Finding a winery in Abruzzo without Montepulciano is about as likely as finding a household in South Dakota without firearms. The red all-rounder is omnipresent and the white Trebbiano is almost as likely to be rooted alongside it. The two varieties determine the ampelographic image of a region that has not completely disappeared from the radar of Central European wine drinkers, but about which people usually know about as much as they do about South Dakota.

Until recently, that wasn't too bad. If you ordered a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, depending on your budget, you either got an over-ambitious, over-extracted, wood-laden, intrusive and mostly undrinkable wine or an indefinable, flat, bulky and ultimately irrelevant banality, which often formed a counterpoint, but didn't make things much better. Trebbiano could also be covered with a cloak of silence. Abruzzo could easily have been crossed off the viticultural map of Italy and the neighbouring Marche or Campania could have been considered instead, had it not been for two winemakers who showed year after year how amazingly good both grape varieties could taste - if only they had done things right.

Edoardo Valentini and Emidio Pepe, one dead, the other retired, were not only two exceptional figures in the Abruzzo wine scene, both are icons of Italian viticulture to this day. Valentini was honoured by Gambero Rosso not only once as the best winery in Italy, while an (excellent) biography was recently written about Emidio Pepe - something that does not happen very often in winegrowing circles. So there was hope, personified in two traditional and sustainable winegrowers who others could take their lead from. First sporadically, then more and more frequently, wines were produced across the region that people not only could drink, but wanted to. There are now a good dozen excellent wineries in Abruzzo, and the trend is rising.

Although they have followed various principles (organic viticulture, ageing in cement or large wooden barrels), they have adapted them to the respective environment, which can be extremely different in Abruzzo, depending on whether you are by the sea or in the mountains - or in the hills in between. Climatic gradations, different soil temperatures, rainfall and exposures go hand in hand with the different landscape profiles, which can lead to completely different wines within just a few kilometres.

What remains astonishing is the fact that, no matter where you are, Montepulciano always sets the tone. While the Adriatic is almost inevitably characterised by generous, expansive, fruit-driven and warm wines, the hills around Teramo and further up, near Sulmona, are usually home to cool, austere versions dominated by herbs and pepper. Done well, both have their charm.

Beyond Montepulciano and Trebbiano, Abruzzo is also increasingly focussing on old grape varieties from the region. Pecorino is used to make finely herbal, delicate and acidic wines, while Passerina is used to make delicate and lively versions with multi-layered flavours and plenty of tension.

There are also a handful of young winegrowers who are experimenting with various techniques (whole bunch fermentation, maceration, unsulphurised wines, amphorae) and are exploring new, but sometimes also very old, forgotten paths and further exploring the potential of Abruzzo in an original and unconventional way.

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