October 3, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Southern comfort

By |2018-03-21T18:49:10+01:00May 15th, 2012|Food & Wine Archive|
Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is among the most widely exported DOC Italian wines.

ass production can leave some grapes at the cruel mercy of market logic. For example, when I imagine people scouring local supermarkets in search of a €3 bottle of wine, I always think of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

Italians buy lots of wine by the bulk with some of it no longer even in bottles, packaged instead in fruit juice-like tetrapaks.

Among foreigners, Montepulciano seems etched in the wine unconscious. That’s partly because the best-known Montepulciano, in Tuscany, is associated with celebrated tourist destinations. In wine terms, Montepulciano (from Abruzzo, not Tuscany) is a sale item in plenty of supermarkets and wine bars, though at often wildly differing prices. It is also widely exported.

But where do all these bottles come from and what exactly, in terms of origin, is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo?

First and most important, the obvious: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (Abruzzo is a hilly central-southern province that borders the Adriatic) is unrelated to much-praised Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG and Rosso di Montepulciano DOC, both produced in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano with Sangiovese grapes known in some places as prugnolo gentile. Pricing for these wines beyond any €3 buyer’s reach.

Recent wine science suggests that Montepulciano, a red grape variety, is not a Sangiovese mutation, but native instead to Abruzzo, giving rise to Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC, which can be red or rosé (cerasuolo) — the word cerasa means cherry in local dialect. Most of the wine is produced in the provinces of Chieti, L’Aquila, Pescara and Teramo, according to DOC rules. There is also Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Colline Teramane, the only Abruzzo DOCG, made in the province of Teramo.

It should come as no surprise that Tuscany and Abruzzo argue over denomination, with Tuscany usually getting the better of the quarrel.

Geographical history usually prevails in name tussles, though many forget that Abruzzo is as steeped in wine lore as Tuscany. Abruzzo’s weakness may have been a lack of early marketing. While poets and writers delivered frothy Tuscan praises, the south didn’t get its just due.

Evidence suggests that the Etruscans introduced the so-called vita maritata (married vine) system in the 6th-century BC. Ovid, the famous Roman poet born in Sulmona (L’Aquila), often mentions the richness of his homeland’s grapes.

Even today, Montepulciano is thought of as generous in terms of how much its grapes generate and the number of vineyards that grow it (hence its attraction to mass distribution predators whose only goal is competitive pricing).

At the same time, Abruzzo is going through a prosperous phase, which means that some of its Montepulciano, if properly fermented and refined, can yield wines that are suitable for aging.

Valentini, Masciarelli and Pepe are Abruzzo’s most stalwart producers. A 2006 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Valentini can cost €70 or more; a 2007 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Emidio Pepe about €25; and a 2007 Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo S. Martino Rosso Marina Cvetic around €20. All three are fine wines.

A recent tasting introduced me to La Valentina and its 2007 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Spelt, which has an excellent quality to price ratio at €15. Their flagship Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Bellovedere runs about €30 (with one taster telling me the 2007 was the best wine but the 2004 the most Abruzzese in flavor.) Cantina Frentana offers the 2007 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Panarda at between €13-to-15, and a 2011 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo at €6.

At the supermarket, I picked up a Citra Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (their low-end product) at the discounted price of €3.49. I’d read enough about the company to believe they took themselves seriously. Admittedly, it wasn’t a great wine, but far better than opting for what you’ll find in tetrapacks.

Ambiguity over names and huge price-quality difference can end up confusing consumers, who end up falling back on names they recognize and cheap prices, or both. Italy badly needs more discipline in terms of wine labeling and territorial ordering, at the risk of some rich wine regions being left out of the mix.

About the Author:

Domenico Pate was born and raised in Lamézia Terme, in Calabria, southern Italy, and 12 years ago moved to Rome where he still lives. He divides his time between his interest in Information Technology Law and his passion for wine (especially its ancient history). The latter he enjoys sharing with his international friends in Rome's historic center and sometimes farther afield.