Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is one of Italy’s obscure and unsung wines. It is frequently confused with Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, but the two wines are completely different. Vino Nobile is produced in and around the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany, made from a clone of Sangiovese with other local grapes blended in. The Montepulciano variety bears no resemblance to it; to make matters more confusing, it is not grown in the area of Montepulciano itself.
The best way to clear up the confusion is to visit the Abruzzo, located on the Adriatic coast due east from Rome. This historically poor area is a region of both mountains and seaside, and the prolific, high-yielding Montepulciano grape has long been a favorite with farmers. In the past four decades wine production has become more technically advanced and quality-oriented. The gold standard in the area is Emidio Pepe, a fourth-generation winery located in Torano Nuovo. The young Turk is Edoardo Valentini, whom I met on a visit about five years ago: bright, dynamic and passionate, creating wines of lasting value.
Somewhere in the middle is Fratelli Barba, a consortium of three brothers who own 150 acres of vineyards in the best growing regions of the Abruzzo. The state of the art winery is located in Scerne di Pineto, at the base of the Colle Morino hills. All the modern equipment is not for show: The black-skinned Montepulciano is a hard grape to vinify, but in the right hands it emerges with ripe fruit and soft tannins.
Their 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Colle Morino ($12) has a deep, purple/black color and a fragrant nose with scents of anise, minerals, graphite and dark berries. Despite the wine’s formidable appearance it is ripe and approachable in the mouth, with soft tannins and ripe flavors of dark plums. The finish is short, but the wine is totally charming during the time it spends on the palate.
I was fortunate to sample Barba’s I Vasari Old Vines Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2008 ($24), winner of the coveted Tre Bicchieri (three glass) award from Gambero Rosso---one of roughly 300 wines selected out of 14,000 submitted. Once again, the palate presence is gentler than the inky-black color, but this is a large-scaled wine: full-bodied yet balanced, with ripe and penetrating black fruit flavors. The fruit resonates on the finish, along with echoes of menthol and mint. It is a perfect match for pork, game dishes and stews.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to iconicspirits.net.