Villamagna DOC: Leading the Way for Montepulciano in Abruzzo

Villamagna is a tiny appellation by any measure: 85 hectares, seven producers, two wines (Villamagna DOC and Villamagna DOC Riserva). But its importance exceeds its size and points the way forward for Abruzzo and its Montepulciano wines. Sue and I only spent a few hours with the Villamagna winemakers, but we came away deeply impressed with the wines and the people who make them.

About the wines … well, I have been trying to think how to describe them to you and here is the best I can do. Do you know the wines of the Stags Leap District in the Napa Valley? Well, to me at least, the wines of Villamagna DOC are to Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines in general what Stags Leap is to Napa. You can see the family resemblance in each case, but the wine from the smaller region is distinctive and makes a strong impression.

Distinctive by Design

It is not an accident that the Villamagna wines are distinctive. Starting in the 1990s some of the producers in this small village began to think about what they could do to increase quality and to stand out and perhaps above others in the region.  They had nature on their side, with soils and climate well-suited to quality grapes.  The vineyards are located about 10 km from the Adriatic Sea and about 10 km from the foothills of the Majella mountain range, so a combination of influences affect the grapes, including especially a large intra-day temperature variation during the growing season.

But natural advantages are not always enough, so the appellation founders began to identify specific areas with the best potential for high-quality grapes and to establish appellation protocols that would produce wines that were both individually distinctive but also clearly part of a common family tree. These efforts culminated in the creation of the Villamagna DOC appellation in 2011.

Higher and Lower

The standards for Villamagna DOC wines are higher than for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC wines generally. The maximum permitted vineyard yield is lower, for example, and the minimum alcohol level higher. Americans will wonder why a higher alcohol level is desirable, since the problem here is often that alcohol levels are higher than we might like.

But the point of the regulation is to require producers to fully ripen grapes rather than pick early when the grapes are not necessarily of peak quality. Villamagna DOC requires fully ripe grapes that achieve at least 14% abv, for example, while the minimum standard for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC is only 11.5% abv.

The ageing requirements are also different. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC can be released in the spring after harvest. Villamagna DOC wines must wait two years (three years for Riserva) and spend time in oak.

A New Generation of Wines

Obviously, many Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC wines exceed the minimums in these areas, but there is considerable variation. The point is that all of the Villamagna DOC wines must meet the higher standards.

Elegant and powerful is how the producers describe their wines. I think I’d say elegant, balanced, and distinctive, with a line of bright acidity running through the wine that makes me think of Stags Leap.

The grapes and geography as very important, but Villamagna DOC is really a people story most of all because it is not very often that a small group of winemakers can achieve so much. Part of this can be explained by generational transitions within the wineries.  New faces and new thinking are useful indeed when the world of wine has changed and quality, not quantity, is the surest path to success.

But it is inevitably more complicated than this because the seven wineries are such a diverse group. Some are very old family affairs while others have been established during the period when the Villamagna DOC project was evolving. Two are cooperatives, which is noteworthy since changing directions, which is never a simple thing, is even more challenging when cooperative members must be convinced to give their votes.

The seven members of the Villamagna DOC are Agricosimo, Cantina Villamagna, Cascina del Colle, Palazzo Battaglini, Piandimare, Torre Zambra, Valle Martello. Congratulations to them all for their commitment and achievement.

The Road Ahead

But it is too soon to rest on laurels. Making excellent, distinctive wines is the beginning of the project. The next step is to get the word out so that the wines can have the market (and earn the prices) they deserve.

And then? Well, the step after that is for other Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC producers to follow along by making a very serious commitment to quality both in the cellar and vineyard.  The vast majority of Abruzzo wines are Montepulciano and elevating both the wines and their reputation won’t happen overnight. But it is the way forward in today’s market.

Quality by Design at an Abruzzo Cooperative Winery

The first thing you notice as you approach Cantina Frentana is the tower, which rises up over the flat landscape and trellised vines like a lighthouse. And in a way it is a beacon, shining a bright light on the future of Abruzzo, Italy’s underestimated wine region.

Abruzzo Lighthouse

The tower, Torre Vinaria, was originally built in 1958-60 with the practicalities of winemaking in mind. A gravity-flow winery, as you probably know, is thought to be gentler on the wine because less pumping is involved (and economical of labor, too, I think). Such facilities are frequently built on hillsides, but there are few suitable hills so near the Adriatic coast, so the grapes were hoisted to the tower’s top floor and worked their way down until they were finished wine at the bottom.

The tower, 28 meters high and 18 meters in diameter, is thus a symbol of a thoughtful commitment to quality. It was also a statement of confidence and ambition because it was created along with company itself, which is a cooperative or cantina sociale as they say in Italy. Cooperatives are generally born in times of crisis for grape growers, who band together to make and sell wine from their grapes when other market opportunities are scarce. To have this tower rise up from tough vineyard times was indeed confidence and optimism.

Preserving Vineyards and Grape Varieties

Ninety-two growers signed a deed to organize the Cooperative Society “Cantina Sociale Frentana” on November 16, 1958. The first vintage was released (and the famous tower completed) two years later. Now, after more than 60 years, the cooperative has 500 members who collectively farm 1000 hectares (or about 2500 acres). The average vineyard size is small, only 4 hectares or about 10 acres, and so there are many members who farm very small plots indeed.

As the years have passed and the founding members grown older year by year, the cooperative has had to face the fact that interest in the hard work of grape growing is not always passed down to the next generation. To keep membership alive, therefore, it has instituted what it calls the vineyard bank.  The cooperative contracts with the elderly grape grower and family to manage the vineyard for them, thus allowing the family to maintain membership, ownership, and income.

Cantina Frentana is committed to preserving native grape varieties, especially the distinctive local white grape  Cococciola. Indeed, it is the largest producer of this wine in the region and, hence, in the world. Still, sparkling, or a bit frizzante, it is a delicious wine.

Stronger Brands, Higher Margins

A generation ago, when Burton Anderson surveyed Abruzzo for his classic Wine Atlas of Italy, the number of high-quality producers he found could be counted on your hand. The rest, including the cooperatives that dominated the landscape, bet on quantity over quality. And in a big way.

The statistics that Anderson cited in 1990, were stunning. Abruzzo’s wine production often exceeded the output of Tuscany or Piemonte, for example, with less than half their vineyard areas. This was made possible by pushing vineyard yields to the highest average in all of Italy — 133 hectoliters per hectare, according to Anderson. I calculate this to be about ten tons per acre on average, which is high given the viticultural practices then in use and the fact that red wine grapes dominate the market.

Get the Incentives Right

High yields, and the lower quality that often follows, creates a vicious cycle. High output and low quality push prices down. Swimming upstream against this current by raising quality is risky and expensive, so the incentives are to push for even higher yields to make up in volume what is lost in margins. This can be a race to the bottom.

Cooperatives are often part of this problem, which is why they have poor reputations in some regions, but it doesn’t have to be the case as Cantina Frentana shows. In my experience there are three steps that cooperatives must be willing to take to move ahead in quality. It is all about getting the incentives right.

First, grower members must commit to sell all of their grapes to the cooperative. Otherwise, they will sell the best grapes privately (or make their own wine from them) leaving the cooperative with the low-quality product. Second, the cooperative must be able to vary grape price by quality, so that growers will find the lower-yield/higher quality trade-off attractive. If all grapes are worth the same, we are back to the race to the bottom again.

Finally, the cooperative must be able to refuse to purchase sub-standard grapes. This is obviously necessary if quality is to be maintained, but difficult from a social standpoint because cooperative members are also neighbors and sometimes even family.

Necessary But Not Sufficient

Cantina Frentana satisfies my quality cooperative checklist, but it is important to remember that these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for success. Excellent wine is the beginning not the end in today’s crowded and competitive marketplace.

Cantina Frentana impressed us with their wines, commitment to quality, ability to adapt to changing natural and economic climates, and their efforts to build brands for their wines and margins for their grower members. Cooperatives like Cantina Frentana are part of the promising future of wine in Abruzzo.

Back in Burton Anderson’s day, a cooperative winery was probably the last place someone would send us to learn about the promising potential for Abruzzo’s wine industry. Flash forward to 2022 and Cantina Frentana was our first stop. There is a message there.

Is Abruzzo the Next Big Thing for Italian Wine?

Is the Abruzzo region the next big thing in Italian wine? That’s the question on our minds here at Wine Economist world headquarters after returning from a media tour of Abruzzo last month. The tentative answer is that Abruzzo has the foundation needed to move up to the next level in the Italian wine hierarchy. Abruzzo is on the rise — let’s see how far it can go!

Abruzzo By the Numbers

From the standpoint of volume, of course, Abruzzo is already a big thing. Abruzzo boasts 33,000 hectares (over 80,000 acres) of grape vines, of which more than half are planted to its signature red wine grape, Montepulciano. Total production is 3.2 million hectoliters or more than 35 million 9-liter cases of wine each year. About a quarter of the wine is designated DOC.

There are more than 250 wineries in this region. With more than 6,000 grape growers it is obvious than many of the vineyards are quite small. No wonder, then, that cooperative wineries are very important here (as they are in most of Italy and Europe generally).

The “Good Value” Curse

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo wines are produced in large quantities and are available world-wide. But, as I wrote a few weeks ago as we were preparing for this visit, the wines entered the U.S. market years ago at what were then the “sweet spot” price points. As the market has moved up to higher price tiers, however, Abruzzo’s wines (like those of Chile) lagged behind s bit, recognized for their   good value rather than great quality.

Indeed, I remember stumbling onto a big 1.5 liter bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo by a well-known producer at a local Grocery Outlet discount store a few weeks ago. It was priced just above the Two Buck Chuck level. Not the best advertisement for Abruzzo wines!

The Abruzzo wine producers have adopted a strategic plan to raise the profile of their wine region (the media tour, which included journalists from North America, Europe and the UK, and Asia was part of that program). One small step that I think will be important is to establish a stronger Abruzzo identity by unifying some of their classification systems and adopting the logo you see above. This sort of strategy worked very well for Sicilian wines and it holds promise for Abruzzo.

Abruzzo Has Much to Offer

Tourism (and not just wine tourism) is one way to strengthen a regional identity in today’s competitive market. How many people do you know who took a Douro River cruise in Portugal, for example, fell in love with the country, and have been buying Portuguese wines ever since?

Abruzzo has a lot to offer tourists who take the time to explore. There are golden beaches on the Adriatic coast, for example, and delicious seafood served at restaurants located in converted trabbochi (extravagant fishing shacks built at the end of long piers).

There is beautiful scenery and charming towns in the hills and mountains, too, with wonderful food including juicy porchetta and tasty grilled lamb skewers. All this with fewer crowds than in the better-known tourist spots. Honestly, Abruzzo is hard to beat once you make the modest effort to get there. Abruzzo’s visibility in the world of wine will rise as more and more people discover its many charms.

Abruzzo Pecorino Potential

But wine regions are ultimately built on the quality of the wines they produce and we come away from our brief visit very optimistic. Part of this, as I will explain over the next two Wine Economist columns, is because of specific efforts to raise quality and create distinctive wines that we discovered. But a lot of it is because of our overall impression of the region’s wines, which I think was shared by many in our group.

The clear favorite among the wines we tasted were those made from the Pecorino grape. These white wines, both still and sparkling, were bright and appealing — alive in the glass for the most part — and seemed to us to be a perfect fit as the U.S. market shifts to white wines, especially Sauvignon Blanc, with a bit more zip than Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.  We also enjoyed fruity white wines made from the Cococciola grape, which has only relatively recently been upgraded from blending grape to a varietal wine. But Pecorino was the star.

Pretty in Pink: Cerasuolo 

The other hit with our group was Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, a darkish rosé wine made form the Montepulciano grape. It was distinctive and delicious — perfect for the warm evenings we experienced. Some producers have been encouraged to make paler versions for the U.S. market because of the perceived prejudice against darker pink wines, but I don’t see the point. Anyone who tries this wine will want more.

So what about Abruzzo’s most important wines — Montepulciano and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo? Perhaps it was because of the heat, but the red wines didn’t impress as much as the whites, although (stay tuned for upcoming Wine Economist columns) we did find some really memorable wines. And, with a few exceptions, the overall impression of Trebbiano was overshadowed by the Pecorino wines.

The Road Ahead

One logical market strategy might be to highlight the Pecorino and Cerasuolo wines, which match so well with trends in the U.S. market, while raising quality standards for Montepulciano and Trebbiano. Indeed, it seems to me, that’s exactly what’s happening now.

But there are still many questions to be answered before Abruzzo’s wine sector can fully achieve its clear potential. Can the cooperative wineries, which are so important here (and were sometimes in the past blamed for low standards), raise their game? And can Montepulciano, the most-planted grape variety, refresh its image? I will address these questions in the next two Wine Economist columns.

The global wine market is almost insanely competitive. The standard is constantly rising. The Abruzzo producers we met have listened to what the market is saying and found a pathway ahead.

>>><<<

Thanks to the Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini d’Abruzzo for inviting us to visit the region and learn more about it and its wine sector. Special thanks to our friends at I.E.E.M. for taking care of all the logistics and making the visit as smooth and enjoyable as possible.

We are especially grateful to four wineries who generously hosted us during out visit and showed us some of the very best of Abruzzo wines:

Cantina Frentana:  A cooperative winery on the move. See next week’s Wine Economist for details.

Agriverde Winery:  An award-winning winery seriously committed to environmental goals. Ambitious vision matched by achievement. Keep an eye on this one!

Bosco Winery: Historic family-owned winery that both looks back to tradition and ahead to the future. We could spend all day in the family museum, wandering with a glass of great wine in our hand.

Margiotta Winery:  A perfect example of a small family winery making excellent wines. Humble and proud in equal measure. Italian wine at its best.

 

Flashback: What’s Up with Italian Wine in the U.S. Market?

Sue and I have just returned from a very quick trip to Italy to explore the wines of Abruzzo, a region that, as I wrote on this page a few weeks ago, doesn’t get the attention it deserves either in the wine world or more generally. This is changing and our multi-part report, which you will find here in a few weeks, will explain how and why.

In the meantime, here is an abridged “flashback” column from 2019 that examines some of the challenges and opportunities that the regional wines of Italy faced then and, to a considerable degree, face today.

>>><<<

Wine Economist (November 19, 2019). Italian wine has a lot going for it in the U.S. market. Wines from Italy are by far the largest category of imported wines. Recent Nielsen figures (reported in Wine Business Monthly) show almost $1.2 billion in 52-week sales of Italian wines in the channels that Nielsen surveys — that is almost a third of all spending on wine imports and far more than #2 Australia ($720 million) and #3 New Zealand  ($496 million). France is #4 at $462 million.

Italy has benefited from the hot market for sparkling wines in general and Prosecco in particular. …

It would be a mistake to take these advantages for granted and the Italians are working hard to consolidate their market base and move forward. Or at least that’s what we think after attending the Seattle stop on the “Simply Italian Great Wines US Tour 2019.” We spent the day attending seminars sponsored by the European Union and wine region groups and meeting producers (many of whom were seeking local distribution) at a walk-around tasting.

[Two favorites from the walk-around tasting were Societa Agricola Sturm from Collio — fantastic Ribolla Gialla — and Cannonau di Sardegna from Sardina’s Cantina Giampietro Puggioni.]

Out of the Shadow

The Seattle event reminded us of how much we love the wines of Italy. But it also highlighted some of the challenges that Italy faces.

Italy is a complex mosaic of wine regions, styles, and brands. Although an amazing array of Italian wines can be found in the U.S. market, there are a few names that dominate the conversation: Chianti, for example, and Prosecco. It is easy for other wines from other regions to be over-shadowed. Sue and I saw the shadow effect when we stopped at a nearby Total Wine, which has a big selection of Italian wines. We were looking for wines from Friuli and we found just a hand-full  — mainly Pinot Grigio. The big regions crowd out the smaller ones on store shelves.

This is the challenge facing Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, for example.  Vino Nobile is a small and distinctive appellation located about 65 km south-east of Siena. The four wines we tasted at the seminar were terrific and made me think about this region as a sort of Tuscan Stags Leap District — one of my favorite U.S. wine appellations.

But excellent wines are not necessarily enough when you need to compete with famous Chianti Classico. You need to get glasses in consumer hands and give the wine and region a distinct identity. Tourism (and not simply wine tourism) is one way to do this. Come for the history, food, and culture and learn about the wonderful wines. This seems to be part of Vino Nobile’s strategy to get out from under the shadow of its more famous neighbor and to tell a distinctive story about the region and the wines.

Italians love to drink sparkling wines and they make some terrific ones. And although my friends in Conegliano hate to hear me say it, it is a shame that the only Italian sparkler that most Americans can name is Prosecco.

I wish they’d give more attention to Francicorta DOCG, which faces a similar challenge to Vino Nobile. Franciacorta is often said to be the “Champagne” of Italy. It is made using the classic method from mainly but not exclusively the traditional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes . The comparison to Champagne is understandable and the wines stand up well compared to their French cousins.

But it is not always helpful to think of Franciacorta this way because if you want Champagne you want Champagne and not necessarily something else. Franciacorta needs to more clearly develop a distinctly Italian identity that positions it apart from French wines and also Prosecco. The two Franciacorta DOCG wines were tasted were delicious — and I don’t think the skilled presenter ever called them Italy’s Champagne. I know producers are working hard to build their market category because the current interest in sparkling wines presents a great opportunity.

A Grape or a Region?

One of the sessions focused on DOC Pinot Grigo delle Venezie. Pinot Grigio is one of white wine’s big success stories in the U.S. market. Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris is the second largest selling white wine category in the U.S. market, according to Nielsen figures, far behind #1 Chardonnay but well ahead of #3 Sauvignon Blanc.

Some of the Italians I have met like to imagine that all the Pinot Grigio sold in the U.S. comes from Italy — and Italy might have dominated this category a few years ago — but now Pinot Grigio is grown just about everywhere. I made risotto a few nights ago with a nice little Pinot Grigio from Washington state. That is the problem with the “signature wine grape variety” strategy. The category may start associated with a particular place, but often the place fades and it is just about the grape and then it is anyone’s game.

Italian producers hope to stake a territorial claim to the Pinot Grigio market with DOC Pinot Grigio delle Venezie — Pinot Grigio from a specific region subject to DOC rules and regulations. The consorzio logo above is meant to establish the identity. Italy first — can you miss the green-white-red stripes? And then Venice and Venezie as symbolized by the stylized prow of a Venetian gondola. Italy, Venice, Gondolas. Get it? That’s Pinot Grigio.

It is easy to be a little skeptical about the effort to re-brand Pinot Grigio this way since Americans generally know little about DOC and DOCG designations, but in this case there is reason for cautious optimism because many of the DOC Pinot Grigio wines have big marketing and distribution muscle behind them. The list of wines that were tasted in Seattle, for example, includes DOC wines from Lumina by Ruffino (Constellation Brands), Prophecy by Cantine di Mezzacorona (Gallo), Montresor (Total Wine & More), and Cupcake (The Wine Group).

Pinot Grigio won’t stop being a grape variety that could come from anywhere, but with some effort it can  also be a regional wine of Italy once again.

Italian wine makers are luckier than most. They face challenges, some of which are the product of their own success, but there is a tremendous reservoir of good will and affection for Italy and its wines.  The struggle for market attention is therefore not easy but still possible.  The Seattle event has inspired us to look more closely at the Italian wine mosaic and to try to appreciate a bit more its many shapes, colors, and styles.

Italy Strikes Back: Wine Diversity in Theory and Practice

In theory wine is an enormously diverse product. There are hundreds and hundreds of wine grape varieties grown all around the world. You could drink a different kind or style of wine from a different place every night of the year and not more than scratch the surface. What fun!

Disappearing Diversity

In practice, however, wine as it is actually experienced often ends up being far less interesting than it could be. Global vineyards are increasingly planted to just a couple of dozen grape varieties out of the roughly 1500 available, for example. A handful of “international” wine grape varieties make up an increasing proportion of the global vineyard area, squeezing out space for other grape varieties.

As Kym Anderson and team note in their excellent Which Wine Grape Varieties Are Grown Where?

The extent of varietal concentration in the world’s vineyard has increased non-trivially between 2000 and 2016. Half the world’s plantings were accounted for by 21 varieties in 2000 but, by 2010, that total had dropped to 15 varieties and it rose only by one, to 16, in 2016.  …

Other ways to explore the varietal diversity issue involve examining how internationalized varieties have become. One way is to look at what share of the global area is devoted to varieties by their country of origin. In 2000, French and Spanish varieties dominated the global landscape, accounting for almost three-fifths of the world’s winegrape vineyard area, with Italian varieties boosting that share to 70%. By 2016 that share had risen slightly to 72%, but France now dominates much more at the expense of Spain

You see the loss in diversity almost everywhere if you look for it. In the Napa Valley, for example, historically significant Zinfandel is replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon. Tempranillo is taking over Spanish vineyards in the same way. This trend is not always a bad thing, it must be said, because sometimes the vanishing grapes were grown for their high yields not good quality. But it isn’t always a good thing either.

As distributors have consolidated in response to the covid pandemic and now the prospect of stagflation’s unwelcome return, they have also tended to focus on a smaller selection of wine products. And, as I argued here a few weeks ago, some consumers are likely to react to stagflation’s impacts through “risk management” strategies that focus on a few trusted wine brands or types with fewer experimental purchases.

The Case of Sauvignon Blanc

Have wine styles (not just the grape varieties) become less diverse, too? This is an economics newsletter, not a tasting report, so I will ask you to think about this question and answer it yourself. It does seem to me that at least some of the diversity in regional and personal styles has disappeared (with the rise of natural wine being the obvious counter-point).  And I am not  just talking about “Parkerization.”

It used to be that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc stood out as a really distinctive wine, for example. Nothing else really like it. I remember when Sue and I were visiting Norcia, Italy about 20 years ago when the first few bottles of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc came to town. Our local friends were very excited — this was something completely new to them.

Now, however, when we taste Sauvignon Blanc wines from around the world, we often find products made in the Kiwi style. Lately we have been surprised when we taste something different, something with a sense of itself. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I guess the Marlborough producers should be flattered, indeed.

Support Your Local Grape

All of this is a way of saying that if we value wine’s diversity we need to seek out and support producers who make it their business to fill in the gaps between the big-name international grape varieties and wines. The niches may not be large in market terms, but they can be important. And valuable in the long run, as well. It was not so long ago, for example, that Touriga National seemed to be fading away in Portugal.  Now, of course, it is the basis of many excellent wines.

Italy is a place to look if you want to see wine’s diverse mosaic (see Ian D’Agata’s book, Native Wine Grapes of Italy. for details) and two wines that we recently received as samples from dynamic Piemonte producer Colle Manora provide food for thought The first was the Colle Manora “Ray,” made from 100% Albarossa, a grape variety I’ve never tasted before. The second was the Colle Manora “Palo Alto,” 100% Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir). Pinot Noir from the land of Nebbiolo?

First Taste of Albarossa

The “Ray” Albarossa caught my attention right away. Albarossa? Well, it is a little-known and relatively rare Piemonte grape variety — the result of a cross between Barbera and Nebbiolo from the same experimental vineyard in Conegliano that produced the important Mansoni Blanc variety. Barbera — Piemonte’s most productive grape variety — crossed with noble Nebbiolo. You can see the attraction. Wine Grapes reports that there were only about 25 acres of Albarossa in Italy (and the world) in 2000 — a figure that has probably grown but is still tiny by any standard.

But there is a twist. The Nebbiolo in question was Nebbiolo di Dronero, a.k.a. Chatus,  Chatus? Another grape variety to add to the list. In any case the cross was a good one. Ian D’Agata calls Albarossa “one of Italy’s most successful crossings ever.”

We paired the wine with asparagus risotto with prosciutto and the acidity, herbs, and spices of this medium-bodied wine worked very well. A success and something I will look for on future trips to the Italian northwest.

And Now for Something Completely Different

As much as we enjoyed the “Ray” Albarossa, I have to say the Pinot Nero was the big surprise. Tasting this wine from a familiar international grape variety I sensed what our Norcia friends must have felt when they sipped their first glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Bland. Pinot Noir? This wine didn’t have any of the subtle nuances that made Miles wax all poetic in Sideways. This Pinot Noir was big and bold. And different in an interesting way. If I had tasted it blind I might have guessed a Syrah — Sue said she would have guessed  Merlot perhaps.

But of course it wasn’t Merlot or Syrah, it was a really different vision of Pinot Noir that made me think and re-think. I’ll bet it would be interesting with a few years of bottle age. But I couldn’t wait to pull the cork.

Life is Too Short …

Pinot from Piemonte? Pinot is grown in this region but is most often a blending grape according to my notes. But Pinot Noir has a tendency to inspire winemaker devotion, even in the “wrong” places. When Sue and I visited Braida, the famous Piemonte producer, we learned that Pinot is Giuseppe Bologna’s passion, too, and enjoyed the unique experimental barrel samples he provided.

I still haven’t tasted what is probably the most extreme Pinot Noir, at least from the standpoint of location. I’m talking about Il Masin, the Pinot Noir that the famous paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey made on from grapes grown on his hillside vineyards in … Keyna!

But I am determined to keep trying wines that celebrate the diverse potential of the grape. Life is too short to drink boring wine, don’t you think?

We Don’t Talk About Abruzzo … But We Should!

The thing about Bruno, a character in the Disney film Encanto, is that everyone talks about not talking about him. Or at least that’s the gist of the wildly popular song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.

The Abruzzo Syndrome

For a long time this situation kind of applied to Abruzzo, the under-appreciated Italian region you reach by flying to Rome and driving east over the Apennine mountains to the Adriatic. My well-worn 1998 Knopf Guide to Italy, for example, devotes more than 500 colorful pages to tourist Italy, but gives poor Abruzzo precisely 2 pages of text.

The Abruzzo syndrome, as illustrated by the Knopf guide treatment, is that the Itay is full of the best of the best of tourist sights and attractions. Abruzzo’s natural beauty and modest charm is undeniable, but it struggles for the spotlight that is focused elsewhere.

Sue and I can appreciate this situation from our experience living in Bologna some years ago. For the most part foreign visitors only knew Bologna from changing trains at the station or attending conferences at the big convention center outside of town. Bologna was a place you passed through on your way to somewhere else. Abruzzo’s location makes it ever less of a destination point.

Abruzzo Wine Syndrome

The Abruzzo syndrome plagued the region’s wines, too. Take the usually-generous Burton Anderson’s Wine Atlas of Italy, for example. Anderson gives 3 pages out of 300 to Abruzzo in my 1990 edition of this classic volume, disappointed by what he saw as a lack of interest in quality.

… the growing of grapes in abundance as just another fruit crop still offers more attractive prospects than does the making of premium wine. The shame of it is that the Abruzzi’s sunny hills could make outstanding wines, not only from the native Montepulciano but from many other noble vines.

A few producers stubbornly swam against the tide — Anderson cites Edoardo Valentini in particular — but it was a difficult task given the region’s lack-luster reputation. Abruzzo’s reputation was nothing much to talk about even though the potential was clear.

Abruzzo Fast Forward

Fast forward to 2022. Sue and I hadn’t talked much about Abruzzo over the years, but an unexpected invitation to visit later this year was enough to make us circle back to see how Abruzzo has changed and it is clear that the region is getting some of the respect it was previously denied.

Travel and Leisure magazine, for example, named Abruzzo to its list of the 50 best places to travel in 2022.  Abruzzo has changed, as the article suggests, but perhaps travelers have changed, too, and now appreciate local charm and character more than before. Here’s an excerpt from the article.

Stretching from the heart of the Apennines to the Adriatic Sea on the peninsula’s southeastern side, Abruzzo, Italy has long been one of the country’s most overlooked destinations despite its unspoiled villages, picturesque Trabocchi Coast, and stunning natural escapes. Over the past few years, however, it has gone from a sleepy underdog to an ambitious harbinger of slow travel, sustainable gastronomy, and conscious hospitality.

Reality vs Reputation

Reality has moved faster than reputation on the wine front, too. Abruzzo is still noteworthy for the quantity of wine it produces. Abruzzo ranked #5 among Italian wine regions in 2020 for volume of production. Veneto and Apulia topped the table followed by Emili-Romagna and Sicily. Abruzzo was followed by Piedmonte and Tuscany. But quantity is no longer the only game in town.

My battered copy of Slow Wine Guide 2014, for example, highlighted the growing number of premium producers who were able to meet the guide’s high standards.

It is a mistake to speak about the Abruzzo as an emerging winegrowing region. Consistent quality has now become more general, no longer the prerogative of a handful of historic cellars plowing the furrow of tradition, but also a characteristic of the work of both small wineries and large cooperatives.  … All in all, the Abruzzo wine world is in good health, working the land more sustainably than in the past and affording consumer enjoyment with very reasonably priced labels.

Clearly Abruzzo has turned a corner, a fact underlined by the evaluation I found in my copy of the Gambero Rosso 2019 guide to Italian wines. “Abruzzo’s wine industry is in many ways a kind of microcosm of the nation as a whole,” the analysis begins, “… leaving behind an age in which it was dominated by large quantities of generic bulk wine used outside of the region.”

Slowly Then Suddenly

The wines today (and the people who make them) are a better reflection of the remarkable diversity found within the region. “And they won’t cost you an arm and a leg either,” the report suggests, “(it’s not a coincidence that once again a number of Tre Bicchieri come at a price that would allow for daily consumption).”

Slowly — and then suddenly — Abruzzo is a topic of conversation. Just last week, for example, the region was highlighted in two news stories. The Drinks Business reported that Italy’s National Wine Committee and Agricultural Ministry agreed to consolidate the central Italian region’s wines under a single IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), Terre d’Abruzzo. IGT wines are an important category where innovation is encouraged and the new designation will raise Abruzzo’s visibility. The hope is that Terre d’Abruzzo  IGT will do for Abruzzo was “Terre Siciliane” did for Sicilian wine identity when the designation was introduced a few years ago.

Meanwhile, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov featured two indigenous Abruzzo wine grape varieties in his column on “Ten Grapes Worth Knowing Better.”  Pecorino and Trebbiano d”Abruzzese — and recommended Abruzzo producers — made the list of wines worth discovering.

So apparently we are talking about Abruzzo now for the quality, value, and character of its wines. And it is good to keep the conversation going because it will take some time for Abruzzo’s reputation to catch up to reality. And it will not be easy to get attention in the crowded market for Italian wines, where famous names abound.

Scratching the Surface of Sicilian Wine

I was intrigued when we were asked if we’d like to sample wines from a Sicilian cooperative winery. The history of Sicily’s wine industry — and the role of cooperatives within it — is a roller-coaster tale and such sagas in wine do not always have happy endings. I was thirsty to learn more about the situation today.

I learned about the history of Sicily’s wine sector from The World of Sicilian Wine by Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savio (see the Wine Economist review here). Wine in Sicily has been buffeted by a combination of shifts in the external markets and changing domestic incentives. It is no wonder that cooperatives arose to help growers navigate the ups and downs and gain a measure of control over their own destinies.  Cooperatives spring up in times of crisis, but it is their ability to adapt when conditions change that is most important.

Incentives Matter

Sometimes the economic incentives the cooperatives and other wine actors faced favored quality, but all too often quantity was the dominant strategy. This was particularly true during the years when EU wine policy unintentionally encouraged over-production of low-quality wines with no obvious market potential. These unsalable wines, the source of the famous EU “wine lake,” were bought up and distilled into industrial alcohol, a process that was not sustainable in economic, political, or environmental terms.

The wine lake days are gone — EU incentives now favor market-driven wine production — and the wines have changed faster than their reputations in many cases. Not all wineries have raised their game, however, and that inconsistency is a headwind.

The wines we sampled were from the Cantine Ermes cooperative, which was founded in 1998 in the Belice Valley in northwest Sicily. The cooperative is very large with 2373 members farming more than 12,000 hectares and operating 11 winemaking facilities.  In total Cantine Ermes produces 11.5 million bottles annually, which are sold in 29 countries around the world. Does this surprise you? Cooperatives are important in Italian wine, more important than most people realize.

Beyond Low-Hanging Fruit

One criticism I have heard of many Italian cooperatives is that they cut their own throats by focusing too much on bulk wine and private label products — they take this low-hanging fruit and fail to build the brands that might yield higher margins that would improve their economic sustainability.

Some of the deep dark red wine made in Sicily, for example, is sold off to be blended with lighter Italian reds to give the result more body, color, and alcohol — a practice that has been going on for a long time. Cantine Ermes gives attention to several brands, however, including the Vento di Mare wines that we sampled.

Vento di Mare means sea winds and so it was inevitable that we would ask our friends R and M to sample the wines with us. Their visit to Sicily was punctuated by gale force sea winds that nearly blew them off the island and caused sea foam to pile up on the shoreline like drifts of snow.

The three wines we tasted were screwcap-topped bottles of Grillo DOC, Nerello Mascalese IGT, and Moscato Frizzante that retail for about $12 here in the US — right about the center of the retail wine wall in today’s market.  The Grillo had nice varietal flavor and good balance. It seemed very versatile and would pair with many dishes as well as on its own. It was probably our favorite wine.

The red Nerello Mascalese was more intense and called out for a bold food pairing. Nerello Mascalese is the most-planted red winegrape in Sicilty according to my sources, and it was easy to see how it could be the foundation of a number of interesting blends as well as a single-variety wine.

The Moscato was fizzy and slightly sweet. Just 10.5% abv, the wine has a secondary fermentation for two months in an autoclave and then ages another two months on its lees. Aromatic (think orange blossoms) and nicely balanced. Like the Grillo it would work in a number of situations. Very pleasant indeed.

Sicilian Wine Ambassadors

We were impressed with the Vento di Mare wines and a bit surprised at the affordable entry-level price point. Other Cantine Ermes brands probe the higher reaches of the wine wall. I hope the attractive packaging and price point encourage consumers to give these wines a try (and that some restaurants see the potential for wine-by-the-glass sales). These wines are good ambassadors for Sicily and its cooperative wineries.

Since we aren’t able to travel to explore the wine world these days as we did in pre-pandemic times, we find it useful to focus on invitations like the one we received from Cantina Ermes. Clearly we have just scratched the surface of the wines of Sicily and the progress of Sicilian cooperatives, but we are encouraged, nonetheless. These are good wines that chart a path out of Sicily’s quantity-driven past towards a more sustainable future.

Anatomy of the Prosecco DOC Boom

Prosecco sales have boomed in the last decade, with the volume of Prosecco DOC global sales more than doubling. And, with the advent of Prosecco Rosé, they promise to continue their upward trend.

Booming Sales in a Stagnant Market

Sue and I had an opportunity to reflect on Prosecco’s surging popularity recently when the Prosecco DOC consortio invited us to participate in an online tasting timed to celebrate National Prosecco Week. The program included a webinar hosted by Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen (aka the World Wine Guys)  and a tasting of Prosecco DOC and Prosecco Rosé DOC wines from Ruggeri, Anna Spinato, Pitars, Domus Picta, and Zardetto. The program was fun and informative. Many thanks to everyone involved.

The Prosecco boom is impressive, even more so when you consider that global wine consumption has been stagnant during the period shown in the table above. About the only wine market segments that have shown sustained growth have been sparkling wines (especially Prosecco), Rosé wines, and Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Almost all other segments have been relatively flat or down.

The obvious questions to ask are why Prosecco and why now, but the a better question might be what took consumers in the US, UK, and elsewhere so long to embrace Prosecco’s many charms?

I Blame Champagne

I blame Champagne. Champagne has defined the sparkling wine segment for decades as a luxury product, which for most consumers means something to be saved for a special occasion. Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. These were the times to uncork Champagne.  The substantial niche for sparkling wines at other times was largely unfiled. Prosecco — less expensive and easy to like — filled that niche, powered by a general willingness of consumers to embrace anything and everything associated with Italy.

I like to say that Prosecco is the Mark Twain of sparkling wine. The works of the great authors, according to Mark Twain, are like fine wine. Mine, he said with a certain false modesty, are like water. Everyone drinks water. And now everyone drinks Prosecco, too, and it doesn’t take a Hallmark greeting card occasion to pop a cork.

You can make Prosecco as simple or as complicated as you like. A large majority of the wines are Prosecco DOC (and most of those are quaffable Extra Dry wines), which forms the base of the Prosecco pyramid. Enthusiasts can explore higher elevations: Prosecco DOCG, wines from the Rive (designated vineyard areas), and finally Prosecco from Cartizze, a legendary hilltop vineyard area.  A Prosecco Pyramid tasting  expedition is fun, informative, and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. You should try it!

 

The Rise of Prosecco Rosé DOC

Have you seen the new pink Prosecco? Prosecco Rosé DOC came into the market with the 2020 vintage. It is a blend of Glera, the Prosecco grape variety, with up to 15% Pinot Noir. We have started to see the wines on local store shelves in the past month or so — I think some shipments were held up a bit by the logistics problems that plague international trade.

Pink sparkling wines from the Veneto are not a new thing, but the wines couldn’t be called Prosecco until the DOC rules were modified to allow this use. Prosecco Rosé is a DOC wine — the DOCG rules haven’t changed.

Will Prosecco Rosé be a hit? As you can see from the graphic above, the Prosecco producers expect sales to more than double between 2020 and 2021. Demand might in fact be even higher — there is actually a supply-side constraint until new plantings of Pinot Noir come into production.

Sue said that she’s not sure there really needs to be a pink Prosecco. The traditional wine — such as the delicious Anna Spinato Extra Dry DOC included in our samples — is plenty good enough. But she enjoyed the pink wines, especially the pale and well-balanced Zardetto Rosè  Prosecco Extra Dry,  All the Prosecco Rosè DOC wines benefit from an extra month on their lees, which gives them a richer mouth-feel.

Is Prosecco Rosè DOC the next big thing? Too soon to tell, but the wines we sampled make a good case for a pink Prosecco boom that’s an echo of the boom that’s already here.

>>><<<

I enjoy drinking Prosecco so much that I’ve never thought about cooking with it. Until now. I was pleased to receive a book called The 100 Prosecco Recipes by Italian winemaker Sandro Bottega, which highlights both Prosecco and many of the indigenous food products of the Veneto. A beautiful volume, it has given me lots of new ideas.

There is one recipe in particular that I can’t wait to try once the summer heat wave has passed. It is a very different idea of risotto. You make a broth from water flavored with thyme and herbs. You cook the risotto in the usual way using the herb broth and  at the end, you mix in a bit of olive oil instead of butter and cheese.

Where does the Prosecco come in? At service! You pour a little Prosecco into a pool you have made in the risotto (and then, I think, you pour some more into yourself). It seems to me that this last-minute addition could be spectacular and set off the other flavors. Worth a try, don’t you think?  Many thanks to Bottega for the book and great ideas.

Out of the Shadows: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

One of the last in-person wine events we attended before the coronavirus pandemic put most such activities on hold was a symposium on the wines of Italy, which I wrote about on The Wine Economist. One particularly memorable session was sponsored by the Vino Nobile de Montepulciano consorzio, which was hoping to draw attention to the region and its wines.

Chianti’s Deep Shadow

It is easy for a wine region — even a very important one like Vino Nobile — to get lost amongst famous names from across Italy and around the world. As I wrote back in 2019 …

Italy is a complex mosaic of wine regions, styles, and brands. … The big regions crowd out the smaller ones on store shelves. This is the challenge facing Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, for example.  Vino Nobile is a small and distinctive appellation located about 65 km south-east of Siena. The four wines we tasted at the seminar were terrific and made me think about this region as a sort of Tuscan Stags Leap District — one of my favorite U.S. wine appellations.

But excellent wines are not necessarily enough when you need to compete with famous Chianti Classico. You need to get glasses in consumer hands and give the wine and region a distinct identity. Tourism (and not simply wine tourism) is one way to do this. Come for the history, food, and culture and learn about the wonderful wines. This seems to be part of Vino Nobile’s strategy to get out from under the shadow of its more famous neighbor and to tell a distinctive story about the region and the wines.

Hand-selling wines like Vino Nobile has been nearly impossible in the traditional sense during the pandemic, but Avignonesi, a historic Vino Nobile producer, took matters in their own hands and, with our permission, sent us samples of their wines and invited us to look more closely at what they are doing.  The result was quite revealing.

Old But Not Stale

Avignonesi and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are old names, but there doesn’t seem to be anything stale about them. Indeed, dynamic is the world that comes to mind.

Biodynamic, in fact. Virginie Saverys, a successful Belgian attorney and passionate  wine lover, acquired Avignonesi in 2009 and set about expanding the vineyards and converting them to biodynamics. Avignonesi is now the largest biodynamic producer in Italy. The public face of the winey in terms of its hospitality programs was upgraded as well. I hope we can visit one day to sample the wines and experiences in person. Even at this distance, however, it is hard not to be impressed with what’s been done in just a little over a decade.

The Avignonesi wines themselves do nothing to diminish the positive impression. When a package with six small sample bottles arrived we looked for an opportunity to taste through the wines with friends who share our Vino Nobile focus. When we finally found the right date we sampled the wines from a Vashon Island deck overlooking Puget Sound with a pair of bald eagles soaring above. Not Italy, but still not the worst tasting room, do you think?

We tasted the traditional wines first, which meant a flight of Rosso di Montepulciano DOC, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano DOCG, and a special bottling, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG Poggetto di Sopra Alliance Vinum.

The Rosso was a bright wine, fruity with nice acidity. An excellent opening act. The Vino Nobile DOCG was stunning — a terrific wine with a long complex finish. The Poggetto di Sopra was even more distinctive — truly memorable. It is the result of a project involving Avignonesi and five other Nobile producers. Each made a particular wine meant to highlight the specific qualities of the terroir. The label (see above) shows the particular vineyard blocks that produced this wine.

Taken together the three traditional wines show what is possible in Vino Nobile and make a strong case for the region even in the context of its more famous neighbors. Bravo!

IGT Surprises

But there was more. Our second flight was devoted to three of Avignonesi’s IGT wines. IGT and similar wines are increasingly important in Italy and elsewhere in Europe as winemakers seek to make distinctive wines that display both their art and their craft, but don’t follow the strict appellation script.

The first IGT wine was called Da-Di — a 100% Sangiovese vinified in terracotta vessels that were made in Tuscany from clay like the soils where the grapes were grown.  No oak. No stainless steel. This was a wild wine, full of fruit and acidity, alive in the mouth. Unique. Wow. I sure didn’t see this coming.

Next came Desiderio Merlot Toscana. Merlot vines love the clay and have been grown in parts of Italy so long that locals think of it as almost a native grape.  This was an intense experience from start to finish and I think it was Sue’s favorite wine of the tasting. Unexpected.

Our final IGT wine was the Grifi Toscana, a “super Tuscan” blend of just about equal amounts of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. It lived up to the “super” moniker, intense, dynamic, with the long finish that characterized all the wines.

Four Take-Aways

So what are the take-aways from our experience with the Avignonesi wines? First, the quality of the IGT wines makes me even more enthusiastic about the creative potential for wines like this in Italy. Second, the stunning DOCG wines reminded me of how good traditional wines from this region can be in the right hands. Sometimes I think consumers take these wines for granted or, as noted above, mistakenly passing them by in favor of more famous appellations.

The final take-away is this. Tasting these samples was a treat. But we can’t wait until we can resume our travels and taste the wines and meet the producers in person. Soon, we hope!

Wine Book Review: Invisible Pignolo Revealed

Ben Little, Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible. 2021. Available exclusively from The Morning Claret Shop.

Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible is quite a fantastic multi-media exploration of one of Italy’s (and the world’s) nearly forgotten grape varieties. My first impression of the book was fascination — so playful, so colorful. I just had to thumb through it to discover what was on the next page. Then there was puzzlement, because I would read short passages and it wasn’t really clear what was going on.

First fascination, then puzzlement, then — finally — enlightenment. Ok, that might be too strong, but I went back and read it from the start and it all made sense.

First comes the history of Pignolo in the context of the history of its native region, Friuli Venezia Giulia in Italy’s upper right-hand corner. A really interesting explanation of how Pignolo, wine, and the region evolved. Then the history shifts a bit to author Ben Little’s personal experience with Pignolo, which started only a few years ago (2016) but developed quickly and soon involved many others. There is much of a technical nature to learn through Little’s first person reports.

And then there are the lessons that Pignolo teaches us, inspirations, meditations, not sure what to call them. But by the time you get there you are ready to slow down, let the flow carry you, and absorb them, which might not have been the case at the start. Colorful graphics act as signposts along the way.

Little’s notion that Pignolo is an invisible grape variety works. It was always there all along, you just didn’t see it. That’s how it happened for him. At first he thought that there were just a few people in Friuli growing the grapes and making wine. But once word got out that there was interest, more and more plantings and producers began to appear until there were enough to fill a room (which Little did, with a little help from Pignolo’s friends).

Pignolo might be invisible to you, too. That’s how it was for us. Did we ever taste Pignolo during our trips to Friuli? I had to think and use the ample resources of Little’s big book. We might have tasted Pignolo when we visited the Cormons cooperative, but there were so many wines there it is hard to know. Possibly when we stayed at Il Roncal. Bastianich makes an IGT blend called Calabrone, which is includes a splash of Pignolo as a key ingredient. When we didn’t have time to taste it at the winery Wayne Young wrapped up a bottle for us to take home and I’m very glad he did. Amazing.

We staying in one of the rooms at Borgo San Daniele and I remember distinctly the tasting where Mauro Mauri poured his Arbis Ròs Pignolo from magnum. What an amazing wine. I tried to get him to sell me some bottles, but it was all gone. Only that magnum was left. And the memory, too.

Our final taste of Pignolo was at Paolo Rodaro and that’s when we met Ben Little. Little was nice enough to help with some difficult translations, but you could tell even then, not too long after his Pignolo journey had begun, that his focus was on the particular wine and Rodaro’s version was especially intense and interesting. There was another connection that I only learned about by reading this book — like me, Little is a recovering student of economics and can’t resist adding his insights to the blend.

Having read Little’s book, I want to go back to Friuli and visit the small region of Rosazzo, which seems to be Pignolo’s spiritual home. Pignolo was pretty much invisible to me a few days ago, now that I see that it has been there all along, I want to ask it a few questions.

In the meantime, I couldn’t resist trying to track down a bottle of Pignolo here in the U.S. and refresh my memory. I was able to find the 2005 La Viarte Pignolo Riserva at Kermit Lynch‘s online store. We pulled  the cork and paired the wine with Caesar salad and a prime-grade dry-aged steak — clearly this was a special meal. The wine lived up to the occasion. The first glass was a bit wild, but it settled down and developed along several axes over the next two hours. Sue said that the wine really pulled itself together when the food arrived just as it was meant to do, I think.

Some wine experiences are delicious but not especially interesting — you know what you are getting. Others are interesting, but not necessary delicious — you are happy to stop after the first glass. The Pignolo was both, so it is easy to understand Little’s fascinating with it.

Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible is a highly personal memoir of and tribute to a very distinctive grape and the people who have nurtured it as it nurtured them. More than a book, it is an experience. Highly Recommended.