to produce great Trebbiano, much like the soils of Burgundy are unprecedentedly suited to the production of world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The important thing to note is that there is a genetic difference in the grape clone itself too, which was misunderstood for a considerable period of time, with the local cultivar associated with the likes of mostosa, Bombino Bianco and Trebbiano Toscano.
“Trebbiano is widespread throughout Italy with several different genetics,” says Pepe. “Pretty much each region has one clone of Trebbiano. Trebbiano Abruzzese shows finer skins, higher acidities and a sparser bunch.” Tiberio goes even further, arguing “it’s a completely different grape variety,” which has “distinctive DNA not related at all with other Trebbianos grapes.” This can actually be seen in the vineyards too, she insists, saying “you can tell easily because it stays green even when fully ripe, while Trebbiano Toscano, which is what is mostly grown nowadays, tends to become reddish when ripe, and has much bigger berries”.
What is also striking is that all three of these estates work as naturally as possible, in the vineyard and in the cellar, eschewing herbicides and pesticides on the vines, or temperature control and commercial yeasts during production. Tiberio explains why. “My winemaking approach is very delicate and that’s why I prefer to work with stainless steel and indigenous yeasts, to respect the purity and the character of these vines.” Pepe has continued in the tradition of her grandfather, with low, if any sulphur use. The grapes continue to be crushed by feet, but one change has been, with the vat now cooled to ensure a cooler temperature during extraction.
With such low-intervention methods adopted by the region’s new Trebbiano aficionados, both Pepe and Tiberio are excited about the future. “Having someone leading the path is always great to find motivation and inspiration in investing in the right vineyard work and hopefully the most appropriate terroir for this grape variety,” says Tiberio. Pepe hopes for more recovery of older-DNA Trebbiano, to be produced through massal selection. “One decisive aspect of the expression and authenticity of a Trebbiano is definitely its genetics,” she says, adding, “there are a whole bunch of young winemakers coming up very determined and passionate to achieve great quality.”
If not looking to fork out on the iconic stuff immediately, some producers, including those mentioned by Pepe, have accessible price points, from the Trebbiano D’Abruzzo by Valle Reale, a biodynamic producer with large plantings of Trebbiano Abruzzese, to those by newer producers Amorotti, Caprera, and Bossanova. Be warned though, a mere sip of one of these may draw you in, with it only being a matter of time before you become completely seduced. But in the words of a local Abruzzese proverb: 100 years of sadness won’t reduce the debt by a lira.
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