I'm on a quest. After years of shying away from Italian wines, I'm hoping against hope that I can rediscover some new favorites. I've found in recent years that unless I'm willing to shell out, there isn't much that I want to drink coming out of Italy. I hate saying it, because as I pointed out in my post on Planeta, I'm an Italian loyalist, but compared to other places, there's a low price to value ratio coming out of the boot. When I can get a killer wine from France for $20, why would I pay the same to get a mediocre one from Italy? I wouldn't and I don't. But I try to keep an open mind and retry stuff I previously had thought mediocre so I've been revisiting Italy lately.
This time it was a wine from Southeast/Central Italy, but one that is often confused with another, more esteemed vino from Tuscany. The wine in question is Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (Mohn-teh-pull-chee-AHN-o dah-BRUH-tso), which is made from the red Montepulciano grape hailing from the Abruzzi (plural of Abruzzo, BTW) area.
The Abruzzi are in south central Italy east of Rome. Like a lot of Southern European areas, this one is relatively poor. Hilly, hot, and fertile, this area is capable of growing heaps and heaps of grapes. They've made bulk wine of marginal quality for a long time. The area can do that because of the climate, terroir, and prolific vines. Despite that, the area is also English-muffin like in that it has a lot of nooks and crannies where the climate and soil could, theoretically, make some really outstanding wine. The thing is, because it's relatively poor, and taking risks by planting different things could be expensive if it doesn't pan out, most growers stick to the proven winner and plant the main grapes of the region: Montepulciano for reds and Trebbiano for whites.
Most of the red wine is made in a plummy, raspberry, cherry flavored style with low acid and light tannins. It's pretty cheap and there isn't much to it. Rarely you can find a second kind that's a more ballsy version with stronger mouth-drying tannins and more acidity. For $30, however, this second type is a hard sell for most people who know this wine to be a good Tuesday night sipper and not anything more serious. Going back to economics, that makes it hard for producers to justify putting more money into their wines, so most of the wine that's exported from the Abruzzi is in the $8 - $15 range and tastes like it costs that much. It's a bit of a circle -- you can't invest if you don't charge more, but you can't charge more unless you invest to improve quality. Rough going.
As I alluded to before, there's also a touch of confusion regarding this wine (nothing is ever simple with this subject, but I guess that's why we love it!). Montepulciano is the name of a grape but it's also the name of a town in Tuscany. And, just to mess with your head, there's a wine from that town. It's called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. And, of course, it's not made with the Montepulciano grape and tastes almost nothing like Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (whose namesake grape may or may not have been originally from the Tuscan village -- no one really knows). Vino Nobile is made mostly from the Sangiovese grape (with a small percentage of other local grapes chucked in, but just to be clear -- no Montepulciano grapes can be found in that mix). This wine is like a high-end Chianti -- more rustic, acidic, and tannic than the fruity wine from the Abruzzi.
If you're ordering in a restaurant or looking for this wine specifically, there are two ways to ensure you get it rather than Vino Nobile --
- Don't just say "I'll have the Montepulciano." The person working with you may think you mean Vino Nobile and give you that instead. Make sure you add the "d'Abruzzo" part.
- Look at the prices. Vino Nobile tends to be upwards of $20 retail and $45+ on a wine list. If you see that, look twice at the label/on the list before ordering and make sure you get the one you want.
A confusing twist to a simple wine, but it's a good thing to know so you get what you want!
Now on to the wine I tried as my revisit to Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, which I haven't had in about a year or so. The wine is from La Valentina, a winery that started in 1990 and is located between the mountains and the coast. It focuses on traditional farming methods (the Fattoria, or winery, does a lot of organic and biodynamic practices -- see the post or podcast for details on this stuff) but is modern with its winemaking technology, so the wine tends to be fruity and less rustic (read: taste like dirt). La Valentina and its owner, Sabatino Di Properzio, have a dedication to quality and have been recognized as leaders in trying to change the reputation of the wines of Abruzzi as crap jug wines into something of higher quality.
I think they did a good job with the Denominazione d'Origine Controllata (DOC, or second level of regional specificity, this means there are some government specifications by which the wineries have to abide to make sure the wines taste like they are from the area) Montepulciano d'Abruzzo...but with a caveat.
I know a lot of people like to down a bottle of wine in 1 night but there are certainly payoffs to moderation (and I'm not talking about mitigating your hangover -- I'm not here to preach to you about consumption, just about maximizing your enjoyment). This wine (as with many French and Italian wines) was a different and far better version on night 2 than on night 1. If you're going to drink this, I'd recommend decanting it or better yet, trying it over the course of 2-3 days to see the change yourself.
Here's the wine:
The Wine: 2008 La Valentina Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
The Grape: 100% Montepulciano
Color: Hot climate= dark wine. If you've donated blood before, this will look familiar. It stained the glass on the swirl because the grapes that this wine is made from had a ton of color and that carried through in the finished product!
Smell: This had a lot going on. It was like licorice, cranberries, black pepper, and eucalyptus. From the barrel aging it smelled like new suede shoes and dried cocoa powder. On a second whiff the wine was like a botannical greenhouse -- it smelled like violets and dirt. And then, I don't know if I was imagining it, but I got a sort of salty earth or even cured salty meat thin too. Very interesting.
Taste: So, on the first night the wine was a little short on flavor. The eucalyptus and salty earth tastes were there and there was a little cranberry and black cherry too. It had good mouth-drying tannin and that sensation stuck around, but the fruitiness made a quick exit and it was a little bit boring. Now, on the second night -- much, much better. The wine tasted more lush and fruity -- like ripe plums. It didn't have as much tannin to it but it was more of an easy-going sippable wine the next night. Everything seemed more in balance and it was a total hit with my pizza.
Drink or sink?: Drink. For $9, this is a solid wine. Is it going to rock your world? No, but for an inexpensive red during the week, it's a safe pick and a great pairing with tomato sauce or pizza.
I liked this wine and it tasted a little bit better than a $9, but I'm still not sold on the fact that Italy is a producing wines that are great value for the price...the quest continues.